Why is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? Because the end of folly is the love of the praise of men. Or to say the same thing in a different way: there is no sin so prevalent, so insidious, and so deep as the sin of fearing people more than we fear God.
Think of Saul, that tall Benjaminite who became the first king of Israel. His downfall was the result of misplaced fear. As he explained to Samuel after the whole business with the bleating sheep, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam. 15:24). Here’s this powerful, impressive looking king worried about what people think of him. And it’s not his enemies the Amalekites he’s worried about. Except for Agag, they were all dead. Saul wasn’t afraid of his enemies; he was scared of his friends—afraid that they would desert him, afraid they would revolt, afraid he would he be an unpopular King. Saul was a head taller with more authority than anyone in the kingdom and yet he disobeyed a clear command from God because he feared people. He was the Lord’s cautionary tale for Proverbs 29:25 (“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe”) and a preview of Christ’s indictment in John 12:42-43 (“but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God”). Saul is but one of many sad examples of those who counted it more precious to be acceptable and palatable and influential in the eyes of their peers, than to be honored and affirmed and found faithful in the sight of God.
It’s easy to see how foolish Saul was, but each one of us struggles with the same fear of man and love of the praise of man.
- Do you struggle with peer pressure? Do you give in to things against your will just to go along with the crowd? That’s the fear of man. And it doesn’t get any easier when you get older. Adults just find more creative ways to mask it and more socially acceptable ways to channel it. We don’t set things on fire as much. But we still feel peer pressure when gossip starts, or a raunchy movie is on, or bad mouthing someone begins.
- Are you over-committed? Is it impossible for you to say no? Could be a sign that you love to be loved by others.
- Are you a people-pleaser? I hate to say this all of the very nice people out there, but if everyone likes you all the time, then it might be that you aren’t really the most kindhearted person in the world, but you simply know what people expect and how to please them. Unrelenting niceness can be man-centered.
- Are your relationships more about being loved and seeming lovely than actually loving others? Many times our fear of offending and fear of confronting are less about our great love for the person and more about our desire to feel loved.
- Do you have low self-esteem? It may seem counter intuitive, but self-esteem issues are usually rooted in pride. You reverence the opinions of others. You use them to build up your identity and sense of well-being.
- Are you easily crushed by criticism? No one likes to be criticized, but be careful that you aren’t putting your identity in other people’s opinions and so that’s why criticism devastates you. People pleasing is why many of us “can’t forgive ourselves.”
- Do you feel trapped by people’s praise, because you can never live up to their expectations? I know in my own life I am much more likely to be swayed by the people who think I’m great than by the people who think I’m a jerk. Being criticized is a burden, but the weight of people’s praise can feel even heavier.
- Are you always second-guessing yourself, worrying what people think about your decisions? You may be naturally timid. Or you may be loathe to disappoint others or be thought foolish.
- Do you get embarrassed often? We all do silly things and it’s healthy to laugh at ourselves, but if you are constantly embarrassed by little things you do or your family does, then it may be that you are ruled by other people’s opinions.
- Do you tell little white lies to make yourself look better? It’s all to easy to save face or gain credibility by telling l little lies about how much you pray, what you weigh, when you wake up, where you’ve been, or what you’ve read.
- Do you avoid people for fear of their rejection? There is something not right in your heart if you are constantly suspicious that others don’t like you and must be thinking ill of you.
- Are you obsessed with your body? Paul says physical training is of some value. It’s good to want to take care of our bodies. But the fear of man turns a healthy self-care into an obsession with our shape, color, and size.
- And if all these questions have missed the mark, then consider: When you compare yourself with other people, does that make you feel good? Perhaps the most dangerous form of the fear of man is the successful fear of man. Some people are quite confident, but only because everyone has almost always been keen on them. We don’t feel like a life built on the praise of man—until it’s gone.
At this point you are thinking “Great. Thanks Kevin. That was really discouraging. I’ve always felt bad about myself and now I feel even worse. I had no idea so much of my personality and idiosyncracies were mixed up in sin.” But cheer up, if our problem is sin and not personality, at least we know we can be forgiven and God wants to help us change.
And how do we change? Well, the biblical remedy is not easy, but it is simple.
First, we must fear God. This is the famous conclusion at the end of Ecclesiastes. After going through all the world’s options and declaring them vanity, a chasing after the wind (all of them, sex, money, power, pleasure, work), the Teacher gives his final verdict: fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13). It’s that simple. And that challenging. Care more about what God thinks than about what people think.
Second, we must pay more attention to God and less attention to people. The Pharisees in Matthew 22 were trying to trick Jesus, but they still managed to say something true: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” (Matt. 22:16). Jesus was a man of integrity. He was honest, forthright, and not blown over by public opinion. But how did he do it? Did he rely on super powers? Did he call down angels? Did he resort to miracles? How did Jesus maintain his integrity? Well, in part, it was simply what the Pharisees recognized about him—he didn’t care about anyone’s opinion.” Obviously, Jesus was never rude or thoughtless. He had compassion on people and listened to children and the brokenhearted. But when it came to living a life in obedience to God, he knew better than to rely on the opinions of men.
We will never overcome our fear of man until we see-as Ed Welch would say-that people are small and God is big. Human beings are a paradox. We should be honored and respected as image-bearers and the crown of God’s good creation. And yet, we’re worms too. Instead of the slogan “I’m ok, you’re ok” we’d be better saying, “I’m dust, you’re dust.”
This is a faith issue which takes a lot of fight. We will not fear God more than people unless we know the truth about God and people. Do you believe that pleasing God is more important and more satisfying than pleasing people? Do you believe that God is the only one to whom you will give account at the end of the age? Do you believe that God has forgiven all your sins at the cost of his Son’s blood, that Jesus needs none of your self-abuse to make him suffer enough and none of your feelings of perpetual misery to make him loving enough? Do you believe that fearing God, keeping his commandments, and living to hear him say “well done, good and faithful servant” is the most freeing life you can live? Do you believe that God is God and no one else is? Do you believe that is God ain’t happy, it don’t matter who likes you, your political positions, or your Ph.D.? And that if God is pleased with you, there ain’t a hell on earth or a hell to come that can take his smile away from you? Will you and I, with all our worry and pride and self-righteousness, have faith enough to exchange our fear for fear?