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New Horizons

The Fear of Man: When People Are Big and God Is Small

Edward Welch

For a long time, I didn't have any self-esteem," said William, a 240-pound high school football player. "I had self-esteem only when I wore $100 basketball shoes and $60 sweatshirts. If I didn't have them, I didn't want to go to school."

Who would have thought that beneath William's tough, cool image was an ego that could be crushed simply by having to wear ordinary shoes or an inexpensive sweatshirt? His enemies could have won a number of fights with him, if they had only known that he was a modern-day Samson: his strength was in his shoes. Steal his shoes and you have conquered the man.

Of course, William's shoes weren't exactly the problem. His problem was what other people thought about his shoes—and thus about him. Call it what you like—reputation, peer pressure, people pleasing, codependency—William's life was controlled by other people, and in that he was no different from most everyone else. He struggled with an epidemic of the soul called, in biblical language, the fear of man.

The best-selling books on codependency attest to the fact that this is a nearly universal experience in Western culture. Nearly everyone can quickly find the fear of man in themselves.

Have you ever struggled with peer pressure? Are you overcommitted? Do you find it hard to say no, even when wisdom indicates that you should? If so, you are a people pleaser—a euphemism for one who fears man.

Do you "need" something from your spouse? Whatever you need will control you.

Do you easily get embarrassed?

Are you always on a diet? Would you be as concerned about your weight if you weren't so dominated by the opinions of others?

The list could be a long one, but let's take a shortcut. If you can't immediately find it in yourself, consider just one word: evangelism. Have you ever been slow to talk about the gospel because you were concerned you might look foolish?

The Common Christian Approach

Since this problem of being controlled by the opinions of other people is so prevalent, it is not surprising that Christian books quickly followed the secular ones and began supplying the church with answers. The answers can essentially be summarized this way: stop looking to other people to satisfy your need for love and look to God instead; then you will feel better about yourself and won't be controlled by the opinions of others.

Like all practical advice, this counsel has a very explicit theory behind it. The theory can be summarized by the answers given to three questions.

First, who are you? You are a person with a God-given psychological need to be loved. You are basically an empty, passive vessel that must be filled.

Second, why do you struggle with being controlled by others? Your need for love has not been met by people. "[We have a] God-given need to be loved that is born into every human infant. It is a legitimate need that must be met from cradle to grave. If children are deprived of love—if that primal need is not met—they carry the scars for life" (Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirth, and Paul Meier, Love Is a Choice, p. 34). These scars will be evident as you desperately look to others to fill you so you feel better.

Third, what is the way out? Let Jesus fill you with his love.

Such advice sounds biblical. God does not disappoint us in the way that people do, and his love is unfailing. But a closer look at this advice shows that it is based on the world's view of the person more than Scripture's. It is as if the Christian self-help books could not find much in-depth biblical teaching on the topic and went elsewhere for their overarching theories. The tip-off is the promise that "then you will feel better about yourself." This is the real goal of many self-help books on this topic. The aim is personal satisfaction, not the glory of God.

Since this theory is person-centered rather than Christ-centered, it is not surprising that it comes out of twentieth-century psychology. The theory suggests that just as we have certain biological needs that must be met, lest we die, so also we have certain psychological needs that must be met, lest we be left psychologically weak and starved. Yet keep in mind the purpose for meeting these needs. The goal of having our psychological needs fulfilled is to feel better about ourselves. We can feel happy. We can have increased self-esteem.

As this view of psychological needs moved into the fabric of Western culture, many Christians were attracted to it. It seemed to map out life in a way that offered a deeper explanation for many personal experiences than Scripture itself does. For example, the suffering wife who felt that she needed love now had her sense of need legitimized and explained. According to the new theory, she felt a need for love because love was one of the deepest needs with which God created her. She was designed to need love. Furthermore, if she did not receive it from significant people, she would be in a deficit state and forever wounded. All sin and misery, this theory declares, result from living in a deficit state with unmet needs.

There are a number of problems with this new view of the person. The most prominent among them is that Scripture simply doesn't teach it. No matter how hard we search the Scriptures, we never find that God created us as empty, passive vessels with psychological needs. Since we have been forged by the hands of the Divine Lover, we will certainly delight in loving and being loved, but to elevate the desire for love to a created need is without precedent in the history of the church.

Notice the fruit of such thinking. It suggests that our deepest problem is unmet needs. This means that if a pastor treats a person's gossip as sin, the gossiper can say that the counsel was superficial. "The pastor didn't get to the real heart of my problem. My problem is that I need a relationship. I am lonely." While it may be true that the gossiper desperately wants a relationship, it is also true that the deepest, most profound explanation for gossip is sin. Gossip is an expression of a heart that says, "I want." It is a commitment to self and against God.

Or consider how this way of thinking has shaped the popular view of marriage. Aren't many marriages understood as two people trying to meet each other's needs? Such an agreement may work well as long as people are feeling good about the way they are being treated, but it will inevitably break down. At root, this view of marriage is self-centered. "I will meet my spouse's needs because then she will like me more and try to meet my needs more."

From the perspective of people with psychological needs, the gospel itself is changed. The theory of needs suggests that the gospel is, most deeply, intended to meet psychological needs. Christ becomes the one who will meet our needs, so we can feel better about ourselves. But this is not the gospel.

If the commonly held view is mistaken, we must reconsider what the Bible teaches about how to be liberated from the opinions of others.

A More Biblical Approach

Scripture begins by reinterpreting the experience of being controlled by the opinions of other people as the fear of man or trust in man. The basic idea is that rather than fearing or trusting in God, we fear or trust in people because of what we want from them. When we look at the Bible through this lens, we can find the experience of being controlled by other people on almost every page.

Adam and Eve feared the exposing look of the other and hid. Abraham was controlled by the perceived power of other kings and lied about his wife before both Pharaoh (Gen. 12:10-20) and Abimelech (Gen. 20:1-2).

The entire history of Israel hinged on whether the people would put their trust in their mighty God or "treat me [the Lord] with contempt" by considering the "giants" in the land as bigger than God (Num. 14:11).

Moses warned the judges of Israel not to fear (be controlled by) important people; otherwise, they would show partiality in judging (Deut. 1:17).

The psalmist was always confronted with the question, Whom will I fear—God or man? By God's grace, his answer was consistently, "When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?" (Ps. 56:3-4).

Jesus told those he sent out that they would be rejected and even physically hurt by people who opposed their message. He then warned them not to "be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28).

Jesus and Paul were unusual in their day for many reasons. An obvious one was that they were, in contrast to the Pharisees and other leaders, people lovers rather than people pleasers (Matt. 22:16; John 12:42-43; 1 Thess. 2:4).

Peter, the classic New Testament example of the fear of man (Matt. 26: 69-75; Gal. 2:13), eventually recovered and exhorted his sheep, " 'Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.' But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord" (1 Pet. 3:14).

Know Ourselves

In reviewing these and other passages, it becomes obvious that the fear of man does not spring from a God-created need to be loved. We are not empty love cups looking in the wrong place to be filled. The question is not, Who will fill us? Instead, we see that we are worshipers, worshiping either the true God or our idols.

The real question is, Whom will you worship? Or, Whom will you trust? Whom will you fear? The fear of man is a result of our instinctive idolatry. We worship the creature rather than the Creator because we believe that the creature will satisfy us. Our favorite objects in creation to worship are other people. We worship others not because we want to be controlled or dominated by them, but because we want or "need" something from them. The result, as it is with all idolatry, is that we are enslaved by our idols.

This means that the way out of the fear of people is not through a process where we find better need meeters. Rather, it is through repentance. When examined from the perspective of worshiping people, the needs of people pleasers and codependents are more accurately called "ruling desires" and "lusts" that aim to be satisfied through false worship. Therefore, when we look to Jesus to satisfy our lust to be loved, Jesus is viewed as a kind of psychic servant whose job is to come and make us feel better about ourselves. However, Jesus has come not to satisfy these demands, but to put them to death.

Does this mean that we do not need love? Scripture certainly indicates that we desire love, and we are commanded to love others, but to elevate our desire to the level of need is to say that we have a right to something or are owed it. "Need," especially "psychological need," is typically a euphemism for "I want." (An interesting way to understand our real needs is to study the prayers of Scripture.)

When we put our trust in people, our hearts have turned away from the living God (Jer. 17:5). The way out of this situation is to ask ourselves why we are so concerned about ourselves, to confess our sin, and to be amazed at the forgiveness shown us in Jesus.

Know the Fear of the Lord

Self-examination is only part of the biblical process of change. The second step is to grow in the knowledge of our triune God. In this case, the knowledge of God is obviously critical. Other people have become giants to us, and God has been reduced to the size of our desires. What grander liberation could there be but to know that God is more awesome than anything or anyone in his creation?

The twin phrases to keep in mind are the fear of the Lord and the holiness of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is certainly much more than being terrified by God. Terror only knows God's justice, and it shrinks back, avoiding God. The mature fear of the Lord is awe and reverence that leads to obedience. This reverence proceeds from knowing how God's justice and love were joined at the cross. It leads us to draw near to God and worship him.

To fear the Lord is to see that he alone is holy. The word holy has been defined as "separate," "set apart," or "uncontaminated." When used of God, it means that he is different than we are. None of his attributes can be understood through a study of human attributes alone. His love is a holy love, greater than anything found on a human level. His justice is a holy justice, grander than our wisest and most just pronouncements. "For I am God, and not man," he says, "the Holy One among you" (Hos. 11:9).

Some Christians think of God's holiness as part of his transcendence and distance from his creatures. Holiness, however, means much more than "otherness." God's holiness is also found in his coming close to his creatures and actually calling us "my people" and allowing us to call him "my God."

How do we grow in this liberating fear of the Lord? We listen to sermons, we take communion, we pray that the Spirit would teach us through Scripture, and we are ever alert to the world around us as it tries to reduce God to the status of a benevolent but somewhat senile grandfather. As we grow, we are able to say, "Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God?" (Ps. 77:13).

As we grow in the knowledge of our holy God, the cup of our own desires is smashed, but it is biblically appropriate to envision this "lust cup" as being replaced by another cup. This is the cup of spiritual needs. As God's children, we are all very needy. We need forgiveness, reconciliation, and power to fight against sin. In response, God pours out his love to us until it overflows.

Know Other People

The third part of being liberated from the fear of people is to learn how to view other people. If people are not gas pumps that either fill us or refuse to fill us, then who are they?

Biblically, people fall into three different categories: enemies, neighbors, and Christian brothers and sisters. But whatever category they are in, they are all objects of our love. All of these groups control us when we need something from them (for us) more than we love them. Our goal is to love them for the glory of God more than we need them, so we can feel better about ourselves. As God's people, we love more and need less.

But don't we need these people whom we are called to love? We certainly do. We need them because we have real biological and spiritual needs. We need farmers, builders, and a host of other workers in order to live physically. In the church we need to be taught and pastored. We need daily counsel from brothers and sisters. We need people to ask us the tough questions, even though there are times when we wish they would leave us alone. We are spiritually very needy, and God has given us people to help us in our neediness.

Do we need others to satisfy our psychological desires? Clearly not. Instead, we are to consider others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3), and, because of the gospel, consider ourselves as owing a debt of love to all people (Rom. 13:8).

The fear of man is a universal problem that has found different answers in different cultures. Secular Americans have sought to distance themselves from "unhealthy" relationships and love themselves more. Many Christians in this culture have opted for a Jesus-for-me approach. Many Eastern countries have actually institutionalized fear of man and have thus been called shame-based cultures. Scripture, however, offers something radical and penetrating. It offers repentance from consuming self-interest, trust in the holy, triune God, and obedience that loves others. This is the way out of the fear of man.

Dr. Welch is the director of counseling at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation in Glenside, Pa. This article is condensed by him from his book When People Are Big and God Is Small, which will be published this summer. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1997.

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