A few years ago, I was working as an accountant in Toronto. It was one of many late nights, trying to catch up on some work, when a co-worker came to chat. The conversation flowed into the gospel, specifically what Christ had done and why the cross was such wonderful news. Each day, for the past three years, I had been praying for these opportunities to share with my co-workers about Jesus. And each opportunity God provided was joyful. By the end of this conversation we were laughing and hugging, and she even went home with a Bible I had on hand.
All seemed good. I prayed that God would work and I was grateful my co-worker had received it so well.
Then one day I walked into the lobby from a direction in which those standing by the reception desk did not see me. That same co-worker was speaking with someone and she was mocking me. She was mimicking me talking about Jesus. My heart sank. When they turned to see me, I managed a smile at them, got on the elevator, caught the train for my commute home…and cried.
It was not the first time I had been rejected for sharing the gospel. I have often seen that glazed look come over people as I mentioned Jesus and have them say they are not interested. So why was this different? Why did I suddenly feel ashamed and embarrassed for opening my mouth? Some may say it is because it was more personal, being rejected by a friend is often harder. Others may say it is because she acted one way in front of me and was acting another way behind my back.
But, the truth is a little simpler.
I had left our conversation that night feeling validated by her. Liked. Finally I was not this weird Christian speaking about a strange Savior. During our conversation, and up until the point of hearing her mocking me, it never would have occurred to me that I had feared her. However, when I no longer felt validated by her, my heart crumbled and it became very clear to me: I had what God calls the fear of man.
Fear of man is a universal problem and comes in many different forms: fear of rejection, craving approval, shyness, having trouble saying no, too much emphasis on self-esteem, easily embarrassed, easily jealous, people avoidance.
Here is a small test to see if you have it:
- Have you ever posted a picture on social media and anxiously waited to see how many likes you have?
- Have you ever avoided someone because you know your friend or family does not like that person?
- Have you ever withheld love from someone because he or she did something to offend you?
- Do you struggle confessing sin to your small group for fear of being judged?
- Do you spend more time socializing with the popular people because that makes you feel special, or do you look to pursue those who may not be as well connected?
God compares the fear of man with a trap. It is something that takes away our freedom. When we are at the mercy of another person’s approval, our actions are controlled by whether that person likes us or not. It is a constant battle of the flesh.
The opposite of fearing man is to fear the Lord. Jeremiah 17:5-8 says it well.
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.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is as if 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.”
People are fickle. We are easily swayed by our circumstances and emotions. If we are not grounded in God’s word we will constantly be looking for that approval. Man’s approval will not (and was never intended to) satisfy. If we fear man, we will be that shrub in the desert, never growing, constantly thirsty.
Christ is the only one who can ever satisfy.
We will not be craving validation when we have found our worth in Him who is worthy. We are not like empty cups that need to be filled first with God’s love and then, when it overflows, we can love others. Rather, we are conduits of Christ’s love. His love should never stay stagnant in us until we feel good enough about ourselves to love others. We are never called in Scripture to love ourselves, but we are called to love God and love people.
Life is about bringing glory to God. Everything we do, say, think, and feel should reflect a heart of worship that makes much of Him. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease”.
So why is fear of man so destructive?
Because it makes much of me, not God.
It is self-focused, not God focused. It is self- centered, not God-centered. It is also selfish, not being obedient in counting others more significant than myself.
When I am afraid of whether people will like me, the focus is not on how best I can love and serve others. It is on how I can change my behavior to get them to like me. If I truly loved my co-worker, her comments would have broken my heart because she was rejecting Jesus, not because I was embarrassed about my reputation. The apostle Paul tells us in Romans to have genuine love for others. I cannot love anyone with a genuine love if I am craving his or her approval.
A few weeks ago, I was working on a project outdoors and there was the smell of a decaying animal close by. I did not have the option of moving to a different location. The moment I first smelled it I thought I would be sick. A couple hours later, though, I noticed the smell no longer bothered me. In fact, I barely thought about it.
This is what our sin is like.
When the Spirit first convicts us of our sin, we are disgusted by it. We hate it. But, when we do not repent by turning from it and it becomes habitual sin, we will eventually not notice the smell of decay. However, if we are saturated with God’s word, if we have it hidden in our hearts and hold it as the ultimate authority as God’s word to us, sin should never become the new normal.
May we not let the fear of man be our normal just because everyone struggles with it and it is a harder sin to detect. Let us hate it and fight to love God and others more than self.