The Bitter Fruit of Fearing Man

How to Recognize a Subtle Sin

Fear of man, unlike other more glaring sins, often hides itself behind various masks of love. It stalks the fearful and vulnerable while wearing camouflage, covering malice with the appearance of safety, warmth, kindness, even selflessness. It preys on friendships, marriages, families, churches, and workplaces, often without anyone noticing it. And because it kills without a gun, it covers its tracks well. At least for a time.

While the fear of man may be difficult to discern or detect in the moment, the wreckage left behind tells us everything we need to know (if we’re courageous enough to look). At least in my own experience, it can be challenging to distinguish love from fear in the context of difficult or complex situations, but it’s been far easier to see the consequences of sinful fear over time. The prophet Jeremiah warned us about such consequences.

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
     and makes flesh his strength,
     whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
     and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
     in an uninhabited salt land.” (Jeremiah 17:5–6)

I see the fear of man most clearly in my own heart when it begins to suck the moisture out of my soul — when I am plagued by the restless dryness it produces in me and my relationships. Counselor Ed Welch calls these lesser-known verses the classic text on the fear of man.

Fruit of Fear

When we indulge the fear of man, however good our intentions may seem (even to us!), it will slowly lead us to arid places (Jeremiah 17:5–6). Love frees, delights, forbears, overflows. The fear of man oppresses, dehydrates, even suffocates. And anyone who has fed their fears knows so. Trying to make everyone happy, without a deep, intense, stabilizing happiness in God, can feel like running a marathon, or ten marathons, in the desert. Worse than that, we can feel like just a shrub in that desert, not even able to run or move or do anything. And with no hope of help, relief, or any good to come (Jeremiah 17:6). We feel small, fragile, exhausted, scorched.

“I see the fear of man most clearly in my own heart when it begins to suck the moisture out of my soul.”

Pretending not to look to our own interests, but to the interests of others, we’re quietly consumed by the interest of others. Any correction or criticism feels threatening, hostile, condemning. And lack of affirmation feels like criticism. Weaknesses meant to lead us to humility and faith become terrorists that haunt us. Relationships are meticulously measured, cultivated, and curated based on what they say about us (and each inevitably exposes or disappoints us in one way or another). We oscillate between gorging ourselves on self-confidence and wallowing in self-pity. All of it makes us restless, nervous, suspicious, desperately thirsty for peace. A brittle shrub in a vast and torrid desert.

And that frightening wilderness of fear swells until it’s all we see. We see only our wife, our husband, our children, our parents, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, our church family through the hot and oppressive haze of our fear of man — a haze that gets only thicker and heavier over time. And because we grow accustomed to it, we slowly start to think the discomfort and insecurity is just what love feels like.

The tragedy (and irony) is that we follow the fear of man into self-isolation — an “uninhabited” land (Jeremiah 17:6). Striving feverishly to please everyone, we inevitably cut ourselves off from everyone. We’re too fearful and guarded to really experience (or extend) love anymore. Desperate to feel loved, we forfeit love. And the dry, wearying, abandoned wilderness we make for ourselves becomes more fearful than anything (or anyone) else we once feared. Fear breeds fear breeds fear.

Those are telling symptoms of the fear of man: spiritual dryness, restless insecurity, irrational anxiety, escalating fear, emotional isolation.

What Is the Fear of Man?

Jeremiah does more than describe the symptoms of the fear of man, though. He also helps us understand what it really means to fear man. “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5). The fear of man is not only fearing what others might think, say, or do, but entrusting ourselves to them, instead of to God and all he is for us in Christ. The fear of man is about ultimate allegiances: Do we hide ourselves in the grace and help of God or in the praise and approval of people?

In Jeremiah’s day, the northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered and captured by Assyria, and now Babylon was rising like a storm cloud over Judah. Faced with certain and awful destruction, though, God’s people did not run to God, but to man. Despite just how many times he had rescued, delivered, and prevailed through them, they ran to find mere men with mere horses and mere chariots (Jeremiah 12:5). And the heart that turns to men cannot also turn to God.

“The fear of man desperately looks left and right and left again, but without ever looking up.”

To turn to men, in this way, is to turn away from him (Jeremiah 17:5). Despite what the fear of man so passionately preaches, we cannot serve two masters. Our strength, hope, joy, and identity will be anchored finally either in God or in people. If we fear man, men (and women) will be our source of strength (Jeremiah 17:5). We will rely, in our weakest moments, on what people can do or say (Isaiah 30:12), rather than on what God can do or has said. We will spend all our time consulting spouses, friends, and counselors (Isaiah 31:1), while being too busy or preoccupied to linger in God’s word and prayer.

Suffering, in particular, is a reliable test. The fear of God and fear of man handle trials of various kinds very differently. Stress and distress have ways of exposing where our trust and strength really lie. Suffering, whether the oppression of Babylon or whatever pain we bear, inevitably burns away our pretenses of devotion. When comforts fall away, and expectations fail, and dreams begin to deflate, where will we find strength? Where will our hearts stand? Do we come boldly before the throne of grace, and hold out our hands to a loving, merciful, and sovereign Father? Or, more often, do we look for someone, anyone, else to calm and fortify our souls?

The fear of man desperately looks left and right and left again, but without ever looking up.

Far Better Fear

The eyes of Jeremiah’s heart, however, were fixed in heaven, no matter how much he was mocked, rejected, and despised by men. Fearing God, not man, he looked to God, not man.

Knowing the awful consequences of fearing man will not be enough to overcome temptation. We need to know where to find the strength and security we’re so prone to search for from one another. After laying out what the fear of man wreaks in a soul, Jeremiah paints a different, more vibrant, more fruitful, more secure heart:

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
     whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
     that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
     for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
     for it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7–8)

Those who fear men land in a desert filled with fear, but those who trust in God wake up along streams of confidence. “Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord” (Psalm 32:10).

“Those who fear men land in a desert filled with fear, but those who trust in God wake up along streams of confidence.”

The roots of their souls, once weak, dry, restless, brittle, now swell with strength, vitality, and courage. Comments that used to undo them don’t hold as much weight. Decisions that paralyzed them don’t hold them hostage anymore. Weaknesses become inviting windows into God’s strength. Even when the rest of life dries up, and feels hard, burdensome, and painful, their wells run deep and full. Though the rains retreat, and every other tree gasps for just a drop of relief, their leaves remain green. And their lives bear surprising fruit.

Is Your Fear Cursed or Blessed?

In the end, the opposite of fearing man, biblically speaking, is not an absence of fear, but a deep, healthy, reverent, trusting fear of God (Proverbs 14:27). Fear breeds fear breeds fear, unless the roots of sinful fear are severed by God, and he becomes our first and greatest fear. Then every other fear slowly fades away. Fear gives way to fuller peace. Anxiety gives way to unusual stability. Worry gives way to deep-rooted gladness.

Cursed is the man who trusts in man” (Jeremiah 17:5). “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:7). We may struggle to discern the fear of man in the moment, but the stakes could not be higher (or clearer) — and the rewards of fearing well, in Christ, could not be sweeter, surer, or more steadying.