Fear is found all over the scriptures. Both the Old and New Testaments are packed with stories and examples of God’s people continually being forced to choose between two different kinds of fear: the fear of the Lord or the fear of man.
Two Types of Fear
Fear can be a beneficial emotion. It can keep you from danger and it can motivate you to positive action. Fear can also have negative consequences — especially when we fear the wrong things. When we fear others, our motivation is quite often centered on self. You may have heard this type of fear described as “people pleasing” or “fear of man.” This type of fear causes us to obsess over how others view and accept us. In contrast, when we actively fear the Lord, we worship and show Him reverence and trust, aligning our desires with His desires because we know that He already accepts us through the finished work of Christ.
The Bible is clear: When we fear people over God, we are in disobedience.
Choosing Your Battle
Several years ago, I listened to a message by Paul Washer that illustrates the right kind of fear. Anyone who is familiar with Paul Washer’s ministry knows that he isn’t afraid to speak the truth to anyone. He comes across as confident and bold, a true man of courage. In the message, he talked about the fear of man.
A man came up to him and said, “You must be the bravest man in the room! You said things that made people mad here tonight; that one guy looked like he was going to come over and beat you up. You’re not afraid of anybody!” Washer responded, “No, it could just be possible that I am the most frightened, insecure man in the room.”
Continuing the story, Washer said, “I want you to think about something. Let’s say there is a man that walks up to me that is three foot nothing, weighing almost nothing, he has no muscle on him at all, and he challenges me to a fight, and like a coward, I run in the corner weeping. But then let’s say that walking behind that man is another man who stands beside him who is seven feet tall, four hundred pounds of solid muscle, and he challenges me to a fight. Then I find out I have a choice, I can fight the little man, or I can fight the big man. Now, it doesn’t matter anymore how afraid I am of that little man. It doesn’t matter anymore that I’m a coward, that no longer is in the equation. I have to fight someone so the coward that I am, if I have to fight one of these two guys, I’m going to jump on the little guy! You’re the little guy. It’s just relative; it’s just choice. I’ve got to deal with you, or I have to deal with Him [God].”
Christians have a choice when it comes to fear. Will you fear people or will you ultimately fear God?
Proverbs 29:25 says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.”
We all, deep down in our soul, want to be safe. According to this proverb, real safety is found in fearing the Lord.
Self-Preservation: You’re in Good Company
The Bible unveils many examples of people who feared others at the expense of fearing God. Like cowards, we all at times find a corner in which to hide. I’m convinced that the desire to protect oneself, or even others, is at the core of why we become trapped by the snares of others’ approval, social acceptance, and, yes, even physical safety.
The Apostle Peter is probably the best New Testament example of someone who battled the fear of man. Just hours before the scene in Matthew 26:69-75, Peter boldly told Jesus, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matthew 26:35). Jesus responds to Peter in another account found in Mark’s gospel, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times” (Mark 14:30).
After the arrest of Jesus, we pick up the scene in Matthew 26:69-75:
“Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And then, when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again, he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” After a little while, the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.”
The fear inside Peter was so intense that two young girls (probably teenagers) caused him not only to deny Christ but to then swear a blasphemous oath (Matthew 5:34) before running for his life. Peter’s fear and desire for self-preservation caused him to deny his Lord, who he had just told, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there for Peter. After Jesus’ resurrection, He restores Peter (John 21), and God mightily uses Peter to build His Church. So was Peter perfect after that? No. He even had another significant struggle with misplaced fear and people-pleasing (Acts 10:14; Galatians 2:11-21). Even Peter needed the same grace he experienced and preached about! Though the sanctifying work of God (Philippians 1:6), Peter finished his race trusting in the Lord (Proverbs 29:25).
To Know God is to Trust God
When I urge you to trust God, I am assuming that you know His character, His attributes, and His promises. Increasingly, I find that few Christians have taken the time or made an effort to know these things. Many have seemingly lost the desire to both train and be trained. Because of that, snares await us. We must see this issue through a spiritual lens (Ephesians 6:10-20). To grow in our fear of the Lord, we have to read, study, and increase our knowledge and application of the Scriptures. Only God’s word can train us to defeat sin. Much is at stake.
In Colossians 2:8, the Apostle Paul warns us not only of the potential of being ensnared by other people but he also reminds us that there are spirits in the unseen realm that seeks to trap us, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to elemental spirits of the world and not according to Christ.” The fight to fear Lord is a spiritual war.
Fight to Defeat the Fear of Man
In his 2016 article, “Lay Aside the Fear of Man” author Jon Bloom gives us some helpful action steps to battle the fear of man:
• Confess your fear of man. As soon as you recognize the fear of man, confess it as sin to God and repent. If possible, admit it to faithful friends who will help you fight it.
• Question your fear of man. What exactly are you afraid of and why? Do you have a good reason to fear, especially in light of Matthew 10:28? Articulating your fear often exposes it as the pathetic thing it is.
• Courageously confront your fear of man. “We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Obedience calls for courage. Courage is not the absence of the emotion of fear but the resolve to obey [God]despite what we feel. Exercise your trust in God by stepping out in obedience. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Continue in the Fight
Like the Apostle Peter, we have an opportunity to persevere in the fight to obey and trust God rather than give in to our fear of man. We can learn to rest in the promises of God instead of in the acceptance of men. We can learn to act upon the promises of God rather than satisfying the demands of men. We can even learn to share the promises of God with others rather than cowering in fear (Matthew 28:19-20). And when we fail, remember that through confession (1 John 1:9) and the application of scriptural truth, we can faithfully say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me? (Hebrews 13:6).