Overcoming the Fear of Man
Topic: Fear Passage: Proverbs 29:25
Please turn with me to Proverbs chapter 29. For the month of February we’ve been in a series called Fear Not, and this morning we’re going to look at the fear of man.
I wish I could say that I’ve never dealt with the FOM but that wouldn’t be true. The FOM has been an unwelcome friend all my life, and while I think I’ve enjoyed some growth and victory, it’s still an ongoing fight. I’ll bet it is for you too. The phrase “fear of man” is a biblical category of fear that covers a broad range of preoccupation over what people think of us. It’s not wrong to care about what people think about us and it’s not wrong to want to be well thought of. Proverbs 22:1 says, A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. Having a good reputation is actually a valuable thing to have.
The fear of man is when we care too much about what people think of us. And it’s a fear is two sided: on one side it’s an oversized craving for people’s approval and on the other side it’s an oversized fear of people’s rejection. Ultimately the fear of man puts people in the place of God in our lives and as such is a form of idolatry.
I. The fear of man lays a snare
Proverbs 29 says the fear of man lays a snare and the word for snare can mean the lure or bait that leads to a trap or it can refer to the trap itself. Snares in those days as today were devises –often nooses or nets – that were set out to capture animals or birds. The FOM ensnares the believer and hinders us from living in the freedom that Christ has called us to, and restrains us from living for the pleasure of God rather than the fickle pleasure of fleeting man. And a big part of the effectiveness of a snare was that it was hidden.
How useless to spread a net in full view of all the birds! Prov. 1:17
The snare is hidden under leaves and brush so that its prey doesn’t realize it’s there until it’s too late. And the fear of man can be camouflaged in any of our lives and in many different ways – it doesn’t always look the same or catch us all on the same path. Whatever your personality or upbringing, there are ways that the fear of man can be sprung in your life if you’re not watchful. Teens, I think you face the fear of man to a unique degree – it’s called peer pressure. The pressure to think a certain way, talk a certain way, look a certain way, believe a certain way, like certain things, dislike certain things. Let’s kick the brush and leaves aside and identify some of the ways the fear of man can ensnare us, and then close by looking at the surprising answer to the fear of man in our lives.
a. The fear of appearing foolish
One of the ways fear of man entraps us is by stopping us from doing something we know we should do, or something that would be good for us to do, or something that would move us out of our comfort zone and stretch us, out of fear of appearing foolish.
I went skiing on Monday with Janice and my two boys. It was my first time on skis and it really didn’t come naturally to me. Falling came naturally to me. Flailing wildly about came naturally to me. But skiing didn’t. My two boys were skiing a more advanced hill in a few minutes and I was struggling to get halfway up the bunny hill. And there were a few points I began to feel foolish (now don’t misunderstand – I looked foolish the entire time. But a few points I began to feel self-conscious about looking foolish) – and at one point early on I was tempted to stop trying because the thought that I looked foolish began to creep into my head. I shook it off cause I knew that I was a beginner and looked like a beginner, but for a few minutes I felt the power of the fear of man.
That’s one of the snares of the fear of man: some people live their lives boxed in a little cage called I won’t risk looking foolish if I stay in these boundaries. If you struggle with the fear of man in this form you know what I mean: maybe you don’t take a class to learn something new because you might look foolish, or you don’t reach out to new people because you might look foolish, or you don’t use the gifts God has given you because you might look foolish, or you don’t dance the chicken dance at weddings because you might look foolish…actually, you will look foolish! There are people who live in iron barred cages forged out of the fear of looking foolish – and they miss so many opportunities because they fear appearing foolish.
But most serious is that the fear of looking foolish can silence us when the Spirit of the Lord is prompting us to tell someone how amazing Jesus is. 1 Cor. 1:18 tells us that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. In other words, God didn’t choose a cool way or a hip and trendy way to save us from our sin. Jesus dying on the cross seems uncool, weak, and foolish to the natural man. There’s no way around looking foolish if we want to be faithful with the saving message of Christ crucified. We need to be willing to look foolish for the sake of Christ and the fear of man not only entraps us, it entraps the message entrusted to us when we give in to it.
b. Trying to impress people
The fear of man is a crafty snare and it’s hidden from plain sight so that it can catch us by surprise. We would be mistaken if we think the fear of man snare is only laid on the path of the timid, shy, and fearful kind of person. If you are the kind of person that looks them in the eyes and shakes their hand with confidence, that takes charge when you walk into a room, that is always at the center of attention and the life of the party, the fear of man can hide out on your path as well.
Often it will hide under the leaves of trying to impress people. The craving to be admired, to be looked up to, to be applauded. The fear of man isn’t a fear so much as it is a life centered around men – a life that is motivated by pride and how we appear in the eyes of men, so it can manifest itself in a drive to impress people. And the goal is the trap: we define our lives through the eyes of other people. We need to be the center of attention, we need to be well liked, we need to be promoted, we need to be considered successful, because we think our lives and identities is determined by what people think, rather than what God thinks of us. Life becomes a big performance and every day is opening night. We read the reviews to determine how we’re doing. This person may excel at what they do because they are driven by a fear of failure, or a fear of not impressing people. Their identity is wrapped up in what people think of them and it’s a terrible cage. Sometimes the loud, gregarious kind of person, the one who always seems to be confident and in charge – can actually be masking a terribly insecure heart with all that bravado.
c. Trying to please people
And another common form of the fear of man is when we are always driven to please people. We hate to let people down. We hate to say “no” to people. We hate to have them not like us.
The remora, also known as the suckerfish, is a fish that attaches to other fish to hitch a ride. We can be human suckerfish, always sucking up to people, and always trying to suck up their approval. We want to leave a trail of people who are happy with us and we can’t bear to think of people being unhappy with us. We become “nice” instead of “good” because “nice” doesn’t ruffle feathers. We become chamelions who change with our surroundings. We tailor what we say to who we’re with, and we emphasize what we know they will agree with and stifle things we believe that we know they won’t agree with. Pleasing people becomes more important than being truthful with them and faithful to God.
Paul wrote to the Galatians of this fear of man trap when he wrote, am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. Gal. 1:10
Paul’s not saying we shouldn’t ever try to please people or that it’s always wrong to want people to approve of us. He’s talking about what drives us, what motivates us, what controls us. If our goal is to please people rather than please God, our service for Christ will be seriously hindered.
Again, the message of the gospel is an offense to those who are perishing, and if we are faithful to proclaim the gospel it will offend some people. We shouldn’t seek to be personally offensive – quite the opposite! – but if we are faithful to declare the gospel it will offend some people. And so the fear of man will tempt us to tailor the offensive message of Christ into a nice and inoffensive message that doesn’t risk offense but also doesn’t carry the power of the gospel with it either.
These are just three common expressions of the fear of man. You might see other ways the fear of manoperates in your life. The important thing is to realize that it lays a snare – it will inevitably hinder you from obeying God and living in the good freedom of the gospel.
II. Overcoming the fear of man with a greater fear: the fear of the Lord
How do we overcome the fear of man in our life? The surprising answer is we overcome it with a greater fear: the fear of the Lord. Ultimately the fear of man isn’t between us and other people, it’s between us and God. The fear of man is a theological issue – it reveals a lot about how we view God. There’s an excellent book by Ed Welch on the fear of man whose title says it well, When People Are Big and God is Small. If people are too big in our eyes, it means God is too small and we need to grow in the fear of the Lord.
Like the fear of man (and all fears) the fear of the Lord comes in different shades. For the unbeliever the fear of the Lord should be terror, and apart from their coming to Christ one day will be, for there is nothing more terrifying they will ever face than the judgment of God. But for the Christian, Jesus stood in our place and has already faced our judgment, so there is no more judgment left for us to fear. So the continuum of fear moves away from terror and toward reverence and awe and worship and trust. So when Proverbs 29:25 says the fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe, it’s not two different thoughts – the one who fears the Lord trusts in the Lord. And he or she is safe from the snare that the fear of man lays.
The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death. Prov. 14:27
The fear of the Lord is a good fear. Like the good cholesterol that keeps the bad cholesterol from building up in the arteries, the fear of the Lord is good for the heart and helps keep the fear of man from building up in our lives. Psalm 19:9 says the fear of the Lord is clean – it cleanses and purifies our hearts of trash like the fear of man. The fear of the Lord puts life in proper perspective – God is big and man is small.
Scripture helps us to fight the fear of man and grow in the fear of the Lord
One of the ways we can encourage our hearts towards the fear of the Lord and away from the fear of man is by memorizing fear-fighting scripture. The first time I ever heard John Piper speak live was at a SGM Celebration Conference. He got up and before he addressed the crowd or introduced his passage for the night he quoted, as if to himself, Hebrews 13:6 (which quotes Psalm 118:6) So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” I learned later that growing up Piper had an overwhelming fear of speaking in front of people and one of the ways he learned to fight that fear was with scripture. He was quoting that scripture to still the fear of man in his own soul that evening
He’s in good company. One of my favorite passages to quote to my soul comes from the brave warrior King David in Psalm 27:1 - The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold1 of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
David had a lot of people who hated him and wanted his life, but all that amounted to nothing because the Lord was his protector, the stronghold that kept and guarded his life. So when we face the kind of fear of man that paralyzes us, silences us, makes us afraid to step out or risk people’s disapproval, we need to remember that only God is great and He holds our lives in His hands. What can man do to me? Of whom shall I be afraid? The fear of the Lord leads us to trust in the Lord.
But what about the kind of fear of man that has us craving acceptance, approval, even admiration? What about the kind of fear of man that doesn’t feel like fear, it feels like a drive to be big in the eyes of men – to be looked at as successful, important? To be applauded and considered the wittest, the smartest, the most…you fill in the blank.
The fear of the Lord comes to the rescue here too. Because we begin to see that at the root of the fear of man is not only a small view of God and a big view of people, but if we drill down deeper we find that it’s a small view of God and a big view of ourselves. Pride is at the bottom of the fear of man. It’s not that we care about others, we care about what others think of US! The fear of man is different than being others-minded in an unselfish, caring way. It’s being others-minded in terms of what they can give us. Life becomes a giant negotiating table – we compliment them because we want their approval because we think their approval raises our stock.
Accepted by Christ
We live with so many preoccupations about ourselves. Is my hair all right? Do these clothes make me look fat? Did I say the wrong thing just now? Do they think I’m an idiot? Am I being admired right now? Is my superior degree, intellect, status, or financial status coming through? Do people look at me as a spiritual giant?
The Bible tells us that one day we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ – and all these things that seem so important now will melt away as we are undone by His glory and power. His greatness and goodness will devastate us and His eyes will expose everything we’ve ever done, good or bad, and we will be like Isaiah, falling down before Him like a dead man.
On that day it won’t matter to us what people thought about us. All the good opinions in the world won’t weigh an ounce, and all the disapproval of people in the world won’t mean a thing. Only His approval and only His acceptance will mean anything and it will mean everything. And this is the amazing thing: because of the gospel, because of what Christ has done for us, He will raise us up and we will see in His eyes that we are accepted. For Christians on that day, our shame and nakedness will be covered by Christ’s righteousness like a robe. We will see that God doesn’t tolerate us or hold His nose as He welcomes us into His kingdom. He loves us and accepts us and approves of us – all because of Christ and the gospel. On that day we will see that that is more than enough. It is everything.
Walking in the fear of the Lord will help us to see that now. Because of Christ we are accepted by God – what more acceptance do we need? Because of Christ we are loved by God – do we need anyone else’s love to be complete? And because of the gospel we are freed from the snare of fearing what people think and we can love people rather than need their acceptance. We are freed from the constant inward gaze of self-consciousness and free to bend our gaze outward to see Christ and free to forget about ourselves in His presence. All that is ours now through the gospel.
Living in the fear of the Lord is just that. God is big, we are small, others are small, and life is in right perspective. It should be our prayer to walk in the fear of the Lord and as we do, we will know an amazing freedom from the fear of man. As we close in worship, let’s reflect on the glory and greatness of our God, our acceptance in Christ, and realize that we don’t need anything else.