The Fear of Man (When People are Big and God is Small)


What follows is an excerpt from the excellent book by Ed Welch called, "When People are Big and God is Small". Hopefully this will help us to get to thinking about this a little more. I will leave a couple verses for us to ponder, and then what follows is the excerpt. "For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant[b] of Christ." (Galatians 1:10) "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!" (Psalm 110:10) Many of the people I’ve talked to also had an awakening when they saw the controlling power of other people. They awoke to an epidemic of the soul called, in biblical language, “the fear of man.” Although they were avowed worshippers of the true God, below the surface they feared other people. That is not to say that they were terrified by or afraid of others (although sometimes they were). “Fear” in the biblical sense is a much broader word. It includes being afraid of someone, but it extends to holding someone in awe, being controlled or mastered by people, worshipping other people, putting your trust in people, or needing people. One additional note: Just as “fear” in the biblical sense is broadly defined, so too is the word “man.” As used in Scripture, it includes men, women, and children. When I use the biblical expression “fear of man” in this book, I am not limiting my focus to the male gender. I am assuming, as the Bible does, that every person in our lives has the potential to control us. However you put it, the fear of man can be summarized this way: We replace God with people. Instead of a biblically guided fear of the Lord, we fear others. Of course, the “fear of man” goes by other names. When we are in our teens, it is called “peer pressure.” When we are older, it is called “people-pleasing.” Recently, it has been called “codependency.” With these labels in mind, we can spot the fear of man everywhere. - Have you ever struggled with peer pressure? “Peer pressure” is simply a euphemism for the fear of man. If you experienced it when you were younger, believe me, it is still there. It may be submerged and revealed in more adult ways, or it may be camouflaged by your impressive resume (your perceived successes). - Are you over-committed? Do you find that it is hard to say no even when wisdom indicates that you should? You are a “people-pleaser,” another euphemism for the fear of man. Do you “need” something from your spouse? - Do you “need” your spouse to listen to you? Respect you? Think carefully here. Certainly God is pleased when there is good communication and a mutual honor between spouses. But for many people, the desire for these things has roots in something that is far from God’s design for his image-bearers. Unless you understand the biblical parameters of marital commitment, your spouse will become the one you fear. Your spouse will control you. Your spouse will quietly take the place of God in your life. - Is self-esteem a critical concern for you? This, at least in the United States, is the most popular way that the fear of other people is expressed. If self-esteem is a recurring theme for you, chances are that your life revolves around what others think. You reverence or fear their opinions. You need them to buttress your sense of well-being and identity. You need them to fill you up. - Do you ever feel as if you might be exposed as an impostor? Many business executives and apparently successful people do. The sense of being exposed is an expression of the fear of man. It means that the opinions of other people — especially their possible opinion that you are a failure — are able to control you. - Are you always second-guessing decisions because of what other people might think? Are you afraid of making mistakes that will make you look bad in other people’s eyes? - Do you feel empty or meaningless? Do you experience “love hunger”? Here again, if you need others to fill you, you are controlled by them. - Do you get easily embarrassed? If so, people and their perceived opinions probably define you. Or, to use biblical language, you exalt the opinions of others to the point where you are ruled by them. - Do you ever lie, especially the little white lies? What about cover-ups where you are not technically lying with your mouth? Lying and other forms of living in the dark are usually ways to make ourselves look better before other people. They also serve to cover our shame before them. - Are you jealous of other people? You are controlled by them and their possessions. - Do other people often make you angry or depressed? Are they making you crazy? If so, they are probably the controlling center of your life. - Do you avoid people? If so, even though you might not say that you need people, you are still controlled by them. Isn’t a hermit dominated by the fear of man? - Aren’t most diets, even when they are ostensibly under the heading of “health,” dedicated to impressing others? The desire for the “praise of men” is one of the ways we exalt people above God. - Have all these descriptions missed the mark? When you compare yourself with other people, do you feel good about yourself? Perhaps the most dangerous form of the fear of man is the “successful” fear of man. Such people think they have made it. They have more than other people. They feel good about themselves. But their lives are still defined by other people rather than God. A Universal Problem Don’t think that this is simply a problem for the shy, mousy types. Isn’t the angry person or the person who tries to intimidate also controlled by others? Any form of one-upmanship qualifies. What about the business executive who is working to be more productive than an associate in order to get ahead? The endless jockeying of egos in the corporate board room is an aggressive version of fear of man. And do you think that the super-confident, superstar athlete is somehow above seeking the good opinions of fans and sports writers? Aggressively asserting that you don’t need anyone is just as much an evidence of the fear of man as the more timid examples we have seen. Fear of man comes in these packages and many others. Does it include you yet? If not, consider just one word: evangelism. Have you ever been too timid to share your faith in Christ because others might think you are an irrational fool? Gotcha. Fear of man is such a part of our human fabric that we should check for a pulse if someone denies it. In the United States we are on the tail end of a revolution that included scores of books on codependency. For years every book that had the word “codependency” in the title was a guaranteed best seller. Melodie Beattie, for example, made millions with Codependent No More. She obviously hit on a topic that was important to many people, yet it was basically the fear of man in a secular garment. Melody Beattie talked about the problem in terms of being controlled by or dependent on other people, and her prescription was to love yourself more. The Search for a Biblical Response That approach sounded a little shallow to the evangelical world, so many Christians responded by saying that a better treatment for codependency is to know that God loves you more than you think. God can fill you with love, so you don’t have to be filled by other people. This certainly is better than the exhortation to love yourself more, but — and this might sound controversial — even this answer is incomplete. The love of God can be a profound answer to just about any human struggle, but sometimes we can use it in such a way that it becomes a watered down version of profoundly rich truth. For example, sometimes, because of shortcomings in us rather than Scripture, this answer misses the call to “consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3), or it ignores personal repentance. Sometimes it still allows us and our needs to be at the center of the world, and God becomes our psychic errand boy given the task of inflating our self-esteem. We need to go further in searching the Scripture so that we can truly understand the nearly universal experience of the fear of man. The purpose of this book is to take that next step. Along the way we will meet people such as Abraham and Peter, who slipped into the chasm of the fear of man and brought others down with them. We will look at the subtle ways in which that fear surfaces in our lives. We will see that the codependency writers were right — this is a national epidemic. Then we will find God’s way out. Here are some of the themes we will explore. - To really understand the roots of the fear of man, we must begin to ask the right questions. For example, instead of “How can I feel better about myself and not be controlled by what people think?” a better question is “Why am I so concerned about self-esteem?” or “Why do I have to have someone — even Jesus — think that I am great?” - These are topics we will look at from many angles throughout this book, but included in the answer is the fact that we need a way to think less often about ourselves. We’ll talk about why — and how. The most radical treatment for the fear of man is the fear of the Lord. God must be bigger bigger to you than people are. This antidote takes years to grasp; in fact, it will take all of our lives. But my hope is that the process can be accelerated and nurtured through what we will study in this book. - Regarding other people, our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God). The task God sets for us is to need them less and love them more. Instead of looking for ways to manipulate others, we will ask God what our duty is toward them. This perspective does not come naturally to any of us, and many of us need to look at this truth from several angles before we can see it. But the conviction of this book is that this truth is another of Scripture’s divine paradoxes — the path of service is the road to freedom.