Pontius Pilate: People Pleaser

Raise your hand if you’re a people pleaser! 

Imagine my arm shooting straight up into the air and waving erratically for good measure. I have always struggled with people pleasing. Despite the fact that I like to think of myself as a free spirit, I have trained myself to perform for the sake of making others happy, no matter the personal cost. I have a frantic need to be liked and an often unhealthy obsession with placating those around me. If you’re angry with me, I won’t be able to forget about it until the matter is resolved and we’ve hugged it out.

I realize this is not great, and I work on it every day, but this is simply part of my struggle.

I also realize I am not alone in this. Many of us (especially women) work really hard to please others because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. As Christians, our one goal should be to listen and respond to the Holy Spirit’s whisperings and no one else’s shouts, but in an effort to be loving and kind, we kowtow to the whims of others anyway. Of course, it is not always a bad thing to please others, and there are certainly healthy ways in which we can love our neighbor, but when it comes from a frantic need to be liked and never be perceived as off putting, it will drain us dry. It’s human nature, a skewing of good desires.

Let’s talk about a historic example of people pleasing, one which resulted in the crucifixion of the Messiah.

The Gospels tell the story of how Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate in a trial which resulted in His execution. Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea and Scripture tells us that he thought Jesus was innocent. However, Pilate released Barabbas (a violent insurrectionist) to the people rather than Jesus because he wanted to appease them. Jesus’ fate was sealed. Mark 15:12-15 reads:

“‘What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked them.

‘Crucify him!’ they shouted.

‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’

Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.” (NIV, emphasis mine)

Despite the fact that he could find no fault in Jesus, Pilate handed Him over because it was what the crowd wanted and what tradition (releasing a requested prisoner during the festival) allowed. What I find extra interesting is the account in Matthew, which includes an extra detail. Matthew 27:19 reads:

“While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’” (NIV)

It is just one verse and then the text moves on, but it adds a whole extra layer of intrigue. Pilate’s wife was disturbed by a dream and biblical dreams were taken seriously, so one can infer that she was the voice of reason and conscience that Pilate ignored. (Fun fact: some believers think the dream came from Satan because he wanted to prevent salvation. That’s not what we are working with today, but it is interesting nonetheless!) He listened to the screaming mob rather than the voice of his wife and, though he washed his hands of it, that symbolic gesture did not stop the slaughtering of the Lamb or Pilate’s infamous place in history.

Have you ever done this? Have you known within, or from sources of wisdom without, what is right, but choose to do what is demanded of you anyway? Have you silenced the still small voice in favor of that which is being shouted at you?

You’re not alone.

To move through the world is to be confronted by expectations. It can be extremely difficult to find a balance which allows you to love and care for and about others without bleeding you dry. We can be so embroiled by what the crowd desires that we choose to ignore what is true.

Now, I’m not saying that Pilate was trying to love and care for Jesus, but it makes me wonder what might have happened if he had chosen to err on the side of innocence rather than bloodlust. Or (listen closely, ye who have spouses) if he had chosen to listen to the wisdom and conviction of his wife rather than go full speed ahead because a group of people were whipped into a frenzy.

It is true that, in some ways, people pleasing killed Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, we are called away from people pleasing and toward the aim of glorifying God. After all, Galatians 1:10 famously states:

“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (NIV)

As a chronic people pleaser, that one hits me right in the gut. I get so very occupied with making others happy (often at my own expense) that I forget to put the Kingdom of God before anything else. I look a lot less like Paul and a whole lot more like Pilate. We are called to place the Lord above our desires and compulsive needs and the weight of expectations we feel, following Him alone and trusting Him for the love and guidance and care of our neighbors. We participate in that love with Him, but it does not fall on our shoulders. 

So now, I want to move us into a time of affirmations. I say “us” because I need these just as much as any reader. We walk this together.

Be affirmed:

·        The voice of wisdom is always there. Sometimes it is a whisper into the depths of our spirits and sometimes it is a dream given to someone that we can trust and sometimes it is the feeling of righteous anger that rises up in us at the sight of injustice. We must have ears to hear and courage to follow.

·        It is possible to ignore the shouting crowd. It is possible to respond to the voice of wisdom. It might not always be easy, and there might be a lot of people who are not pleased with you, but to follow truth and goodness in service to the person of Jesus is our ultimate and only goal. You are enslaved to no other master.

·        You can wash your hands of expectations that are not yours to carry. We have an audience of One, and to work to please Him is the only pursuit that will not end in decay. The only expectations to consider belong to God alone, and He will not fail to draw you into fullness as you walk that road.

The moral of the story: don’t be like Pilate. Instead, be like Jesus standing before him, innocent of everything except doing the will of God radically and with complete love and devotion. If people pleasing ends in death, then serving the Lord ends in life abundant. Reach and out hold fast.

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