I have been a people-pleaser for as long as I can remember.
I remember being around 12 years old. The father of my best friend from church was taking us horse-back riding. I was an experienced rider, having learned to ride bareback on a school friend’s pregnant palomino, but that’s a story for a different day. On this day, our guide was interviewing us about our riding experience and pairing us with horses, and then coming around and adjusting our stirrups. Here’s where the people-pleasing part comes in, I was so worried about displeasing him (by needing him to adjust my stirrups) that I only let him adjust one.
As an adult, I now realize that he was just a gruff ranch-hand who probably didn’t like kids and would have preferred to be doing something else; but at the time, I thought he was mad at me because he was going to have to adjust both of my stirrups. He adjusted the first one with a grunt and a sigh, and as he circled the horse to do the other side I quickly said, “That’s ok. You don’t have to do it.” He looked up at me with surprise. “It’s a lot longer than the other one…,”he started to say. “I like them this way,” I said.” Suit yourself,” he grumbled, and left me to go help someone else.
Now, if you aren’t experienced with horseback riding, you may not know that the idea is to have the stirrups up to where you are able to stand on them while straddling the horse. This way if you are galloping, all your weight is on the stirrups and you keep your center of gravity. If all your weight is on your bum, you will have the stuffing bounced out of you and will likely bounce right off the horse. But I didn’t care. All that mattered was pleasing this gruff handler.
So now I had one stirrup exactly where it should be, and the other where I could barely reach it if I pointed my toes and stretched my leg as far as it would go.
I had adored horses growing up, had models of them lining my bedroom windowsill. Read about them, dreamed of one day owning one (until I found out the expense of it), and made sure I had every possible girl scout badge related to horses. In my opinion, dogs, horses, and dolphins were “higher creatures” with great intelligence, capable of self-sacrifice and tremendous loyalty.
Now’s about the time I should mention that my friend had never been on a horse in her life. Never stood near a horse in her life. As soon as they took her to her horse she said, “I don’t wanna.” Her dad said, “You’ll be fine honey.” The gruff old handler explained that she had the gentlest horse and she didn’t have a thing to worry about. Yeah, not exactly…
You see what they did NOT explain to her was that her horse was a lead horse. Lead horses are not only used to leading the herd, but are almost the equivalent of an alpha male in dogs. They want the lead position, and ONLY the lead position. My friend did NOT want the lead position. She was nervous. She wanted to be where she could see the guide and next to her daddy. She did not want to be up front.
As we started off, the guide took the lead, my friend took the second place, I took third and my friend’s dad took up the rear. My friend was already over-reining (holding the reins way too tightly, which sends the horse instructions that you want him to back up). Sure enough her horse started to back up and my friend started screaming. Her horse started bucking. She screamed louder. As the guide stopped and turned, my friend’s horse decided this was his chance to take his rightful place at the front of the line and he took off, at a gallop. My friend screamed and dropped the reins to hold onto the saddle horn. Her dad took off after her and without thinking about my stirrup predicament, so did I.
As my horse went immediately into a gallop after my friend, I realized I had nothing to grab onto with my right foot. My weight shifted entirely to my left leg and I ended up riding basically standing entirely on the left side of the horse with my right leg flapping over the saddle. Her father stopped her horse as my friend grabbed onto me and then dropped to the ground. She walked back to the stables crying about the stupid horse and I whispered a thank you to God for sparing me from my own stupidity. That’s right folks, people pleasing can kill. (Ironically, I think I impressed the guide, who thought I was a trick rider after my last “stunt”.)
There is a litany of other less dramatic examples: sodas that were flat or too syrupy that I didn’t tell the waitress about because I didn’t want to make her have to go back and fix the machine and get me another one…times I hurt myself moving things because I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone else by asking them to come help me…never saying no to any job I was asked to do even though I was already crazy busy and I had no idea how I was going to make it happen. I strived to please my parents, my bosses, my friends, my pastors…and most of all strived to please God. I ached to please Him. I feared not pleasing Him. But the reality is that all of the people pleasing was because I was afraid that no one would love me…if I asked too much, if I said “no”, if I needed anything from them.
At the root of people pleasing is the desire to be loved, the fear of being unloved. Trying to transfer that to God simply doesn’t work. Did you know you can’t make God love you any more than He’s ever loved you? His love for you is perfect. He never changes, and His love for you never changes. Now, He disciplines those He loves, that is true. But we must not confuse His discipline with a removal of His affection for us, because it’s never been about my earning His love. His love for me started before I was born, as He knit me together. While He worked on my cells and my sinews, He already knew each time I would fail, each time I would rebel, each time I would choose foolishly…yet, He loved me.
Because of that love, I NEVER have to fear about what so-and-so thinks of me. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love (1 John 4:18 NIV).”
I’d love to say I have no compunctions about sending sodas back anymore…but I do. I’m a work in progress. But I breath a little easier knowing that I can’t mess up big enough to make God love me any less. I can’t outlive His love. I can’t outlast it. And I’m longing for the day all this striving will cease…and I’ll be in the presence of Love everlasting.