Are You Caught in the Trap of Approval?

Bernard Lawrence “Bernie” Madoff. 

No name, other than perhaps “Ponzi” itself, is more closely equated with the term “scam artist.” Over the course of twenty-five years, using an elaborate Ponzi scheme, Madoff defrauded tens of thousands of people out of tens of billions of dollars. The United States Department of Justice reported distributing over four billion dollars to more than 27,000 victims of Madoff’s fraudulence.1 The depth, breadth, and temporary success of Madoff’s scheme has intrigued audiences since its discovery fifteen years ago. However, while stories like this one may captivate our attention, they also serve to highlight our susceptibility to con artists. What Madoff did to his victims was undeniably horrible, and it should serve as a cautionary tale as we seek to steward our finances. However, Ponzi schemes, bait-and-switch tactics, and internet scams are not the only ruses we need to guard against. 

Proverbs 29:25 warns of a different trap: 

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. (esv)

It goes by many different names: peer pressure, codependency, people-pleasing, fear of man, and desire for approval. But whatever label you give it, it’s idolatry. And falling into its claws can wreak devastation on your life. 

Are you caught in this trap? Here are four signs that you might be, along with one very important remedy to help you get out, all gleaned from the narrative of 1 Samuel 15

Sign #1: You Listen to Bad Ideas 

“You have one job.” 

That’s essentially the message that the prophet Samuel delivers to Saul in the opening verses of 1 Samuel 15. 

What was that one job? Pretty simple really: Wipe out the entire Amalekite people, including all that they own. Leave no one and nothing. 

Got it, Saul? 

Apparently not. Verse 9 says: 

Saul and the troops spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, goats, cattle, and choice animals, as well as the young rams and the best of everything else. They were not willing to destroy them, but they did destroy all the worthless and unwanted things. (1 Samuel 15:9)

Saul and his men thought they knew better than God. I’m sure they reasoned that destroying all that valuable livestock and not being able to leverage the life of King Agag was a waste. God surely didn’t mean for them to do that! 

Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly where the idea to spare Agag and the best of the Amalekites’ stuff originated. It may have been Saul. But I have a suspicion that he listened to other people. After all, as we’ll see soon enough, he’s quick to point out that it was the people’s idea to do this. I believe that there was at least a little truth in that claim.

When you’re caught in the trap of approval, you start to go along with bad ideas. We commonly associate this with teenagers, but let’s admit it: we adults aren’t much better. Maybe you’ve thought along these lines:

  • Everyone else uses my transgender coworker’s chosen pronouns. I should too. 
  • Other people at work are railing against politicians, so it’s not a big deal if I do it. 
  • The other women in my Bible study were complaining about our pastor. Why does it matter if I do it too? 
  • My coworkers fudge on their time cards. They’d think I was weird if I didn’t. 
  • I don’t want to get canceled, so I’ve repented of my previous (biblical) stance against homosexuality. 

You get the idea. When you start giving in to the world’s rhetoric, you’re headed straight into the trap!

Sign #2: You Begin to Indulge in Self-Aggrandizement (Or, You Get Too Big for Your Britches) 

After Saul capitulates to the people and disobeys God, he continues down the road of fearing man by building a monument for himself (v. 12). He puts his own stamp of approval on what he’s done and then erects a memorial to his own disobedience. Pretty brazen, huh? 

I assume that, like me, you cannot imagine doing anything quite so high-handed and arrogant. Yet that doesn’t mean that we would never puff ourselves up to look good in front of other people. While a one-size-fits-all motive for any given behavior doesn’t exist, I believe that often our more subtle forms of self-aggrandizement are usually done to win the approval of watching eyes. Perhaps one or two of these will sound familiar: 

  • Refusing to let anyone know about my embarrassing moments. 
  • Needing to have the best story at the table. (“You only had two wisdom teeth removed? Well, let me tell you about the extraction of my four impacted wisdomteeth and how I was awake the whole time!”) 
  • Making yourself look good in any story you tell. 
  • Name-dropping at opportune moments.
  • Humble-bragging in conversation. (“Yesterday I had to take my Rolls Royce to the dealer to have the automatic drink dispenser fixed. It was such a drag!”)

Maybe for you it isn’t building yourself up in the eyes of others but tearing yourself down. Either way, the focus is still on you and still leads to the trap of the fear of man. Ultimately, this can be traced back to pride. The late pastor-apologist Tim Keller tells us what true, gospel-driven humility looks like: 

True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.2

Sign #3: You Shift the Blame

As Samuel arrives on the scene and calls Saul on the carpet for his disobedience, Saul repeatedly deflects the blame to “the people” (vv. 14, 15, 21, 24). Never mind that he is the king and the buck stops with him; it was “the people’s” fault. They told him to spare the king. They convinced him to save the best livestock. Or so his story goes.

But wait a minute. I thought Saul wanted the approval of the people. Why is he now blaming them? 

Good question. The trap of approval is tricky. Saul wanted approval from everyone, including Samuel. So when it was advantageous to spare Agag to gain the people’s approval, that’s what he did. When it suited his need to throw those same people under the bus, he did that. 

If you have trouble owning up to your mistakes, maybe, like Saul, you have been ensnared by your fear of man and your idol of approval. 

Sign #4: You Tell Other People What They Want to Hear

Saul thought that he could talk his way out of the pickle he had gotten himself into with Samuel. He assumed that if he had a “godly” motive for his disobedience, the old guy might let him off the hook. Perhaps that’s why he said: 

“The troops brought them from the Amalekites and spared the best sheep, goats, and cattle in order to offer a sacrifice to the Lord your God, but the rest we destroyed.” (1 Samuel 15:15, emphasis added)

Not surprisingly, Samuel doesn’t fall for Saul’s lame attempt at religiosity. So Saul takes another tack—false repentance:

Saul answered Samuel, “I have sinned. I have transgressed the Lord’s command and your words. Because I was afraid of the people, I obeyed them. Now therefore, please forgive my sin and return with me so I can worship the Lord.” (1 Samuel 15:24–25)

Can’t you just hear the insincerity ringing in this confession? “All right, you caught me. I’m sorry. Can we just move on already?”

Saul didn’t care that he had defied God. He only cared about what stood in his way. What is your attitude when you’re confronted with wrongdoing? Does your sin break your heart? Or do you hurry to sweep it under the rug with a pseudo-apology? Paul calls this “worldly grief” and promises that it produces death (2 Cor. 7:10). 

The trap of approval is deadly.

The Remedy: Gaze at the Glory of God 

But there’s hope. If you or someone you know is caught in the snare of man-fearing, there is hope.

First Samuel 15 only whispers the source of hope, but it’s there. Check out verse 29: 

The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” (1 Samuel 15:29 esv, emphasis added)



That was exactly what Saul had been seeking. Samuel subtly reminds him that though he wears the crown, glory and eminence do not ultimately belong to Saul. And they don’t belong to you or me either. 

If you are floundering in the snare of man-fearing, take some time to consider the person of God. 

  • He is eternal. He always has been and always will be. 
  • He is immutable. He has never changed and never will. 
  • He is all-powerful. Nothing is too difficult for Him. 
  • He is all-present. You can never go anywhere that He is not. 
  • He is all-knowing. He sees your heart and knows your words before you speak them. He knows the end from the beginning. 
  • He is in absolute control. Nothing happens without His divine permission. 
  • He is infinite. He has no boundaries, no limitations. 
  • He is holy. He is unlike any of His creation. He is totally, utterly set apart. 

There’s really only one way out of the trap of approval—a long gaze at the truly Glorious One.

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1 “Justice Department Announces Total Distribution of over $4 Billion to Victims of Madoff Ponzi Scheme,” Office of Public Affairs, United States Department of Justice, September 28, 2022,

2 Timothy J. Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy (Farington, UK: 10Publishing, 2014), 20–21.

About the Author

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson lives in a small Minnesota town with her husband, son and daughter, and ridiculous black dog. She enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and coaching basketball. You can read more of her musings about God's Word at

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