The Fear of Man
Do you ever struggle with the fear of man? If we’re honest with ourselves, we all do at times, don’t we? The fear of man is a universal problem that takes on many different forms. Perhaps you were presented with an opportunity to share the gospel with someone else but you kept quiet, fearing that the other person might think less of you if you did. Or maybe you found yourself in a small group accountability time and you failed to confess that sin the Holy Spirit was urging you to confess because you were worried about how it would affect your reputation within the group. Or perhaps you have a hard time saying no to people—even if you know you should—because you don’t want to let them down. Or maybe you constantly compare yourself to others in order to see how you stack up against them. All of these are symptomatic of a prideful heart that is too concerned with the opinions and approval of others. And if the fear of man goes unchecked in our lives, it can wreak havoc. The fear of man can silence our witness (John 12:42-43), cause us to sin (1 Samuel 15:24), and even lead us to deny our Lord Jesus Christ (John 18:15-17). Therefore, we must learn to recognize it in our lives, repent of it, and then seek to grow in the fear of the LORD.
Ed Welch, in his book When People Are Big And God Is Small, asks a series of diagnostic questions to help us spot the fear of man in our lives and gauge just how deeply rooted it may be in our hearts. I encourage you to carefully read and reflect upon these fear-of-man-revealing questions (taken verbatim from p. 14-17):
- 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 honour 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 martial 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 revere 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 imposter? 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.
- 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?
Humbling? If you’re anything like me, after considering these questions, you’ve probably realized that you struggle with the fear of man more than you thought you did. Dr. Welch goes on to argue in his book that the fear of man indicates that our view of God is too small and our view of man is too big. Thus, we need to do some soul-searching in order to understand why we struggle with the fear of man so that we can repent of it and then grow in the fear of the Lord.
The Fear of the Lord
The most common command in all of Scripture is this: “Do not be afraid.” God knows we are prone to fear that which we should not fear. In God’s Word, we find that the antidote to the fear of man is the fear of the Lord. When we think of the fear of the Lord, sometimes we only think of terror. God is holy and man is sinful. Thus, man should be ashamed before God and terrified of his righteous judgement. True. But this is only one facet of the fear of the Lord. The fear that Christians have of God is much more robust than this. Welch explains (p. 97-98):
But this [terror-fear] is only one end of the fear of the Lord. At the other end of the spectrum is a fear reserved exclusively for those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. This fear of the Lord means reverent submission that leads to obedience, and it is interchangeable with “worship,” “rely on,” “trust,” and “hope in.” Like terror, it includes a knowledge of our sinfulness and God’s moral purity, and it includes a clear-eyed knowledge of God’s justice and anger against sin. But this worship-fear also knows God’s great forgiveness, mercy, and love. It knows that because of God’s eternal plan, Jesus humbled himself by dying on a cross to redeem his enemies from slavery and death. It knows that, in our relationship with God, he always says “I love you” first. This knowledge draws us closer to God rather than causing us to flee. It causes us to submit gladly to his lordship and delight in his obedience. This kind of robust fear is the pinnacle of our response to God.
The more captivated we are by the greatness and glory of God, the more we will grow to fear him in this kind of way.
But how do we gain this bigger view of God in order to grow in the fear of him? There’s no quick fix. It takes diligence and discipline. It begins by spending regular time with him in his Word. Welch argues, “Daily stops in the court of the Lord cure the fear of man,” (p. 135). The more time with God we spend beholding his glory, the more in awe of him we will be. Furthermore, only God’s Word can give us an accurate view of God, others, and ourselves. Usually the fear of man signals an inadequate understanding of who God is, who we are, and how we are to relate to others. God’s Word has the power to correct our thinking.
We must also spend regular time at God’s throne in prayer. Confess your fear of man to the Lord. Be specific. Ask the Lord to increase your awe of who he is. Ask him to increase the fear of him in your life.
We can also grow in the fear of the Lord through being actively involved in the body of Christ. In order to combat the fear of man, we need to think of ourselves far less often than we do. One way we can do this is through serving others. When we count others more significant than ourselves and seek to serve them, suddenly our own needs become less important. We learn to need people less and love them more (Welch, p. 19).
Finally, remember the gospel. Through his substitutionary death on the cross and resurrection, Christ has granted us forgiveness and eternal life. We are secure in him. There is nothing that can separate us from his unconditional, sacrificial, and life-giving love. We have been foreknown, predestined, called, and justified and our glorification is certain. This is why, after unpacking these glorious gospel truths, Paul concludes in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” We have no reason to fear because God is on our side. He is with us always, to the very end of the age. Remind yourself of these gospel realities every day as you seek to put to death the fear of man and grow in the fear of the Lord.
The greatest defense against the fear of man (and any sin for that matter) is the Word of God. With that said, here are some helpful scriptures that you can use to fight the fear of man and grow in the fear of the Lord:
“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” – Psalm 56:3-4
“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.” – Isaiah 54:4-5
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” – Matthew 10:28
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” – Ecclesiastes 12:13
“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 of Christ.” – Galatians 1:10
“And he will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge; the fear of the LORD is Zion’s treasure.” – Isaiah 33:6
“Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!” – Psalm 34:9
“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” – Psalm 27:1
“But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:4
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” – Proverbs 1:7
“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.” – Proverbs 29:25
For more on this topic, I highly recommend the book When People Are Big And God Is Small by Ed Welch. Ed Welch understands the human condition and writes in a way that is readable, relatable, and refreshing. This book will help you diagnose why you struggle with the fear of man and will give you some practical tools that you can use to fight it in your life.