I walked down the hallway clueless to the fact that in a few short minutes my relationship with two girls would be forever changed. There were no warning signs. Nothing would have given me the impression that I wasn’t liked by my friends. We’d spent hours together, and I thought we enjoyed each other immensely. But when I approached their dorm room I discovered I was wrong. They were engaged in a full-out slanderfest and, unbeknownst to them, I was outside the door about to knock.
Hearing my name and personhood slammed was pretty terrible. It hurt. I went into the room and immediately confronted them. I cried, they confessed, and that was that. They asked for forgiveness, and I forgave.
We don’t typically learn what others really think of us. But do we really want to know? More often we’re left to assume the best or nothing at all. Unfortunately, though, many of us don’t assume the best or nothing at all. We’re preoccupied by the opinions of others.
This is the fear of man. It can manifest itself in a variety of forms, but there’s one thing we can be certain of—it’s a snare (Prov. 29:25). I’ve discovered that when I’m tempted to fear man, it’s usually rooted in fear of what someone else thinks of me. But as I dig deeper, I realize that I’m actually judging and assuming the worst of them.
Fear of Man and Judgment
The fear of man so often ends with judging others because we begin assuming we know another’s motives, thoughts, character, and intentions. Someone forgets to answer an email, so you assume you’re not a priority and she is selfish—turns out she was on vacation. You pass someone in the hall and he doesn’t wave, so you assume he doesn’t like you or is rude—turns out he didn’t see you. You invite someone to do something and she kindly declines, so you assume she’s disappointed in you—turns out she simply doesn’t want to attend or is sick or tied up. It really doesn’t matter what the other person thinks or does? But our preoccupation with worrying about what others think of us drives us to sinfully judge.
Fear of Man and Self-Forgetfulness
The false thoughts leading us to judge others is a form of pride that can only be remedied by what Tim Keller calls “gospel humility.” As he explains in his helpful book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness:
Gospel humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, “I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?” True gospel humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.
Preoccupation with what others think is pride. Perhaps you long to be highly regarded. Maybe you hate the idea of being misunderstood (oh, how I relate). Whatever it is, it’s pride, and we know God opposes the proud (James 4:6).
Every true believer longs for gospel humility. None of us wishes to stay as we are—we want to be transformed into Christlikeness. Christians don’t desire to disobey God and grieve the Spirit. Besides, it’s no fun being consumed by what you think someone else thinks. Keller shares the secret to the sweet forgetfulness that we find in the gospel:
Do you realize that it is only in the gospel of Jesus Christ that you get the verdict before the performance? . . . In Christianity, the verdict leads to performance. It is not the performance that leads to the verdict. In Christianity, the moment we believe, God says, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” Or take Romans 8:1, which says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In Christianity, the moment we believe, God imputes Christ’s perfect performance to us as if it were our own, and adopts us into his family. In other words, God can say to us just as he once said to Christ, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Brothers and sisters, the verdict of “well done” is in, and as a result we run the race of faith, putting off judgment and the fear of man. Even though we will fail miserably, we make the effort nonetheless. After all, God’s “well done” motivates and inspires a life consecrated to his glory.
I wish I could say the fight against fear of man and the temptation to judge others were easy. But it isn’t. We can be assured, though, that God will indeed finish the good work he began in us (Phil. 1:6). This is a walk of faith, a race to the finish line that will lead us out of our struggle with sin and temptation and into glory. One day we will be with our Savior, worshiping him forever. We’ll never again worship the idol of man.