Mark 15:15

So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

“JUDY GARLAND, 47, FOUND DEAD” was the front page caption of The New York Times on Monday, June 23, 1969.

She, whose successes on stage and screen were overshadowed by the pathos of her personal life, was a suicide. Garland’s life, the papers related, often seemed a fruitless search for the happiness promised in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the song she made famous in The Wizard of Oz. Five times she was married. Her life was miserable offstage because of the effects of drugs prescribed either to stimulate or tranquilize her.

I don’t know how you handle jet lag. Often, when I travel to the East Coast on a one- or two-day trip, I find myself staring at the walls the first night, knowing that although it is 12 o’clock in Boston, it is only nine o’clock in Newport Beach. It is too late in the day to do any substantial reading, and I feel the pressure to get my sleep because the alarm will be going off at 5:30 a.m., which is really 2:30 a.m. by my body clock time. Since it is too late to read, I flick on the television. If I find Letterman or Leno boring, I drift over to the history or the biography channels. That is just about the right level to slow me down and help me drift off to sleep.

On two occasions now, I have caught the biography channel special on Judy Garland, and I have found myself staying awake later than I had planned, so fascinated by her tragic story.

Judy Garland’s career was marked by a compulsive desire to please other people. In her first performance at age 30 months, in the new Grand Theater in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, she sang “Jingle Bells” on a Christmas program. So compelling was her response to the footlights, her father was forced to remove her after she had repeated the song seven times. According to one newspaper account, “The other side of the compulsively vibrant, exhausting performances that were her stage hallmark was a seemingly unquenchable need for her audience to respond with acclaim and affection. And often they did, screaming: ‘We love you, Judy–we love you!'”

At the heart of each of us is a yearning to be accepted, an inclination to crowd pleasing. You and I are familiar with people, perhaps only stage names to us, or perhaps persons much closer, who are driven like Judy Garland by a desire to please other people.

You may be one of them. Your instantaneous reaction may be to pull back, protesting my evaluation of you is dead wrong. Just a moment! Are you so sure? At the heart of each of us is a yearning to be accepted by others, an inclination which, if not checked, will make a crowd pleaser out of you and me.

We are so instructed in the methods of How to Win Friends and Influence People that we can instinctually put a priority of impressing and pleasing others front and center in our lives.

Pleasing others is not all wrong.

God has created you a social being. The Bible constantly refers to the honor that will come to you if your life is lived in harmony with Jesus Christ and your fellow humans. We are to love God with all our hearts, and we are to love our neighbors, our fellow human beings, as we love ourselves. This implies a relationship in which we do that which pleases others. There is no premium on cantankerous living.

Yet this God-given, social instinct can become a compulsion that separates us from our primary relationship of faith in Jesus Christ. When we allow ourselves to be driven by this instinct, there is trouble ahead.

There is no more tragic figure than the person who is trying to walk the course that will please the crowd.

Look to contemporary life. Look to secular history. Look to the pages of the Bible. In all three places, you will see the biographies of such men and women.

Pontius Pilate was one of these. You are familiar with that fateful evening when Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot into the hands of the Jewish leaders. You remember how He was dragged before the high priest, Caiaphas. The next morning these same religious leaders placed Jesus before Pilate, the Procurator of Judea, the official political representative of Rome. They made accusations against Jesus, endeavoring to turn the Roman ruler against Him.

Pilate was shrewd in his observation of human personality. He saw what these religious men were up to. He spotted their jealousy that was driving them in their attempt to have Jesus crucified. Mark describes his insightfulness with these words: “For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over” (Mark 15:10).

Therefore, as a clever politician, Pilate found a way to have the innocent Jesus released. You are familiar with his attempt. There was an insurrectionary named Barabbas. This man was a murderer. Pilate apparently thought the people would rather have Jesus released than this individual who could only bring trouble to an already disturbed society.

However, so determined to crucify Jesus were the chief priests that they mingled among the masses, stirring them to cry out for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate, drawing back in surprise, released Barabbas and asked, “‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?'” (Mark 15:12). The crowd cried out, “‘Crucify him!'” Pilate asked them, “‘Why, what evil has he done?'” (Mark 15:14). But they cried out all the more, “‘Crucify him!'”

Pilate was in a jam. In his heart, he saw Jesus as innocent. With his internal gyroscope, he tried to balance out all the competing pressures on him. He wanted to please his Roman superiors, including the Emperor in Rome. He wanted to be sensitive to the legitimate followers of Jesus, who seemed to be a reasonably benign and certainly non-incendiary group of people. He wanted to be fair to his own conscience. And he wanted to at least acknowledge his wife’s warning, recorded by Matthew. She had said, “‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him'” (Matthew 27:19).

It is at this point that we see the basic weakness in the personality of Pilate. Matthew tells us, “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves'” (Matthew 27:24).

Then comes the historical record of Mark, who writes: “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15).

You know what followed. We have seen the ghastly reenactment of it created by Mel Gibson.

Here was a crowd pleaser, a man who wanted to defend his own position, power, prestige and popularity. He was so certain of Jesus’ innocence, he felt he had to wash his hands of any guilt pertaining to the shedding of innocent blood. At the same time, he allowed Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be delivered for a whipping and crucifixion. His motivation is summarized in the words “wishing to satisfy the crowd.” Translated into modern parlance, that means “desiring to please the crowd.”

I imagine, somewhere in a remote corner of hell, the tragic picture of Pontius Pilate, some 2,000 years later, still trying to wash his hands of the blood of that innocent man.

Are you a crowd pleaser? Is pleasing others the most important thing in your life?

Do you find yourself in situations in which you know what is right to do but you don’t do it. You know what is right to say, but you don’t say it because of peer pressure?

A young soldier says, “I want to live the Christian life, but I can’t afford to because of the pressures of my buddies.”

A friend of mine with a drinking problem looked me straight in the eye and said, “I don’t want to drink, but I can’t run the risk of losing my friends, no longer getting invited to the parties I want to attend.”

A teenager, aware of the dangers in premarital sex and experimentation with drugs, told me, “But everybody’s doing it! I’ll be totally out of it if I don’t.”

A housewife says, “I would like to share Christ with my friends, but I am afraid of what they will think. Instead, I just try to be a good person.”

A businessman who was getting shaky in his ethics said, “I just have to go along with this way of doing business. It is expected of me. I can’t survive doing it the Christian way!”

Apparent as is the tendency, we can easily see the tremendous pitfall of crowd pleasing to the person who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Actually, the term “man pleaser,” even in secular terminology, is a term of weakness. We snicker at the pleasant chap who has no guts. We despise the leader who does not have the courage to stand up, even in the face of great opposition, for what he believes. We despise a social chameleon who says one thing in one environment and another in another environment, trying to please people. Right now in the political campaign, the body politic is trying to figure out whether or not one of the presidential candidates really does “flip flop” on the issues or whether this is just negative campaign slander. Nobody respects a person whose modus operandi is that of crowd pleasing. Why is this?

One reason is that if you are going to please everybody, you are going to be someone you were not meant to be.

The Bible speaks out against any attempt to be all things to all people, unless that endeavor is unmistakably designed to bring glory to the name of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, the crowd pleaser is described in the Bible as a “double-minded person.”

James writes about a double-minded person being unstable in all of his ways.

It is impossible to serve two masters–God and all that is anti-God in modern society. God created you to be a single minded person, one marked by an honesty of life, a sincerity of heart, an integrity of expression, a faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

We are so committed to the concept of majority rule, politically, that we fail to realize that what is good for government, in that it reflects the will of the people, is not necessarily good for individuals. Majority rule in the area of morality and faith leads to the destruction of the soul of a person and, ultimately, of a society. The will of the majority fluctuates in a relativity of expression that is totally inconsistent with divine revelation. As Christians, we are the minority, a remnant people.

Another reason that there is no future in being a crowd pleaser is that you can’t please everybody all the time.

You will be insecure in your lifestyle if you are geared to being all things to all people. This approach is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The applause of others is fickle. Popularity declines, and a person whose life is built on this will find themselves in serious trouble.

The most glaring examples of this can be taken from politics or athletics.

Observe the post World War I days of Woodrow Wilson as he traveled to Versailles, receiving the tumultuous ovations for a man dedicated to making the world free, once and for all, for democracy. View the day a few months later when he was broken by public rejection and felled by a stroke. One moment is the moment of cheering. The next moment is described by his biographer, Gene Smith, as “when the cheering stopped.”

We see this with athletes. It wasn’t too long ago that Tiger Woods was at the top of his game and the number one golfer in the world. He still technically is the latter, but we do not know for how much longer. For the last year and a half, we have had nothing but non-stop speculation about what has happened to him, what’s wrong with him. Imagine the pressure he lives with, having to meet the press at every tournament and have an answer to the same question, “What’s wrong with your game, Tiger?”

The smart pro, such as Tiger Woods, disciplines himself not to depend on applause. He knows that it comes and goes.

This point was driven home to me first when I was a young pastor in Key Biscayne, Florida. The wide receiver, Howard Twilley of the Miami Dolphins, was a member of our church and a close personal friend. The Dolphins were on their rise to fame, ultimately to become the only undefeated team in the history of the NFL.

In one game, Twilley jumped high to receive a pass. He was tackled out of bounds in mid air, dislocating his elbow. I visited him in the hospital after his surgery. Together we mused about his future, for this routine play had put him on the disabled list for the rest of the season and threatened his future career. I remembered him as the sports idol of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had been the nation’s leading pass receiver and the University of Tulsa’s All-American end. Now he was the injured star of the Dolphins, with his future uncertain. We had prayer together. Then he frankly observed the fickleness of popularity, saying, “When I am riding high and tempted to get cocky, I just remember that there is always someone new who will be coming along. It won’t take the crowd long to forget my name.” He had learned to “ride loose in the saddle” when it came to depending on popularity.

He then told me about a number of his fellow players who just assumed that the cheering would never stop. They didn’t save their money and, when their careers were over, found themselves so addicted to the applause of others that they didn’t know how to function.

Tragic is the politician, the athlete or the average person like you and me who forgets this fact. There will be a day of disillusionment ahead. The vital Christian who sees popular acceptance as an occasional fringe benefit is secure, because he or she is not dependent on the glory of human praise, but simply on the glory of God. Pity the person who is still trying to make the headlines and recreate the past. Sorry is the person who is not content to live with the one goal of bringing glory to Jesus Christ. You will have your good times, your bad times and your in-between times, in the knowledge that God is with you even if you are alone in His service.

Another reason that being a crowd pleaser makes no sense is that as a Christian you pay a very big price when you try to please everybody.

You are reduced to the most common denominator. Nothing you do will have a cutting edge to it. Your service for Christ will be dulled, blunted, by your effort to make everybody happy. The minister who tries to please everybody in his congregation cannot be a prophet, bringing the Word of God in clarity, because the Word of God offends. It offends the sinner who refuses to admit his sin, whether that be the sin of refusal to give one’s life to Jesus Christ or the sin of the injustices present in human to human relationships. The pastor who does not faithfully proclaim the whole Gospel of God’s capacity to change your life, and your responsibility to serve your fellow humans in the name of Jesus Christ, is doing nothing but reinforcing your spiritual status quo.

Faithfulness to biblical teaching does not win a popularity contest.

Pontius Pilate knew he was right. He observed the envy of the jealous religious leaders. He could not find anything wrong with Jesus. He begged the crowd, “‘Why, what evil has he done?'” Ultimately, he buckled under pressure, trying to protect his position, going down in history as a man of weak principle.

We see the same kind of tragic figure in the man named Lot, the nephew of Abraham. These two men both had faith in God, but one loved the applause of the crowd. He chose the pleasures of city life, moving to wicked Sodom. He was willing to sacrifice the virtue of his daughters to satisfy the deviate appetites of his neighbors. Lot ultimately lost his wife and stands etched on the pages of Scripture as a weakling because of his desire to please the crowd.

We see Samson–virile and strong with the blessing of God upon his life. This man was set aside for a special purpose. He ended in ruin, a blind suicide. His life of potential service for God, the dreams of his people, all came crashing down around him.

How do you lick this problem?

You and I need to get some handles on this dreadful tendency to be a crowd pleaser. If we succumb to it, it will ultimately strip us of our spiritual power.

Let me mention five straightforward spiritual actions you can take when pleasing others becomes most important.

First, give yourself anew, 100 percent to Jesus Christ.

Put Him first in your life. Make Him the one you want most to please, and let all others line up behind Him. Crowd pleasing leads to the destructive end of crucifying Jesus anew. Is your first and primary allegiance to Jesus?

Second, expose yourself to the discipline of His will for you.

Grow in your knowledge of Him that you find in the Bible and in the personal sharing of prayer. Whenever you are uncertain if a course of action that you have taken will earn the applause of others, ask yourself simply, “Is it right?” Don’t ask, “Is it popular?” If you have been exposing yourself to the discipline of Bible study and prayer, I guarantee you will know if your position is right. If it isn’t, change it!

Third, hold to the truth in love.

I have great respect for Dr. James Edwards, who was our “Adventure in Faith 2004” speaker this past January. In his most recent issue of The Edwards Epistle, he writes about what he refers to as “the narrow ridge.” He describes how he and his son, Mark, climbed the Mittellegi Ridge of the Eiger Mountain in Switzerland last year. He makes a point of how, in mountain climbing, there are ascents that are quite wide, walking through meadows that are not at all dangerous. Even a normal mountain face or rock wall allows the climber to veer to the right or the left in search of the best line of ascent. But a ridge defines your line of ascent, and the margin of deviation from the line of ascent is only as wide as the ridge itself.

He describes the Mittellegi Ridge of the Eiger as varying in width, the lower portions being some fifteen feet wide, where there is a small chalet where the climbers can eat and sleep. Then the ridge begins to narrow and steepen. There are places it is nearly vertical, and only a few feet wide. At isolated places, he says, the ridge is scarcely any wider than your boot. Near the summit of the Eiger, the Mittellegi Ridge drops 5,000 feet off the north side, and some 3,000 feet off the south side. An error of a few inches in either direction can be the last step you take.

Then he goes on to describe how “narrowness” is, in our culture, invariably considered a fault. Someone who is narrow, or narrow-minded, is viewed with undisguised disgust. He quotes Jesus as declaring, “‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it'” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Edwards then describes how the early church developed the following rule regarding tolerance and narrowness, latitude on non-essentials, but razor sharpness on matters of essence. There are matters about which Christians may differ without jeopardizing their faith and fellowship with one another. The early church called these the adiaphora. They are like the broad mountain faces. You can roam here and there in search of the best line of ascent. Then there is another word used for things that really count. The word is ta diapheronta, which means those matters about which Christians cannot differ and still be faithful to the Gospel. Like Jesus, the ridge makes narrowness into a virtue. The ridge is the “golden mean” between dangerous extremes.

For example, the relationship between faith and works is a ridge. We are saved by faith, but the faith that saves results in good works.

Hating sin but loving sinners is also a ridge. We are commanded to be intolerant of sin but to be compassionate towards sinners.

The relationship between inclusion and faithfulness to the Gospel is a ridge. The church is ordained to be a welcoming and embracing community, but it also must be faithful to the Gospel. Opting for one side of the equation at the expense of the other is fatal.

A crucial ridge in this Christian faith is Ephesians 4:15, “speaking the truth in love.” Neither truth alone nor love alone is the Gospel. The truth without love can be inhumane. Love without truth dissolves into permissiveness and sentimentality.

This has been the point of dynamic tension for me the last week and a half, and I have had to be honest in confronting the untruthfulness and distortion of some in the Jewish community about our denomination’s stand on Israel and the Middle East. At the same time, I have been trying to do it in a way that is kind, loving and understanding of the person who is making such slanderous statements, either because they have been misinformed or because they are so blinded by ideology that they are unwilling to even listen to either the truth or viewpoints that differ from their own.

In such conversations where the emotions are heightened, it is important to learn to speak the truth in love, realizing that delicate ridge on which we walk. We dare not fall down the precipice of one side of minimizing the truth because we are trying to be loving or, on the other hand, fall down the other side because we have so upheld the truth that we have totally alienated the person because they sense no love in our spirit.

Fourth, stick by your convictions.

Even if it costs you everything you have, be faithful to your convictions. This takes courage. Not only will you face trouble from those who are not committed to Jesus Christ, you will on occasion run into opposition from your fellow believers. What to you may be a God-given conviction, may to them appear to be compromise. What to you may be compromise, may to them be a God-given conviction. Not all Christians will agree on everything when it comes to interpretation or methodology. Every believer in Jesus Christ will agree the basic content of the Scriptures that Jesus died and rose for your sins and mine, and calls us to repentance and experiential faith in Jesus Christ.

I have seen people that wanted something so badly in life that they have compromised their convictions, and later lived to regret. They compromised and got the marriage partner they thought they wanted, the job that was important to them, the financial gain that made them step over the ethical line or the job advancement that betrayed a friend.

I think back to three specific situations where, because I maintained my convictions, I lost getting something I wanted very badly. At the same time, hindsight shows without a question that the loss was not as great as I thought it was at the time. God had protected me from what could have been disastrous.

Fifth, watch out for your associations.

The Christian’s life is to be one which is in the world, but not of it. Your life is one of citizenship in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. You are His ambassador, carrying out His orders, looking forward to the day when you will spend eternity with Him. Your reward and your applause is not of this world. It is in heaven, when Jesus Christ will look at you and say, “‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.'”

Many times when I have been privileged to go to Rome, I have visited a little monastery just off the Via Veneto. There on display are the bones of several thousand monks who have served that order. This display so successfully does what it is intended to do. The remains of those monks, some still dressed in their habits, stand as a morbid reminder of the vanity of life, the fickleness of human popularity, the fleeting nature of the temporal and the importance of preparing for eternity.

The years of our lives are 60 or 70, or perhaps even 80 or 90. Then the applause dies out. The big questions is, “Did we remember our Creator and consider pleasing Him most important?”

Otherwise, we will be just like that 30-month old Judy Garland in the Grand Theater in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, so addicted to the adulation of the crowd, that we just keep singing “Jingle Bells” time after time after time, until someone finally has to yank us off the stage.

As for me, as much as I like the applause, I would much prefer to pass on that in exchange for my Lord’s commendation, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into your eternal rest!”


John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA.

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