The Inner Work of Knowing What You’re Really Seeking

By Mark D. Roberts

February 18, 2024

A Biblical Guide to Inner Work

Scripture — Galatians 1:10 (NRSV)

Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.


It feels good when people praise us. But sometimes we can be so eager for the approval of people that we neglect the approval of God. The example of the Apostle Paul encourages us to make pleasing God our chief motivation. In order to do this, we need to do the inner work of searching our souls for what we’re really seeking in life and leadership.

Today’s devotion is part of the series: A Biblical Guide to Inner Work.


In their book Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky warn us that if we attempt to be leaders of change, we will face opposition. Actually, change itself is not usually the main issue for those who oppose us. As Heifetz and Linsky observe, “People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss” (pp. 11). And when they fear losing something they value, they will seek to thwart change, sometimes attacking the proposed change and sometimes attacking the one proposing that change.

Yet it isn’t just opposition that can compromise a leader’s effectiveness. According to Heifetz and Linsky, “When you take the lead, some will oppose your views and others will affirm them. . . . But it is just as important to keep a critical check on the positive feedback you receive. We all need affirmation, but accepting accolades in an undisciplined way can lead to grandiosity, an inflated view of yourself and your cause. People may invest you with magic, and you can begin to think you have it” (p. 169). In such a situation, not only will we overestimate our leadership skill, but we can also easily be drawn away from doing what’s best in order to please our admirers.

Thus, we need to do the inner work of leadership, not only when people are attacking us, but also when they are praising us. We need to pay attention to what’s going on in our souls when folks think we’re wonderful. The Apostle Paul understood this need as he worked with the churches in Galatia. Some who opposed his theology of grace accused him of trying to be all things to all people in an effort to gain human affirmation. In response, he wrote, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10).

Now I don’t believe Paul meant that if we’re serving Christ faithfully people will never affirm us or that we should always shun such affirmation. Rather, the issue is one of prime motivation. It was a question of what Paul was seeking: human praise or God’s praise? He would only know the answer to that question by looking into his heart to see what he wanted most of all. Inner work was required. And by doing this inner work, Paul was confident that he truly wanted God’s pleasure rather than that of his fans (or even his critics).

I can sure understand what Paul is talking about. I do enjoy it when people affirm me and my work. And there have been times in which I’ve struggled over whether I’m trying to please. For example, when I was pastoring the church in Irvine, there were times when I felt quite sure God wanted me to preach on something that I knew would displease some of my congregation. Though I felt clear about what God wished for me, I found myself torn between pleasing God and pleasing people. In truth, I wanted both. For the most part I ended up doing what I believed the Lord wanted me to do. But I expect there were times when I softened the blow for the sake of my popularity.

Today, I still like it when people approve of me. No question about that. But because of the inner work I’ve done over the years, I’m better able to see what’s going on inside of me and why. This allows me to choose to do the right thing, even when, honestly, I have mixed feelings about it.

Moreover, when people praise me for something I’ve done, I can accept that praise gratefully, yet without being overly impressed by myself. Oh, I’m sure there are times I’m awed by my “magic,” to borrow a word from Heifetz and Linsky. But as I continue to know myself and, crucially, to invite God to search my heart, I’m slowly becoming less impressed with myself and more impressed with God’s grace at work in me.

So, without suggesting that I have all of this worked out perfectly, I’d invite you to consider what motivates your leadership. The following questions might help.


Can you think of a time in your life when you felt torn between pleasing God and pleasing people? If so, what happened? What did you choose? Why?

If you’re especially eager for the approval of people, why do you think this is true of you?

What helps you to truly desire God’s pleasure above all else?


Talk with a good friend or your small group about how you deal with your sometimes conflicting desires when it comes to pleasing God or pleasing people.


Gracious God, you know me through and through. Nothing about me is hidden from you. You see when I seek human approval above all else. And you know why this desire can be so strong in me.

By your grace, help me to grow in the genuine desire to please you most of all. May how I live, how I lead, how I work, and how I treat others give you joy. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Understanding Life in Christ (Galatians 1:6–4:31).

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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