Over twenty years ago, When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Co-Dependency, and the Fear of Man made an enormous impact on my thinking. Most recently, our church staff is being blessed and challenged by it in our weekly meeting. Obviously, it has helped millions of others since it has sold over 260,000 copies!
In the Introduction, biblical counselor Ed Welch writes, “I have spoken with hundreds of people who have ended up in this same place: they are fairly sure that God loves them, but they also want or need love from other people—or at least they need something from other people. As a result, they feel empty. They are nothing, and they are controlled by whomever or whatever they believe can give them what they think they need. It is true: what or who you need will control you.” Then he encourages us to face the fear of man.
Facing the Fear of Man
Scripture identifies this epidemic of the soul as the fear of man. In the Bible, those afflicted with it were avowed worshippers of the true God, but they feared other people. That is not to say that they were terrified by or afraid of others, although sometimes they were. Fear in the biblical sense is a much broader word. It includes being afraid of someone, but it extends to holding someone in awe, being controlled or mastered by someone, worshipping someone, putting trust in someone, or needing someone more than needing God.
The fear of man can be summarized this way: We replace God with people. Instead of a biblically guided fear of the Lord, we fear others.
Of course, the fear of man goes by other names. When we are in our teens, it is called peer pressure. When we are older, it is called people pleasing. Men identify it as a need for respect. It was popularly called codependency. We can see it everywhere.
- Have you ever struggled with peer pressure? If you experienced this struggle when you were younger, believe me, it is still there. It may be submerged and revealed in different ways now that you are an adult, or it may be camouflaged by your impressive résumé (your perceived successes).
- Are you overcommitted? Do you find it hard to say no even when wisdom indicates that you should? You are a people pleaser.
- Do you “need” something from your spouse or your friend? Do you “need” your spouse to listen to you? Respect you? When we look for life and contentment in anything created, we will be disappointed. In marriage, your spouse will become the one you fear. He or she will control you. Whatever you need will control you. When you do not have it, you will feel empty and hopeless because you don’t have what you need or angry because you deserve what you need. Your spouse will quietly take the place of God in your life.
- Is self-worth or self-esteem a critical concern? This is a popular way that the fear of other people is expressed. If self-esteem is a recurring theme for you, chances are that your life revolves around what others think. You need them to buttress your sense of well-being and identity. You need them to fill you up.
- Do you ever feel as if you might be exposed as an impostor? Many business executives and apparently successful people do. A fear of being exposed in this way is an expression of the fear of man. It means that the opinions of other people—especially their possible opinion that you are a failure—are able to control you.
- Are you always second-guessing decisions because of what other people might think? Are you afraid of making mistakes that will make you look bad in other people’s eyes? That’s fear of man.
- Do you feel empty or meaningless? Do you experience “love hunger”? If you need others to fill you, you are controlled by them.
- Do you get easily embarrassed? If so, people and their perceived opinions probably define you. Or, to use biblical language, you exalt the opinions of others to the point where you are ruled by them.
- Do you ever tell lies, especially little white lies? Do you attempt cover-ups even if you are not technically lying with your mouth? Lying and other forms of living in the dark are usually ways to make ourselves look better before other people. They also serve to cover our shame before others.
- Are you jealous of other people? If so, you are controlled by them and what they have.
- Do other people often make you angry or depressed? Are they making you crazy? If so, they are probably the controlling center of your life.
- Do you avoid people? If so, even though you might not say that you need people, you are still controlled by them. Isn’t a hermit dominated by the fear of man?
- Do you dream about losing weight or bulking up? Aren’t most diets, even when they ostensibly fall under the heading of “health,” dedicated to impressing others? Our desire for the praise of others is one of the ways we exalt people above God.
Have all these descriptions missed the mark? When you compare yourself with other people, do you feel good about yourself? Perhaps the most dangerous form of the fear of man is the “successful” fear of man—people who think they have made it. They have more than other people. They feel good about themselves. But their lives are still defined by other people rather than God.
*Today’s post is an excerpt from a book that made a tremendous impact on my thinking over twenty years ago but continues to help me today. In fact, our church staff has only one chapter to go on in our recent reading and discussion during our weekly meeting. If you have not read this life-changing book, I encourage you to do so, either alone or in a small group.