It’s a commonly accepted truth: the older you get, the less you care about what others think about you. This can be a good thing, ushering in a new freedom from timidity and self-focus. Or it can take an unhealthy turn, leading to bad hair-dye jobs, unfortunate wardrobe choices, or—more seriously—unkind or selfish behavior toward others. As Christian women, we should not simply drift into a middle-aged indifference toward the opinions of others. We should be deliberate to shed our sinful preoccupation of what others think of us—and the earlier the better—so that we can be free to run our lives in an all out sprint for the glory of God. How can we shed the oppressive and excessive care of what others think of us—whether we are twenty-five or sixty-five?
A few years ago, I came across this valuable nugget of advice from a nineteenth-century pastor named Charles Simeon: “My rule is—never to hear, or see, or know, what if heard, or seen, or known, would call for animadversion from me. Hence it is that I dwell in peace in the midst of lions.” I had to look up “animadversion”: it means “criticism or censure.” Simeon is saying that he made it a rule never to hear (or see or know) anything that had a detrimental effect on his soul. This is how he maintained the peace of Daniel in the midst of “lions” who spoke evil of him.
Whether we are in the lion’s den or green pastures, a young woman or well into middle-age, we would do well to make it our rule never to imagine or attempt to find out what other people are thinking or saying about us. And in case you need convincing, all you have to do is consider what happens when you don’t follow this rule. Think with me for a moment about the consequences of worrying about what others think or say.
For starters, it is a futile exercise. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, we can’t control another person’s opinions or actions. Being suspicious about someone won’t change that person. And if we try to find out if our suspicions are true—asking around or even asking the person directly—we may end up wondering if we are getting accurate information, which only leads to more suspicion. Or, if we happen to get our suspicions confirmed, then we feel worse. So you see, it’s a fruitless and futile effort that leads nowhere good.
It’s also a destructive exercise. Trying to control what others think and say about us hurts, and we are the ones who get hurt. Long before Charles Simeon, the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes said: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you” (7:21). If we put our ear to the keyhole, we’re probably going to hear things we wish we hadn’t heard, and words have a penetrating effect on our souls. We all probably remember unkind words spoken to us by others that still come back with fresh emotion—which is why we would do well not to go looking for more of this kind of thing. It’s out there, to be sure, but why try to find it, if it only makes us miserable? “If all men knew what each other said of the other there would not be four friends in the world,” wrote Blaise Pascal. In other words, there is something to be said for the idea that ignorance is bliss.
Thirdly, to suspiciously search out any bad word against us is a hypocritical exercise. To our shame, we must admit that we have thought and said unkind things about other people—even those we love the most. Ecclesiastes calls us out in the very next verse: “Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (7:22). How many times have we resented the more beautiful woman, criticized the boss, felt superior to a fellow-mom, judged a family member, or laughed at someone’s embarrassing moment? When we remember our own failures, we are humbled. Our case for justice crumbles in light of our sinful, hypocritical tendencies.
Investigating or speculating on the opinions of others is an arrogant exercise, for it starts with a false and puffed up assessment of who we really are. This is why, as Charles Spurgeon says, “It is always best not to know nor wish to know, what is being said about you, either by friends or foes. Those who praise us are probably as much mistaken as those who abuse us.” The impulse to elicit encouragement or stamp out criticism comes from an arrogant and inflated view of ourselves. The humble woman does not look for encouragement or fear criticism because her self-assessment already agrees with the apostle Paul’s: “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Finally, to be consumed with what other people think about us is a self-focused exercise. Spurgeon again: “It is a crime to be taken off from your great object of glorifying the Lord Jesus by petty consideration as to your little self, and, if there were not other reason, this ought to weigh much with you.” As if all the previous reasons weren’t enough, this ought to motivate us to give up our selfish speculations once and for all. We were not saved from our sins so that we could spend our lives in “petty consideration” of what others think of our little selves. We were saved to bring glory to God: “and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15).
Whether we are a teenage girl going to a new school or a grandmother moving into a new retirement community, let’s make it our rule—starting today—never to hear, or see, or know what would wreck our peace and take our eyes off of our main object, to glorify God. Instead of wondering what others think about us, let’s ask ourselves: “How can I glorify God today?” Then, we too will dwell in peace.