Whom Do You Fear?

Jun 30, 2009 |Carolyn McCulley

Gotta fear somebody. Would that be man or God?

My 4-year-old niece loves to play dress-up. More specifically, she loves to stage her wedding. Any boy who comes to visit is likely to be corralled as her groom. Normally, this is not a cause for concern — that is, until one little boy bolted in terror and came running to seek the protection of his mother. My niece was right behind him, in all her finery and tulle. Ripping the veil off of her head, she attempted to reassure him.

"It's OK! Look, I'm cute. You can marry me!"

For her entire life, she's been told how cute she is, so I'm sure this was her trump card. Unfortunately, it didn't work.

I wonder how this experience was labeled and filed in her young mind. The stories and movies she's consumed tend to reinforce a worldview that beauty will overwhelm and captivate The Prince. Her parents have been diligent to introduce the ideas of character and inner beauty, but there is a lot of worldly reinforcement of superficial appeal.

As my niece discovered, the problem with appeal is that it's subjective. What appeals to me may not appeal to you. In the future, I wonder how many times she will metaphorically rip off that veil and reveal a heart full of expectations.

I hope, for her sake, that she doesn't get trapped in a cycle of craving approval and fearing rejection. It's a nasty spin cycle of confusion and hurt. Seeking approval from everyone in our orbit is akin to the nauseating dizziness a dancer experiences when she does not keep her eyes on one object as she twirls. Just as dancers are taught to spot, Christians are also taught by God's Word to spot. The Bible tells us that we are to keep our eyes on the Lord and seek His approval only.

Being conscious of God's approval or His displeasure is what the Bible calls "fear of the Lord." It means to be in awe of, or to respect, more than merely to be afraid. Conversely, what we now call peer pressure, people-pleasing, or co-dependency is what the Bible calls "fear of man." In a nutshell, the fear of man can either be a fear of what others think of us or will do to us, or a craving for approval and a fear of rejection.

Biblical counselor and author Ed Welch has labeled these "shame-fear" and "rejection-fear."

What is it that shame-fear and rejection-fear have in common? To use a biblical image, they both indicate that people are our favorite idol. We exalt them and their perceived power above God. We worship them as ones who have God-like exposing gazes (shame-fear) or God-like ability to "fill" us with esteem, love, admiration, acceptance, respect, and other psychological desires (rejection-fear).... Like all idols, people are created things, not the Creator (Rom. 1:25), and they do not deserve our worship. They are worshipped because we perceive that they have power to give us something. We think they can bless us.

Proverbs 29:25 succinctly states the consequences: "The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe."

The most serious consequence of fear of man is when we want to shove God in the closet because we're ashamed of Him of fearful of what others may say: "Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God" (John 12:42-43).

One verse that is often quoted to women is in the closing commendation of Proverbs 31: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised" (Pr. 31:30). As it most often gets quoted in the context of messages on beauty or modesty, I think most of us can mentally emphasize the first part of the verse and neglect to ponder the second part — "yeah, yeah, outer beauty fades, Christian women are supposed to have inner beauty, blah, blah, blah." But how often are we aware of the snare of the fear of man that trips us up in cultivating the fear of the Lord?

It's not accidental that Scripture pits the lure of physical beauty and all the praise it can elicit against the fear of the Lord. Physical attraction gets a lot of attention and praise — from other human beings. But that's not what our Creator praises us for. He will not praise us for the superficial, but for the eternal — our qualities and virtues that, by His grace, reflect our growth through His redemptive efforts.

To be praiseworthy women, I think we have to be able to clearly identify the manifestations of the fear of man. Here's what that snare can look like for women:

  • Do you change your normal behavior when you are around men you are attracted to?
  • Do you cancel plans because you feel you don't look very good that day?
  • Do you agonize over what to wear to an event?
  • Are you defensive when criticized, no matter how little or great the criticism?
  • Are you easily embarrassed? Do you find it hard to laugh at yourself?
  • Are you jealous of other people, their possessions, or their relationships?
  • Do you have trouble saying no to people when your resources (time, finances, health) are already maxed out?
  • Do you avoid some people?
  • Do you consistently second-guess your decisions?
  • Are you afraid of airing your true opinion about a decision?
  • Do you embellish certain stories or exaggerate the truth to make you look a little better than reality? Conversely, do you issue lots of little white lies?
  • Will you compromise standards of modesty or purity because you want to seem relevant or stylish?
  • Do you decline dates because you think others will not like or be impressed with the man who has asked you out?

These behaviors are guaranteed to make us dizzy and nauseated. We are looking into the eyes of everyone around us for approval, rather than steadfastly seeking the eyes of our Lord in the twists, turns, and spins of our lives.

But we don't have to be slaves to the opinions of other, fallen creatures. We can be set free by seeking the approval and praise of God. This is what defines a godly woman: "Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious" (1 Peter 3:3-4).

That gentle, quiet spirit is not limited to a certain personality type. It's not like the God who made an enormous variety of people suddenly wants us to act like clones of each other — every woman wearing flowered skirts, sipping tea, and never speaking up.

This passage echoes the wisdom of that Proverbs 29:25 verse: "The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe." Some translations say whomever trusts in the LORD will be protected or exalted. The literal translation is "raised high" — either to a protective place or to an exalted place.

The point is, a gentle and quiet spirit is one who trusts in the Lord. That trust can be expressed through a wide range of temperaments, from quiet to boisterous. Like a dancer, it is not so much how the moves are made but where we are looking that expresses true fear of the Lord. The benefit is that we are released from being slaves to the opinions of others so that we can love them without strings attached. As Ed Welch writes:

The most radical treatment for the fear of man is the fear of the Lord. God must be bigger to you than people are.... Regarding other people, our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God). The task God sets for us is to need them less and love them more.

A woman who loves for the glory of a very big God is truly worthy of praise.

Copyright 2006 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.

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