I recently realized my fear of what other people think of me has been ruining my life. So I decided to do something about it.
Fear of people negatively affects nearly every area of my life. It manifests in preventing me from saying “no” when I really should. I also feel it when I’m second-guessing every decision out of anxiety over what others will think. Fear is an ever-present weight holding me down.
I sometimes wonder how the Lord might have used me if I hadn’t been too afraid to pick up the phone, start a conversation, or make an embarrassing mistake. How many evangelistic opportunities have I walked away from? How many occasions to love my neighbor have I avoided? How many projects would have been better if I’d only had the courage to ask for help?
Ed Welch’s book, When People Are Big and God is Small, has helped me make great strides in overcoming the fear of man. In this article I’ll share the insights that I have found most helpful in slaying the fear of man in my life.
Fear of Man is a Trap
Proverbs 29:25 says that the fear of man will prove to be a snare. It’s a trap. But it’s a trap we all fall into, one way or another. Welch writes, “Fear of man is such a part of our human fabric that we should check for a pulse if someone denies it.” (Kindle Locations 170). Thankfully, this snare that can be avoided. But first it must be identified.
The Bible’s descriptions of fear include being scared of people, but they also include holding people in awe and being controlled by them. Fear can even mean to worship or put our trust in someone. The problem, therefore, is obvious, isn’t it?
Fear of Man is Idolatry
The fear of man is idolatry. And like all idolatry, it happens because we believe we desire something our idol can give us. “People are our cherished idols. We worship them, hoping they will take care of us, hoping they will give us what we feel we need.” (Location 2293). That might be respect, admiration, acceptance, approval, or many other things. But when we demand these things from other people, we elevate them to objects of worship.
Fear of man turns us from God-pleasers into people-pleasers. It dilutes our witness, destroys our confidence, and diminishes our productivity. But most importantly, it dishonors our God. Fear of man is not a personality quirk, it is a serious sin.
We have many ways of excusing or redefining our fear of man, however. “It might be called codependency with adults, peer pressure with teens, and shyness with children, but whatever it is called, it all betrays the same idolatrous heart.” (Location 2436).
For years I excused my own fear of man under the label of “introversion” instead of confronting it as a sin. But for others fear of man can manifest, ironically, in radical independence. We might say “I don’t need anyone!” but what we really mean is we are afraid to get close to people because they might expose or hurt us is in some way. It may not look like fear on the outside, but many prickly people who seem not to care what others think are actually enslaved to the opinions of others.
Whatever its expression, the fear of man is universal and it is sinful. But it is also beatable.
The fear of man, though crippling, can be healed by the Great Physician. And in His Word God has shown us how we can overcome this debilitating and dishonoring idolatry. Welch summarizes the scriptural antidote to the fear of man in two commands: Fear God, love people.
If the fear of man is really just misplaced worship, then the solution is to redirect our worship to its rightful object. “If you are prone to fearing people who seem to be a threat to you; instead, fear God and God alone.” (Location 659). We must train ourselves to fear God, not people.
Thankfully, the fear of the Lord can be learned (Deuteronomy 4:10; Psalm 34:9, 11). “How is it learned? By reading and meditating on the Word, and by praying that our God would teach us.” (Location 1243). But what does it look like when we meet the fear of man with the fear of the Lord? David offers us a glimpse:
The LORD is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall…. Though war break out against me, even then I will be confident. One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.Psalm 27:1–4
As I read that passage, I can physically feel my fears melting away. When David faced genuinely life-threatening situations his confidence came not from the weakness of his foes, but from the strength of his God. The solution to the fear of man is not that we would become fearless, but that our fears would be rightly ordered.
Rightly Ordered Fears
One of my favorite passages is Mark 4:35–41 when Jesus calms the storm (I preached a sermon on this passage a few years ago). The story goes like this. After a long day of ministry, Jesus and His disciples are in a boat sailing across the Sea of Galilee when suddenly a storm overtakes them. It was a serious storm. The disciples, many of whom were experience fishermen, are genuinely in fear for their lives. They probably knew other fishermen who had died in storms like these. But with only a word Jesus calms the storm. The winds cease. The water is as glass. It’s incredible!
But the response of the disciples is what I find most intriguing. Instead of saying “That was a close one! Thanks, Jesus.” or even “Wow! This guy really is God!” it says they became more afraid, saying “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” What kind of response is that?
That is the response of someone who has just had their fears re-aligned.
Only when we have our fears rightly ordered will we see the world aright. God is more fearful than any storm or crowd of people. If you are in Christ, that fearful God is on your side. The fear of punishment has been cast out by love (1 John 4:18). But you recognize that He is more worthy to be reverenced, worshipped, and feared than all the armies and opinions of man could ever muster. There is no need to fear people, when you fear Someone who is much, much bigger.
But we cannot cure our fear of man only by turning our eyes away from people. Once our fear has been properly realigned toward God, then we are in a position to better understand what our relationship to people ought to be.
You are called by Christ to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39). But how can you love people if you are scared of them? To obey this command we must cease being people-fearers and people-pleasers, and instead become people-lovers. “Only people-lovers are able to confront. Only people-lovers are not controlled by other people.” (Location 459).
The Path to Freedom
Fearing God and loving people are practices that can be learned and cultivated. You can develop a fear of the Lord by studying God in the Scriptures and meditating on His attributes (try a book like Knowledge of the Holy, Knowing God, or None Greater). Pray that God would help you to fear Him and love others more. When you notice the fear of man rearing its ugly head, ask yourself, “how can I love this person?” You’ll be amazed how that simple reframing transforms people from an enemy into a ministry.
Even little fears like reaching out to someone to be a guest on my podcast are allayed by spending some time in prayer and reorienting my fears. I start to think how I might be a benefit to my guest and how our conversation might minister to listeners. Suddenly the focus isn’t all on me and what someone might think of me, but on honoring Christ and serving others.
If you learn to overcome the fear of man, you will become a more effective Christian. As I have sought to cultivate these practices, I am finding many of my fears simply vanishing—my jealousy, desire to hide, fear of making a phone call, desire to say “yes” to everything so people will like me, lies to cover failures, and more. They are being replaced, replaced by a bigger fear and a greater love.
Fear of man is something every person struggles with. It not only harms our relationships and productivity, it dishonors God. The solution is to fear God and love others. It’s a process, but the path is clearly marked in Scripture. You don’t have to live in fear of others, God doesn’t want you to and has provided a way out.
If fear of man is something you find yourself frequently battling, I recommend reading When People Are Big and God is Small by Edward T. Welch.