The fear of man, in a nutshell, is when we replace the fear of the Lord in our life with the fear of people. Sometimes, we call this ‘peer pressure’ or ‘people pleasing’. But whatever we call it, the heart of the matter is this: people matter more to us than God.
What we fear tends to be what rules us. We might not think we have an issue with this—maybe we think we don’t let anyone’s opinion bother us. But that’s likely not the case. Whether it’s our mum or dad, our partner, our best pal, or even our neighbours—all too often we worry about what others think of us. This might even lead us to change our behaviour and opinions.
Ed Welch wrote a brilliant book called When People are Big and God is Small. In this book, he says, “Fear of man is such a part of our human fabric that we should check for a pulse if someone denies it.” (17)
Biddy, Part 1
Biddy is standing in the queue at the checkout when she spots Mona. There’s a moment when Biddy realises that if she just takes one step backwards, Mona wont even notice her. After hovering for what feels like forever, Biddy not only steps back but actually turns around and heads up the toilet roll aisle. When she stops, looking at all the toilet roll as if it’s the most interesting thing she’s ever seen, she mentally kicks herself. Why am I being such a numpty—Mona’s my pal!
Biddy knows the answer to the question even before the thought has finished crossing her mind. She’d lied for Sean and she knew it wasn’t right. The guilt was eating her up inside. Every time she saw someone from church, or even passed the building, her stomach twisted. Mona wasn’t daft. She had to know what people were saying, and Biddy just couldn’t face her.
Snare vs Safety
“Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.” (Prov. 29:25, NIV)
Consider these questions:
- Have you ever struggled with peer pressure?
- Do you care too much what people think about you?
- Are you always second-guessing what you’re doing because you’re wondering what others think?
- Are you always comparing yourself to others?
- Do you avoid people, especially when you think you’ve messed up?
The question we want to think about is a simple one: Who’s controlling us? If it’s people and not God, then in some way we give people the right to tell us what to feel, think, and do. Now, I’m not saying we are being brainwashed into some kind of mindless zombies. What I am saying is that it’s possible for the opinions of others to be such a significant influence that we actually allow them to alter our behaviour.
Let’s consider an interaction between Saul and Samuel in the Old Testament. “Then Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them.’” (1 Sam. 15:24)
One translation actually puts it like this: “I have indeed transgressed the command of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice.” (1 Sam. 15:24, NASB) Basically, he is saying, “I’ve sinned against you, Lord, because I cared more about people’s opinions than yours. I listened to what they wanted, and I did it.”
In other words, the opinions of others led Saul down the wrong path, and he ended up sinning against God. He wasn’t actually fearing for his life or anything—it wasn’t even peer pressure—he simply cared more about what they thought than God, and it had heavy consequences for him. So, it’s important to think about whose voices you’re listening to and what influence they have in your life (See First Steps book 3—Voices by Andy Prime).
Biddy hasn’t been a Christian for long, but she knows that lying to the police about Sean was bad. When Sean first told her to do it, she didn’t think she had a choice. It’s not like he forced her or anything, but you just don’t grass on your kids to the police!
But she still can’t get wee Alice’s face out of her mind. Every time she pictures the cuts and bruises, it makes her sick, thinking about the fact that Sean could do something like that. Still, that didn’t stop the lie. At the end of the day, she protected her own, and that’s the right thing to do. Right?
Willie pops in to see Biddy one night. He knows straightaway that something is up, and he asks her about it. Biddy is reluctant at first, but eventually she says:
I don’t really want to tell you—you’re not going to like it. I was cleaning out my bag and found the Bible Mona gave me. It made me think about her. I miss her, but I’ve been avoiding her. Anyway, I flipped through the pages and stopped randomly at this bit—Leviticus 19. As I started to read, verse 11 slapped me in the face. “Do not steal. . . . Do not lie. . . . Do not deceive one another.” I slammed it shut and shoved it back in the bottom of the bag. My insides have been in knots ever since. Willie, I lied to the police about Sean being here the night Alice was done over. I’ve lied to everyone, even wee Alice, and she knows it. I think maybe I should have either told the truth or said nothing. I can’t take this anymore. It’s eating me alive. And Sean, he makes me sick. I’m ashamed he’s mine. I think I need to tell the truth for wee Alice’s sake.
Willie just looks at her like he doesn’t recognise her. “Ma, are you being serious? Don’t be stupid. No matter how much of a rat Sean is, you of all people can’t grass on him to the police. You’re his Ma! I’ll deal with him. He needs sorting out. He knows better than to bring you into his mess. You need to throw that Bible into the bin, where it belongs, and remember who your real family are!”
Biddy is clearly fearing people’s opinions more than God’s. She hid up the aisle from Mona, lied to the police, and is ignoring God. She knew it was wrong—even before she opened her Bible, she was feeling guilty and her conscience was pricking her. Despite that, she’s struggling to do the right thing because she knows that, if she does, then she may be rejected by her family and also the wider community.
Many of us do the same thing. We crave the approval of others. We fear their rejection, condemnation, and anger. We feel that we need them to accept us. And, just like Biddy, we’re controlled by these desires.
Often, it’s a particular individual or type of person whose approval we crave: parents, friends, a spouse, the pastor, or a person in power like our boss. We wouldn’t admit it directly, but our behaviour and language reveal the way we want something from them—their love, respect, approval, praise, or acceptance.
The Bible has a lot to say about idols. When it comes to the fear of man, surprisingly, the underlying idol is actually us. I know you might have expected me to say other people, but when we crave the approval, love, acceptance, assurance, and affirmation of others, we’re basically asking them—in a twisted way— to worship us. It’s all about us!
Are we beginning to recognise the influence of the fear of man in our lives? Now we need to think through how to deal with it.
Fear the Lord
We need to go to God, seek forgiveness, and ask for His help. Not only does He forgive the truly repentant, but He will help us to resist the temptation to keep on doing it.
For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. (Gal. 5:13, NLT)
The fear of man is something I have struggled with on and off for years. It doesn’t have the hold on me that it once had years ago, but I’m not foolish enough to say that I’ve conquered it completely. Over the years, I’ve recognised my weaknesses more quickly and I’ve learnt to run to God before they’ve become an issue. Basically, I try to be mindful, engage my brain, and make sure I have good accountability. If we don’t get a handle on this, it will continue to get more deeply embedded in our hearts and habits. Unless we run to Christ in repentance and faith, people will always matter more to us than God.