If we knew how dangerous the fear of man really is, we might fear men less and fear our fears more. Other sins have beset me in my walk with Christ over the years, but few have so consistently eluded my radar like this one.
The fear of man often goes undiagnosed and unaddressed because of its subtlety. This fear knows how to wrap itself in the robes of love, pretending to count others more significant than itself, while secretly counting on others to fan the flame of its own conceit. The fear of man proudly proof-texts its weakness for people-pleasing: “I try to please everyone in everything I do” (1 Corinthians 10:33). But it quietly refuses to finish the sentence: “. . . not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:33). We often fail to confront, or even recognize, the fear of man, because it so often looks like love, and too many of us love to look loving.
But blow away the rose-colored smoke and break through all our favorite mirrors, and we find the fear of man is not the nice friend we thought it was. For all its subtlety, the fear of man is desperate, vicious, even cruel. Pretending to be love, it blinds us to love, even to Love himself.
Perhaps no text exposes the danger of the fear of man like Jesus’s warning to the religious rulers of his day:
I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. . . . How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? (John 5:41–42, 44)
He was warning a crowd of Jews who were furious because he had healed a man, even though the man had been disabled for nearly forty years. The crowd was so furious, in fact, that they wanted to kill him (John 5:18). While he healed the sick, the possessed, and the blind in droves, his own people could not see just how blind they really were.
Why did some fail to recognize and treasure the Son of God? Why did they consistently miss what it means to love our neighbors? What motivated them to eventually murder the Author of life? Jesus says, at the root, they received glory from one another and despised the glory that comes from God. Because they feared man, they could not believe Jesus. They listened to Love, and heard hatred. They looked at Safety, and saw danger. They stood before Joy, and felt misery. They were offered Life, and preferred death.
“We must find our refuge, not in the praise and approval of one another, but in the arms and heart of heaven.”
The scariest part about these man-fearers, though, is just how immersed they were in Scripture. Jesus laments, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). They searched the Old Testament Scriptures, likely far more than many of us do, and yet the fire of revelation did not burn off the fear of man. They were searching for glory, but not the glory of God. They prove that we can be at home in the Bible and yet still in bed with sin. And few mistresses corrupt and manipulate like the fear of man.
Subtle and Deadly
The fear of man is a repeated theme and warning throughout Scripture, but the phrase itself is used only once, in Proverbs 29:25: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” While this is not the only verse about the fear of man, these few words are packed with help for discerning and fighting it.
The fear of man lays a snare, which teaches us two important lessons: the sin relies on disguise, and it intends to harm. When King Saul wanted to destroy David, he gave him his daughter Michal as a wife if David would kill a hundred Philistines. Saul said to himself, “Let me give her to him, that she may be a snare for him and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him” (1 Samuel 18:21). Saul meant to kill David (1 Samuel 18:25). So, the fearful, self-absorbed king laid a snare (his own daughter!) under a thin veil of love and kindness, not knowing he had already fallen headlong into the greater, more deadly snare: the fear of man.
What happens next illustrates the awful harm the fear of man can do to a man. David kills not one hundred, but two hundred Philistines, and claims his bride. “When Saul saw and knew that the Lord was with David, and that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved him, Saul was even more afraid of David. So Saul was David’s enemy continually” (1 Samuel 18:28–29). He was even more afraid. As with any other sin, if we feed the fear of man, it will not leave our table. It will eat away at everything — relationships, budgets, schedules, ministries, convictions, and sleep — until we perish or put it to death.
And how do we perish? How does the fear of man ruin a man? Notice, “Saul saw and knew that the Lord was with David” (1 Samuel 18:28), and yet he still could not surrender or submit. Instead, he opposed and threatened David continually (1 Samuel 18:29). Because Saul feared man more than God, he set himself against God, and nothing could be more deranged or dangerous than making war with God.
Big Enough to Fear
That war against God brings us back to our proverb: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” We know that the fear of man is subtle and seeks to harm, but Proverbs 29:25 tells us more than that. It also tells us how to be healed. The only remedy for this tyranny is a deep, abiding, and growing trust in God. We must find our refuge, not in the praise and approval of one another, but in the arms and heart of heaven. And we must fear him more than we fear them.
The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
that one may turn away from the snares of death. (Proverbs 14:27)
The fears are many and varied that lead to death, but one fear is a deep and overflowing fountain of security, stability, and joy. The fear of the Lord is the only fear that breeds peace, and not just any peace, but a peace that surpasses all of our meager ideas of peace (Philippians 4:7).
“Woe to us if we tremble before criticism and yawn before the cross.”
If God is small, peripheral, and relatively harmless, the shadows in the eyes of others will haunt us. Their expectations will corner us. Their disappointment will crush us. Their anger will undo us. To be free from the enslaving fear of others, God has to be big — bigger than their expectations, bigger than their disappointments, bigger than their anger, big enough to fear.
Let Him Be Your Dread
How could fear ever make us feel safe? How does the fear of the Lord conquer our fear of man? The prophet Isaiah begins to explain how:
Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary. (Isaiah 8:12–14)
Only when God becomes our greatest fear can he become our safest place. Let him be your fear, let him be your dread, honor him alone as holy, and he will become a sanctuary — a refuge from danger, a haven from wrath, a shelter in any storm.
The apostle Peter later picks up these verses when he writes to persecuted Christians, “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Peter 3:14–15). To cure the fear of man, we must see the Christ who died for us as fearfully and wonderfully holy. To stop fearing wrongly, we must start fearing rightly. Again, Peter says,
Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:17–19)
Have no fear of men, but instead, live among men with a holy, trusting, even joyful fear of God. Don’t fall into the same snare that the Jews of Jesus’s day fell into, mistaking the Lamb’s wounds for weakness. Nothing we might fear is as powerful as this blood. No power of hell, nor praise of man, can compare with the staggering, even frightening, splendor of his majesty. Jesus is the dreadful King and Judge who has become a sanctuary — for all who believe and fear. Woe to us if we tremble before criticism and yawn before the cross.
Fear More, Fear Less
As subtle as the fight against the fear of man may feel, so much hangs in the balance — our ability to see and savor Jesus, our boldness as his witnesses to a hostile world, our willingness to lovingly correct and exhort one another, our freedom to obey the will of heaven, whatever it might cost us on earth. And the fight will be won not mainly by analyzing the thoughts, intentions, and words of others, but by relentlessly exposing ourselves to the fearful wonder of our Father.
“Only when God becomes our greatest fear can he become our safest place.”
“All experiences of the fear of man,” Ed Welch writes, “share at least one common feature: people are big. They have grown to idolatrous proportions in our lives. They control us. Since there is no room in our hearts to worship both God and people, whenever people are big, God is not. Therefore, the first task in escaping the snare of the fear of man is to know that God is awesome and glorious, not other people” (When People Are Big and God Is Small, 95).
The first task is not to diminish other people — their desires, opinions, and expectations. Rather, the first task is to elevate God — his power and wisdom, his love and wrath. Let the bigness of God expose and quiet your fear of man, and then free you to love, really love, the people you are prone to fear.