Earlier this year, my right thumb started hurting. I can’t remember any fall or trauma that caused the problem, but I winced every time I had to grip or press with my thumb.
Shaking hands became especially painful. One evening, I was hosting an honor society induction at my college. I was proud of these students, and I wanted the parents, grandparents, and friends in attendance to feel comfortable and welcome.
As you might guess, I shook a lot of hands that night, and I paid for it. That evening probably set my healing back several days.
What’s going on here? Why did I do something I knew was so bad for me?
I wanted to look healthy and normal, hating the thought of appearing weak or needing to explain my injury. I knew people expected a handshake, and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone or make them feel awkward.
You might notice the pride and the love of reputation in my motivations that evening. But mixed in with those rascals is another noxious sin the Bible calls the fear of man. It’s often set in contrast to the fear of the Lord.
Let me tell you – it’s deadly.
A Dangerous Trap
The Bible pulls no punches when speaking about the fear of man.
In Galatians 2:11–14, Peter changes his dining practices according to his audience. He eats with Gentiles before “certain men came from James,” but when they arrived, he stops, “fearing the circumcision party.” Paul calls this hypocrisy and rightly opposes Peter to his face, because his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.”
There were specific, first-century, social, and religious dynamics at play here. But the fundamental problem is universal: We often modify our behavior based on the opinion of others.
The Bible describes the fear of man in terms of a trap: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25). When we fear man, we are walking into a dangerous place, because we’re no longer trusting in the Lord.
The Desire for Approval
At its core, the fear of man is about our desire for approval. Jon Bloom wrote a helpful article at Desiring God which calls this a natural desire. Bloom writes that God designed us to seek approval, and this proves to be a huge motivating factor for us. The source from whom we seek approval reveals our deepest love.
We can trace our fears to the people who have the most authority over us. This is the person(s) whose approval we most want. Jesus puts a fine point on this:
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4–7)
We are to fear God supremely, because he has ultimate authority over our bodies and souls. No man controls our eternal destiny.
Approved by God
Did you read that Luke 12 passage carefully? Jesus told his disciples both to fear God and then not to be afraid. How can these commands both be true?
God is the Creator and Sovereign, so we should fear him! But this God is merciful and loving, so in trusting his care we don’t need to be afraid. He knows us, loves us, and will give us exactly what we need.
Instead of seeking approval from other people, the gospel of Jesus reminds us that we are approved by God. In our own actions and desires we deserve nothing but disapproval. But Jesus—the beloved Son of the Father, the One approved and accepted before time began—feared God in our place. Jesus lived to do his Father’s will (John 4:34).
Our fear of man was put on Jesus, and he was rejected by man and God for us. By faith, Jesus’ perfect fear of the Lord is credited to us, and God approves! Our heavenly Father accepts and loves us, all the way down to our toes.
Do you see how freeing and motivating this truth is? The fears that imprisoned our minds and hearts are now set free in the wind. We don’t have to impress or win over any other person, because the God of the universe is in our corner!
There’s a healthy, God-glorifying way we can say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks.”
Embrace the Fear of the Lord
It’s all too easy to forget our identities as children of God. So we develop practices that help us actively resist the fear of man and embrace the fear of the Lord:
1. Remind yourself about God.
Take time on a regular basis to remember who God is, what he controls, and why he is for you. Meditate on passages like Luke 12 that reveal God’s power, authority, and care. Consider reading other books about the attributes of God.
2. Interrogate your fears.
When you notice the fear of man, pinpoint the fear. Tease out the human consequences of trusting God in that situation. Often our fear of man is not only sinful but exaggerated and unfounded.
3. Embrace God’s promises.
These words from Moses to the nation of Israel are so precious: “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). The reason the people don’t need to fear is because God will be with them. See also Hebrews 13:5–6.
4. Don’t fight alone.
We need allies in this battle. We don’t often notice our fear of man. So, we need to share honest conversations with friends who can help us see our fears. (Of course, we also need to be that friend to others!)
After two weeks of loving reminders from my small group, I bought a brace for my hand that immobilized my thumb. It drew neon attention to my injury, but it also kept me from further damaging my hand. In this small way, admitting my weakness and trusting the Lord with my healing has reminded me of this great biblical truth: “Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!” (Psalm 34:9)