By Brianna Klassen
Fear of man is defined as an epidemic of the soul that can be characterized by peer-pressure, worry, and codependency. It is the act of placing others before God in one’s life.
II. Biblical perspective
Fear of man is expressed biblically as a “snare” in Proverbs 29:25. In the book When People Are Big and God Is Small, Edward Welch best describes fear of man as, “Fear in the biblical sense…includes being afraid of someone, but it extends to holding someone in awe, being controlled or mastered by people, worshipping other people, putting your trust in people, or needing people.” This problem is severe and must be combatted with the truth of God’s Word. All throughout Scripture we are commanded to fear God and not man. Scripture is sufficient and superior than any other form of help and comfort. It is the only means by which biblical change comes about.
We are given two clear examples of fear of man in the Bible. The most well-known case of this is one of Jesus’ beloved, Peter. After Christ had been taken and questioned, Peter repeatedly denies Christ three times. This was the fear of man inside Peter that caused him to fear others instead of his Savior. This trial later leads Peter to write to encourage others in 1 Peter 3:14, “…have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Another example of fear of man in God’s Word is the story of the Pharisee named Nicodemus. John 3:1-2, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Nicodemus was a powerful ruler that met Jesus under the cover of night in order to prevent anyone to know he was there. Nicodemus and Peter were both ruled by the fear of man and it manifested in both of their actions and thinking.
- The term “fear of man” does not exist in the secular world and culture. Based upon the physical and emotional symptoms that fear of man can have on a person, the most commonly probable diagnosis would be a Borderline Personality Disorder, specifically the Avoidant Personality Disorder or Dependent Personality Disorder.
- The Cleveland Clinic characterizes the Avoidant Personality Disorder as being a condition included in the anxious personality disorder group. This group, they claim, includes disorders marked by feelings of nervousness and fear. People with avoidant personality disorder have poor self-esteem. They also have an intense fear of rejection and being negatively judged by others.
The Cleveland Clinic describes the Dependent personality disorder as the need to be cared for by others. This condition results in submissive and clingy behavior, a fear of separation, and difficulty making decisions without reassurance from others.
Diagnostic criteria for Avoidant Personality Disorder and Dependent Personality Disorder based on DSM-IV:
- avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact, because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection
- is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked
- shows restraint within intimate relationships because of the fear of being shamed or ridiculed
- is preoccupied with being criticized or rejected in social situations
- is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy
- views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others
- is unusually reluctant to take personal risks or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing
- A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
- Has difficulty expressing disagreement with others because of fear of loss of support or approval.
- Has difficulty initiating projects or doing things on their own (because of a lack of self confidence in judgment or abilities rather than a lack of motivation or energy).
- Goes to excessive lengths to obtain nurturance and support from others, to the point of volunteering to do things that are unpleasant.
Symptoms according to DSM-IV:
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Feelings of consistent anxiety
- Fear of rejection
- Easily hurt by criticism
- Lack of close friends
- Reluctance to become involved with people
- Avoidance of activities or occupations that involve contact with others
- Shyness in social situations out of fear of doing something wrong
- Has difficulty making everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others.
- Needs others to assume responsibility for most major areas of their life.
The Avoidant and Dependent Personality disorders, in the secular world, are sometimes characterized as “incurable” and those who are diagnosed with it are encouraged to pursue ways of keeping it maintained and manageable.
- Therapies recommended to those with avoidant or dependent personality disorder:
- Cognitive-Behavioral therapy
- Medications recommended to those with avoidant or dependent personality disorder:
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)
- Recommended specialists:
- Clinical psychologist
- Primary care provider
- Emergency medicine doctor
The phrase “fear of man” is a term that was first mentioned in Proverbs 29:25, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” This sin often goes unnoticed in most because it is a sin that all are tempted in. This issue hasn’t been widely covered and there are not many resources that are directed to this exact problem. The research on this history of this phrase is not very evident. One of the first books that has directly covered fear of man is Edward Welch’s book, When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. This book provides a very clear and beneficial perspective on fear of man. It has been significantly helpful in laying out the theology behind this struggle and promoting growth and change.
IV. Evidence of the Problem
Fear of man is evident in everyone’s life in some way or another. The extent of this struggle will appear different in most. We all struggle with how we view ourselves in compared to others. We base our choices and decisions on whether or not others will think highly of us. Welch describes this perfectly as, “We are more concerned about looking stupid (a fear of people) than we are about acting sinfully (a fear of God).” We become consumed with how others view us, and we forget how we look in front of the One who created us. The fear of man is captivating and controlling and will run our lives if we do not fight it. Galatians 1:10 declares, “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.”
Fear of man is integrated into every person because of our sinful nature. Everyone will struggle with fear of man at different times and in different ways, both spiritually and physically. This sin has definite consequences that can represent itself in both physical and spiritual symptoms. Spiritual causes of fear of man will come from an inner sinful attitude or thinking. Physical symptoms of fear of man will represent itself in the outward actions that flow from the heart.
- Lack of peace
- Unclear of shifting self-image
- Impulsive behavior
- Emotional mood swings
- Ingenuine behavior
- Lack of self esteem
VI. Examining the Heart
- Heart themes
- Incorrect view of the sovereignty of God
- Incorrect view of self
- Fear of others
- Lack of understanding of Scripture
- Lack of love for others
- Idols of the heart
- Others’ opinions
VII. Biblical Solutions
Fear of man is the most common struggle that we all face. We ache to feel connected to others and to feel a sense of belonging. In order to feel that way we do everything we can to please those around us, even at the cost of ourselves and God. In order to face this inner battle of worship we must turn to God’s Word. Scripture will remain as the only way to be truly renewed and changed by the Holy Spirit. Therapies and medications can be helpful and can erase some of the physical symptoms of fear of man, but it will never get to the heart of a person, only Jesus Christ is capable. There is a reason and a purpose for the struggle of the fear of man. As Edward Welch states the truth that, “Jesus did not die to increase our self-esteem. Rather, Jesus died to bring glory to the Father by redeeming people from the curse of sin.” In order to be changed and renewed from our desire to please man instead of our Creator, we must turn to Christ and Scripture.
- Bloom, Jon. “Lay Aside the Fear of Man.” Desiring God, September 16, 2016. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/lay-aside-the-fear-of-man
- Mack, Wayne A., et al. Courage: Fighting Fear with Fear. P&R Publishing, 2014.
- Welch, Edward T. When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. P & R Pub., 1997.
Adams, Jay E. What Do You Do When Fear Overcomes You? Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub., 1975.
Fitzpatrick, Elyse. Overcoming Fear, Worry and Anxiety: Becoming a Woman of Faith & Confidence. Vereeniging: Christian Art, 2002.
Fitzpatrick, Elyse. Idols of the Heart: Learning to Long for God Alone. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2016.
MacArthur, John F. David C Cook, 2012.
Mack, Wayne A., and Joshua Mack. The Fear Factor: What Satan Doesn’t Want You to Know. Tulsa, OK: Hensley Publishing, 2002.
Mack, Wayne A., Joshua Mack, and Jerry Bridges. Courage: Fighting Fear with Fear. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014.
Mellinger, Jared. A Bright Tomorrow: How to Face the Future without Fear. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018.
Smith, William Paul. Living in a Dangerous World: Moving from Fear to Faith. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011.
Welch, Edward T. When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 1997.
Welch, Edward T. Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2007.
Welch, Edward T. When I Am Afraid: A Step-by-step Guide Away from Fear and Anxiety. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2010.
- Bloom, Jon. “Lay Aside the Fear of Man.” Desiring God, September 16, 2016. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/lay-aside-the-fear-of-man
- Jones, Robert D. “Getting to the Heart of Your Worry.” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 17, no. 3 (1999): 21-24.
- Andrew H. Selle, “The Bridge over Troubled Waters: Overcoming Crippling Fear by Faith and Love,” Journal of Biblical Counseling.
Recommended homework resources
Edward Welch recommends completing various homework assignments that can accurately assess where one lies spiritually.
(taken from Edward Welch’s book, When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man.)
- In your own words, what is fear of man?
- If the fear of others is as prevalent in our lives as the Bible suggests, make a list of the ways it is expressed in your life.
- Answer these questions to uncover a fear of man,
- What thoughts or actions do you prefer to keep in the dark?
- Have you noticed times when you cover up with lies, justifications, blaming, avoiding, or changing the subject?
- Do you show favoritism?
- What are some word pictures that describe you?
- Try to interpret the descriptions of codependency and see the idols that lie behind them.
Another beneficial homework assignment to combat the fear of man with a godly fear would be as follows,
David’s psalms are not illustrations of the fear of man. His fear was within godly parameters. In his fear he consistently turned to his King. He is an illustration that ad experiences don’t have to provoke the sinful fear of people. But notice what David did. He was constantly reminding himself that he stood at the crossroads between faith in god and fear of people. He was always alert to his vulnerability to the fear of people. It is a slippery slope between normal fear and an idolatrous fear of man. To stay on track and to keep yourself accountable, meditate on the Psalms with faith and follow David’s example. Try to align your heart’s desire with Psalm 27
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me
to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
it is they who stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
yet I will be confident.
4 One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
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 inquire in his temple.
A simple but effective homework assignment is writing down these verses on notecards and placing them in areas that you see often, (ex. mirror, car, etc.)
- 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
- Galatians 1:10, “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.”
- Isaiah 51:12, “I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass”
Other useful resources for homework
- Adams, Jay E. The Christian Counselor’s Manual: The Practice of Nouthetic Counseling. Zondervan, 2010.
- Biblical Counseling Resource Center, The Lowcountry Biblical Counseling Center, http://lcbcc.org/contentpages/35059/5d57908f-ecb9-47f0-9173-b6f3a6196d7a/CounselorResourceCenter.aspx.
- org. “What Does the Bible Say about Codependency?” GotQuestions.org, 25 Aug. 2012, www.gotquestions.org/codependency.html.
- Mack, Wayne A. A Homework Manual for Biblical Living. Presbyterian and Reformed Pub, 1979.