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Why is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? Because the end of folly is the love of the praise of men. Or to say the same thing in a different way: there is no sin so prevalent, so insidious, and so deep as the sin of fearing people more than we fear God.

Think of Saul, that tall Benjaminite who became the first king of Israel. His downfall was the result of misplaced fear. As he explained to Samuel after the whole business with the bleating sheep, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam. 15:24). Here’s this powerful, impressive looking king worried about what people think of him. And it’s not his enemies the Amalekites he’s worried about. Except for Agag, they were all dead. Saul wasn’t afraid of his enemies; he was scared of his friends—afraid that they would desert him, afraid they would revolt, afraid he would he be an unpopular King.  Saul was a head taller with more authority than anyone in the kingdom and yet he disobeyed a clear command from God because he feared people. He was the Lord’s cautionary tale for Proverbs 29:25 (“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe”) and a preview of Christ’s indictment in John 12:42-43 (“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”). Saul is but one of many sad examples of those who counted it more precious to be acceptable and palatable and influential in the eyes of their peers, than to be honored and affirmed and found faithful in the sight of God.

It’s easy to see how foolish Saul was, but each one of us struggles with the same fear of man and love of the praise of man.

  • Do you struggle with peer pressure?  Do you give in to things against your will just to go along with the crowd?  That’s the fear of man.  And it doesn’t get any easier when you get older.  Adults just find more creative ways to mask it and more socially acceptable ways to channel it.  We don’t set things on fire as much.  But we still feel peer pressure when gossip starts, or a raunchy movie is on, or bad mouthing someone begins.
  • Are you over-committed?  Is it impossible for you to say no? Could be a sign that you love to be loved by others.
  • Are you a people-pleaser?  I hate to say this all of the very nice people out there, but if everyone likes you all the time, then it might be that you aren’t really the most kindhearted person in the world, but you simply know what people expect and how to please them. Unrelenting niceness can be man-centered.
  • Are your relationships more about being loved and seeming lovely than actually loving others?  Many times our fear of offending and fear of confronting are less about our great love for the person and more about our desire to feel loved.
  • Do you have low self-esteem?  It may seem counter intuitive, but self-esteem issues are usually rooted in pride. You reverence the opinions of others.  You use them to build up your identity and sense of well-being.
  • Are you easily crushed by criticism?  No one likes to be criticized, but be careful that you aren’t putting your identity in other people’s opinions and so that’s why criticism devastates you. People pleasing is why many of us “can’t forgive ourselves.”
  • Do you feel trapped by people’s praise, because you can never live up to their expectations?  I know in my own life I am much more likely to be swayed by the people who think I’m great than by the people who think I’m a jerk.  Being criticized is a burden, but the weight of people’s praise can feel even heavier.
  • Are you always second-guessing yourself, worrying what people think about your decisions? You may be naturally timid. Or you may be loathe to disappoint others or be thought foolish.
  • Do you get embarrassed often?  We all do silly things and it’s healthy to laugh at ourselves, but if you are constantly embarrassed by little things you do or your family does, then it may be that you are ruled by other people’s opinions.
  • Do you tell little white lies to make yourself look better?  It’s all to easy to save face or gain credibility by telling l little lies about how much you pray, what you weigh, when you wake up, where you’ve been, or what you’ve read.
  • Do you avoid people for fear of their rejection? There is something not right in your heart if you are constantly suspicious that others don’t like you and must be thinking ill of you.
  • Are you obsessed with your body?  Paul says physical training is of some value.  It’s good to want to take care of our bodies.  But the fear of man turns a healthy self-care into an obsession with our shape, color, and size.
  • And if all these questions have missed the mark, then consider: When you compare yourself with other people, does that make you feel good?  Perhaps the most dangerous form of the fear of man is the successful fear of man.  Some people are quite confident, but only because everyone has almost always been keen on them. We don’t feel like a life built on the praise of man—until it’s gone.

At this point you are thinking “Great.  Thanks Kevin.  That was really discouraging.  I’ve always felt bad about myself and now I feel even worse.  I had no idea so much of my personality and idiosyncracies were mixed up in sin.”  But cheer up, if our problem is sin and not personality, at least we know we can be forgiven and God wants to help us change.

And how do we change? Well, the biblical remedy is not easy, but it is simple.

First, we must fear God. This is the famous conclusion at the end of Ecclesiastes. After going through all the world’s options and declaring them vanity, a chasing after the wind (all of them, sex, money, power, pleasure, work), the Teacher gives his final verdict: fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13).  It’s that simple. And that challenging. Care more about what God thinks than about what people think.

Second, we must pay more attention to God and less attention to people. The Pharisees in Matthew 22 were trying to trick Jesus, but they still managed to say something true: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” (Matt. 22:16). Jesus was a man of integrity. He was honest, forthright, and not blown over by public opinion. But how did he do it? Did he rely on super powers? Did he call down angels? Did he resort to miracles? How did Jesus maintain his integrity? Well, in part, it was simply what the Pharisees recognized about him—he didn’t care about anyone’s opinion.” Obviously, Jesus was never rude or thoughtless. He had compassion on people and listened to children and the brokenhearted. But when it came to living a life in obedience to God, he knew better than to rely on the opinions of men.

We will never overcome our fear of man until we see-as Ed Welch would say-that people are small and God is big. Human beings are a paradox.  We should be honored and respected as image-bearers and the crown of God’s good creation.  And yet, we’re worms too.  Instead of the slogan “I’m ok, you’re ok” we’d be better saying, “I’m dust, you’re dust.”

This is a faith issue which takes a lot of fight. We will not fear God more than people unless we know the truth about God and people. Do you believe that pleasing God is more important and more satisfying than pleasing people?  Do you believe that God is the only one to whom you will give account at the end of the age?  Do you  believe that God has forgiven all your sins at the cost of his Son’s blood, that Jesus needs none of your self-abuse to make him suffer enough and none of your feelings of perpetual misery to make him loving enough?  Do you believe that fearing God, keeping his commandments, and living to hear him say “well done, good and faithful servant” is the most freeing life you can live? Do you believe that God is God and no one else is? Do you believe that is God ain’t happy, it don’t matter who likes you, your political positions, or your Ph.D.? And that if God is pleased with you, there ain’t a hell on earth or a hell to come that can take his smile away from you? Will you and I, with all our worry and pride and self-righteousness, have faith enough to exchange our fear for fear?

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19 thoughts on “Exchanging Fear for Fear”

  1. Brent says:

    Kevin, Thanks for another good post. (I think the second sentence was meant to read “the BEGINNING of folly is the love of the praise of men.”)

  2. Randy in Tulsa says:

    This post makes me think that we humans have a certain capacity to fear, and we need to learn to fear well.

    A question that I have is how the fear of God relates to the first and greatest commandment to love God with all our being? The writer of Ecclesiastes, as you noted, said the whole duty of man was to fear God AND obey his commandments. But Jesus reminded us in his quotation from the Old Testament that obedience to God’s moral law is rooted in and summed up and filled by love. Perhaps justifying faith which results in repentance (including Godly sorrow) is rightly rooted in the fear of God while our subsequent (life of) obedience is rightly motivated by a holy love (from God’s Holy Spirit) for God and neighbor.

    My question is whether, after coming to true, saving faith any continuing fear of God concerning ourselves should be limited to the wrath of God in this life, and not of any wrath of God in the life to come? (The Westminster Larger Catechism distinguishes between these two types of the wrath of God.) Stated another way, when a believer sins, is the Godly sorrow that leads to repentance of particular sins a result of fear or love? And, if fear is even part of the motivation for continuing repentance, is it limited to fear of the wrath of God in this life (the kind of temporal wrath that David experienced in the passage I read this morning, after he conducted the census)?

  3. Alex says:

    Thanks Pastor for this reminder and encouragement. It also reminded me I should perhaps read this book again: The Joy of Fearing God by Jerry Bridges

  4. Thanks Kevin! Just what I needed to read this morning.

  5. Matt Proctor says:

    Helpful post as I gear up to preach for Father’s Day from Psalms 127-128: “A God-fearing man is a fearless man.”

    If I don’t fear (think stand in awe, full of worship and trust of) God, the city gates are mine to watch alone. If I don’t fear God, the building stands or falls according to my skill set. If I don’t fear God, my wife, children, and home are subject to my protection and provision alone.

    In other words if I don’t fear God, all the fears of the world are mine alone to contend with. No wonder counselors and therapists are getting rich. I’m just scared thinking people actually live their lives fearing something else other than God.

  6. Jordan says:

    Thanks Kevin. Very enlightening and convicting. Thankful that for all my failures Jesus gives grace unmeasured.

  7. Nathan Ruark says:

    I technically agree with the ideological basis for this post, but that is about all I can agree with. As both an extensive mental health patient and professional in training, I would assert that you are over-simplifying and over-spiritualizing the issue.

    Granted, your example of Saul’s disobedience may carry some weight, but as far as my knowledge goes, it has been years since anyone has been a prophet of God, delivering individual messages to people for them to be followed to the letter.

    You stance here is tantamount to giving someone a car and telling them to use and take care of it with only the barest of instructions on driving and maintenance. The human experience is vastly more complex than the simple dichotomy you have presented here.

    I would ask you, why do we fear man? What is the driving force behind it? What is it that we don’t have or are not given that propels us to look for the approval of others?

    The “fear of God” may be part of it, but there is so much more. There are real fears and needs that people have when it comes to interacting with other people.

    People need to be loved and accepted by other people. People can be cruel and heartless. There are those of us who have been rejected and trodden upon our entire lives. Yes, our fear of men maybe more than our fear of God, but it is what has allowed us to survive, feeling some measure of human love and connection, no matter how unhealthy it might be.

    May I point out that there may be other explanations for the “symptoms” you have described besides just a greater fear of man than a fear of God. The easiest one is the American custom to lie when asked how our life in general is or even a particular experience at any given time, on any given day. How many times have we been asked, “How are you?”, or “How was your day?”, and our typical answer is “Good” or “Fine”, no matter whether we have actually are or have had a good/fine day. It isn’t that we are intentionally trying to deceive one another or fear what they may think if we were honest about our life/experience. It is just the way it is, expressing some kind of concern or courtesy, without necessarily expecting or wanting an interaction of any serious depth.

  8. EBG says:

    So well written. So helpful. Thank you, Kevin.

  9. Rose says:

    This is kind of incidental to the message here, but I’ve never really understood how it is that men are worms. I think it would be hard to just accept the testimony of Bildad the Shuhite, as he doesn’t speak rightly of God, so why should we think he is faithful when speaking of man. The verse in Ps. 22 contrasts worms and men, rather than making men worms. A particular man is described as a worm, but more in an attempt to describe how he is viewed and treated, rather than what he really is. Is saying men are worms just another way of saying they were made from dust, the point being that they are creatures rather than the Creator? I have never quite understood this way of talking, and would enjoy having it explained.

  10. Cam says:

    Wow, while the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, God is NOT angry at us! It means reverance, awe, respect. We need a revelation of God’s UNCONDITIONAL LOVE! Debasing ourselves is not only false humility, but also hurts our Father who loves us SO MUCH! Let’s stop beating ourselves up and run to and be with our Lord! He died for us so that we can be in an intimate relationship with Him, not sit around beating ourselves up trying to ‘save ourselves’. Jesus says that if we love Him, we will obey His commands. Not obey my commands or I’ll condemn you with guilt and shame. We need to have a revelation of His love, and get into that secret place with our Father who loves us infinetly! When we are in relationship with Him, and believe all of His great and precious promises in His Word, no one will be able to hold us back from getting out there and doing our resonable service. Trying, through gritted teeth, to serve the Lord is NOT the gospel! Walking in a restored, intimate connection with our Father is the whole point of salvation. If our fear of man is hindering us, then that is proof right there that we do not know Him well enough, becasue if we did, we would not be afraid.

  11. James S says:

    Strangely it seems as though many commenters here think that the opposite of fear is love. Their limited vocabulary has them failing to understand the context of ‘the fear of God’.
    Fear in this context means the ‘concern for’ or the ‘reverence for’ or ‘the dedication to’ and ‘trust of’, and most importantly, ‘the love of’. It doesn’t mean the ‘irrational fright’ that many seem to think.

    When Jesus tells us that we should not fear the one who can only kill the body and nothing more, but instead we should fear the one who can kill the body and then judge and carry out further actions on our soul as well, how exactly are people understandng that? One needs to have the proper understanding of the word ‘fear’ or much of the bible will only confuse them.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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