• Rev. Mark Tews

Fear of Man vs Fear of God

Chris Tomlin wrote a great contemporary Christian song titled, "Whom Shall I Fear?" I propose that every one of us fears someone. The question is this: whom do you fear? Answering that question requires an understanding of what fear is. Martin Luther struggled with this and came up with two distinctive fears: servile and filial fear. Servile fear is the type of fear a slave would have at the hands of a malicious master; servile is defined as "being too willing to agree with somebody or to do anything, however demeaning, that somebody wants."

Filial fear refers to the fear that a child has for his or her parents. In this regard, Luther had in mind a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them. He has a fear of offending the one he loves, not because he’s afraid of torture or punishment, but rather because he is afraid of displeasing the one who is the source of all security and love. Fear is a controlling factor in your Christian life. Either you are being controlled by servile fear (the fear of man) or by filial fear (the fear of God).

At the root of filial fear is concern with what others may think of us. We all want to be accepted and liked. But when we place the desire to please people above our desire to please God, we are on unstable ground. Take this example: a man approaches a group of co-workers who are speaking inappropriately about certain women in their office. He knows that crude sexual imagery and lustful references are very wrong. However, because he fears rejection, he joins the banter rather than calling out his co-workers’ sin. He is more anxious about what his co-workers will think of him than what God will think; he is fearing man more than God. Insecurity is the result of placing confidence in people that can be taken away.

Fear of what others think and say about us can be paralyzing. When we focus on the fear of being rejected, ridiculed, or despised, we allow ourselves to be controlled by other people – or even just what we imagine other people might be thinking. Thoughts like “I wasn’t invited to the party, they must not like me” or “She has been ignoring me, she must think I am not good enough” can fill our minds to overflowing.

Heartbreakingly, some people will not come to Christ out of fear of what their family or friends might think. Some believers won't share the Gospel with others because they are choked by fear of what the other person might think about them. In both instances, we should remember Jesus’ warning that "whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me." (Matthew 10:37).

What do we do to fight these fears and insecurities? Some people try to win approval of God and others by being super productive and active in church activities to have people think highly of them. While it is good to serve, it is also possible to serve for the wrong reasons and with the wrong motivation, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time who “[did] all their deeds to be seen by others.(Matthew 23:5). If you are focused on the recognition and honor that comes with serving, consider whether you are acting out of servile rather than filial love.

To fight the fear of man, first recognize that this fear is rooted in the sins of pride and self-love. These sins turn our eyes inward, where we focus on who we are, what we look like, what we say, what we do, or how well we do something. We obsess over ourselves rather than on the higher things of God.

Next, turn to Scripture to recognize and fight sin. Paul wrote to the Galatians, "For 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." (Galatians 1:10). This is a condemning warning for us – you cannot be a servant of Christ when you are trying to please other people over Him! Do not despair, though. Once you have recognized your sin, run to Jesus. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8–9).

Sometimes, what we fear is not just thoughts and words, but the actions of others towards us. After all, Christ did say that persecution is to be expected in the daily life of Christians. Hostility, physical harm, and harassment may await the bold Christian who shares her faith or refuses to act against the Will of God. However, we are still called to fear God more than people and follow the example of Jesus: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:5–8). Even if faced with death, we should cling to God’s promises, for they lead to everlasting life. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18).

As Christians, we will be faced with countless temptations in this sin-fallen world. But if we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and have repentant hearts, we never need to fear men. “So we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'” (Hebrews 13:6). Even if your health, wellbeing, or life is at stake, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man" (Psalm 118:8) because "whoever trusts in the Lord is safe" (Proverbs 29:25) – your eternal life is safe when you put yourself in God’s care! Furthermore, remember that God has called us to serve, and we can do this when we fear Him instead of people. "For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control." (2 Timothy 1:7). When we fear God, we are free to love others as He taught us!

Finally, develop an ever-deepening Fear of God. Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, Him you shall honor as holy. Let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.” (Isaiah 8:12–13). "Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the Fear of God." (2 Corinthians 7:1). Jesus is our holiness, and He gives that holiness to us when our fear is in the right place. When we fear God, we have nothing to fear! Thanks be to God!