An ancient tale out of the Far East tells the story of an elderly man and his son who were taking a journey on a very hot day and decided to take their burro with them. They went down the road and ran into a man who said, “This is ridiculous. Your father is an elderly man. The burro is a beast of burden. The father should ride the burro.”
So, wanting to be obliging, the father got up onto the burro.
They went down the road a little way and ran into someone else who said, “This is ridiculous. It is a hot day; you are a tired boy. You should be up on the burro too. It’s plenty strong enough to carry both of you.”
So wanting to be obliging, the young son got up onto the burro.
They went a little farther down the road and ran into someone who took pity on the burro. He said, “This is an outrage! The burro did not ask to come along with you. It is a hot day, and here are the two of you riding. The least you could do, if you want the burro along, is to get off and carry it.”
So, wanting to be obliging, they did. They tied the burro’s feet together and ran a pole down through the burro’s feet and started carrying the burro, suspended between them from the pole.
Soon they came upon a rickety old bridge, and as they crossed the bridge began to crack and creek and fail, when suddenly it collapsed and they all feel into the river below. The father and son scrambled to safety, but of course, the burro, with its feet tied together, drowned.
The moral of the story is, “If you try to please everybody, you are going to lose your… burro.”
The Apostle Paul and his associates, Silvanus and Timothy, had just come from Philippi where they were shamefully mistreated by the authorities and towns people for preaching the Gospel.
After being chased out of Philippi, there next stop was Thessalonica.
Now you would think they would be in the market for making some friends.
You would think the trio would want to please the people of Thessalonica so they would be accepted and liked, and if pleasing them meant changing and bending their beliefs a little here and there, then so be it.
But it wasn’t to be so.
Of all the many statements the Apostle Paul wrote that I admire, among my favorites is found in verse four where he says, “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the Gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God.”
If there was one thing Paul was not, he was not a people pleaser.
Unlike the father and son in the story, Paul did not do what everyone else wanted him to do. He was not so obliging.
As a result, he and his fellow preachers ended up being chased out of Philippi and Thessalonica, too, because they refused to change their Gospel message. In the process, however, they didn’t lost their… burro.
They didn’t lose their integrity, their faithfulness, their understanding of who they were, whose they were, and what they were called to do.
All that is to say, what was important to them and to God—they maintained, faithfully. Even if others didn’t like it.
Most of us are people pleasers. Most of us are anxiously seeking the latest trend. We desire to be part of the “in” crowd. We long for the approval of our family and peers. We hunger for respect from higher ups. We just simply want people to like us and speak well for us.
I remember well my first major encounter with someone who pointed out that I was not pleasing to her. It was in the seventh grade and I was standing by my locker when Tonya Simmons, someone who was pretty, in the “in” crowd, and who I longed to be accepted by, came up to me and pointed to my “Members Only” jacket, and in her own unique Jr. High vernacular (which is not appropriate to the pulpit) made it clear to me that a Members Only jacket was an unacceptable wardrobe choice.
Now, you got to know, I loved my black Members Only jacket. I wore it all day every day.
But in that moment, I realized if I wanted “people”, i.e. Tonya Simmons and her friends, to like me and accept me, I would have to stop wearing my Members Only jacket.
I went home that day and took off my black Members Only jacket for the last time.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end with my Members Only jacket.
Next I discovered certain friends of mine were not pleasing to the people I wanted to impress; therefore I would have to throw away friends like I had thrown away my Members Only jacket in order to please them.
As I got older, the pressures came to bear upon what I had been taught was right and wrong in regards to drinking, drugs, and sex. To be liked, to be “in”, to be pleasing to the right crowd, I would have to throw away my sense of right and wrong and do what I had been taught not to do.
When I arrived at college it was my faith that came under ridicule. The people I wanted to please did not believe as I did and considered anyone who did to be strange and uncool. To please them I would have to throw away my beliefs and what I had based my life upon.
As an adult—and especially as a pastor of a church—I discovered time and again that to please everyone means never fully being who I truly am.
In order to insure everyone likes me I find I have to believe in things I don’t believe in—or at least pretend to believe in them.
I have to make certain I don’t stand for anything too firmly because it might be offensive to someone and drive them away.
I have to say what others want to hear, even if that’s not really what I want to say.
And I have to not say what I should say because it’s definitely not what anyone wants to hear.
The problem with all this—besides it being utterly exhausting—is that whether it be a Members Only jacket or friends or faith or morals…when pleasing people becomes our life goal, we end up losing what is most important in the process.
We lose who we are.
We end up throwing away our integrity.
And we forsake the very gifts God has given to us and turn our back on the person God is calling us to be.
Is that right? Is that faithfulness to ourselves? To God?
Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene once wrote about two young men in a fraternity house who had an eye opening experience with a first year student who is described as having an “odd shape.”
He lacked the height, the broad shoulders, and rugged face the fraternities preferred, but he really wanted to be chosen by a fraternity. So the young man went to a fraternity rush party, and there he was ushered to sit in the corner, where he was left to sit for two hours.
At another fraternity rush party he was ushered out onto a fire escape, where he was left for over an hour.
At a third frat house rush party he was put in a side room, with others, where it became painfully clear everyone in that room were also immediate no votes to getting into the exclusive fraternity.
The experience was devastating, and just another chapter in a long book of similar experiences throughout his life.
A few nights later two seniors from one of the elite fraternities were sent to visit a likely candidate, only they got the wrong dorm room. When they entered the wrong room, they found, not the desirable candidate they intended to find, but instead the young man with the “odd shape.” It was clear he had been crying.
Curious, the two frat boys asked why he was upset, at which the young student proceeded to pour out his life’s rejections and his experiences of late.
These two seniors were moved by what they heard—so moved actually they decided to do something about it.
They went to each fraternity and lobbied for more humane treatment of all students who engaged in the rush process.
And for their proposal, they were laughed at, and told to drop their silly crusade before they jeopardized their own standing among the brethren.
Faced with no other choice, the two seniors resigned from their fraternity.
Then comes the important sentence which Greene writes, saying, “The two of them didn’t know exactly why they were doing this, but it was the first grown-up thing they had ever done, and it felt right.”
It felt right because they didn’t lose what was important simply for the sake of pleasing people.
The Gospel proclaims God already loves us. So, if the one who is immortal accepts us then why should we spend our lifetime trying to please those who are only mortal.
It is God, and only God, who tests our hearts and determines our fate.
And in the end, the great test question will not be, “Were you popular?” But rather the question will be, “Were you faithful?”
Were we faithful to our beliefs?
Did we maintain our integrity?
Did we maintain our core values?
Were we faithful to God’s call?
Or did we forgo it all, in our efforts to please people?
The Apostle Paul shows us what to do, and how to do this.
We are to go where we need to go, and say and do what God calls us to say and do.
If we are rejected and dismissed because we did, then we move on to the next place, and start again.
No it’s not easy. It will get us laughed at, dismissed, shunned, ridiculed—maybe it will even get us fired.
But far better to disappoint people and please God, than to disappoint God while pleasing people. Amen.