I remember my mother talking about a group that was gaining popularity in her time called the Red Hat Society. Basically, she described how these older women would gather wearing red hats and purple dresses. This tacky choice of fashion colors had a purpose, and that was to proclaim freedom from the cultural confinements and
expectations of their youth. I vividly recall myself as a young woman coming upon a restaurant table filled with just such ladies. They were, of course all in red hats—and the stark contrast of their purple dresses only magnified their fearless pursuit of independence. I couldn’t help marvel at how they were bubbling over with laughter and delight. Although their happiness struck me, I cringed at how silly they looked and couldn’t imagine ever doing such a thing.
Now that I’m over 50, I can’t help wish I could join them. Thirty years have passed and I finally get it! It wasn’t just about bucking cultural expectations. They had discovered something greater… freedom from the approval of others!
Life-long pursuit of approval
Seeking approval is the natural default of being human — we are born this way. Depending on circumstances, a child can feel compelled to please or seek approval to varying degrees. Anyone who has this struggle can typically remember the conditions that made him feel the need to perform to meet perceived expectations. Perhaps it was a parent who was uninterested or maybe a sibling who excelled and found favor. Sometimes there are multiple influences even outside the family that cultivate the compulsion of people pleasing. Whatever the reason, there is one common theme that connects them all — fear of disapproval.
As we venture from adolescence to the grown-up world, we feel the pressure to perform ramped up to an even higher degree. We enter a new era of disapproving eyes from people who come from their own dysfunctional backgrounds of approval seeking. It becomes hard work to avoid any negative opinions, and the more we try the more anxious and unsettled we feel. A.W. Tozer put it this way: “The heart’s fierce effort to protect itself from every slight, to shield its touchy honor from the bad opinion of friend and enemy, will never let it rest.”
Jesus on approval seeking
Jesus describes the propensity of human disapproval in Matthew 11:18: “For John didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners” (NLT).
His words give us great insight into the general tendency people have to see things negatively, if not completely erroneously. As Christians we are set free from all that is associated with the error of man’s judgments. Jesus gave His life in exchange for our sins so that we may be justified, but its up to us the extent that we embrace the fullness of this freedom while on earth. You may be sensing the inclination to do so to a greater degree.
Does that mean we will finally earn the approval of people by this divine substitution? On the contrary, people will still let us down. In addition, those who are disappointed in Jesus will be disappointed in us. If they hate Jesus, they will hate us. Jesus confirms the unreasonable nature of mankind in John 15:25: “They hated me without cause” (NLT).
No end except in Christ
The good news is that as we mature in age many of us become aware that the fickleness of human approval never ends. As a result we find our people-pleasing tendencies begin to decrease. The golden carrot of validation we’ve been chasing all these years starts to lose its appeal. With the help of the Lord, we begin to cultivate a healthy disregard for the criticisms that once kept us tied up in knots. Could it possibly be time to buy a red hat?
Yet, we must be cautious of another tricky slope for those of us who have always sought approval. If pleasing others has been our way, then a subtle transference of this habit onto God is often the natural progression. We may slip automatically into the mindset of seeking the approval of God; always doubting that we are good enough for Him; always working and trying harder to please Him in the flesh. But God never intended this kind of bondage for us either.
Our minds may need to understand in a greater way that God has provided not only rescue for our people-pleasing dilemma, but for our God-pleasing, performance-based patterns as well. Grasping the latter is what brings ultimate rescue to both. Do we fully realize that God’s love is not contingent on our efforts and deeds? He does not regard the disapproval of others or our own failed expectations. When God looks at us, He sees us wrapped in Christ’s perfect robe of righteousness. We are approved based on what He has done on our behalf—each one of us clothed in a garment of His own royal reputation. People pleasing, approval seeking and earning favor with God have no authority or influence in the spiritual realm. We are in a truer sense partakers of a heavenly group that celebrates freedom from performance-based expectations—not a red hat society, but a purple robed society—“a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9) bubbling over with God’s approval and acceptance and filled with immeasurable grace. Oh, what rest for the wearied approval-seeking soul!