When my wife was elementary school age, her brother was assigned to take her to the movie theater to see cute little orphan Annie singing about the sun coming out tomorrow. Instead, her brother took her to see Poltergeist … Because taking your little sister to see a movie about demonic attacks on children is a fantastic idea. To this day, my wife is deathly afraid of horror movies. She also goes full out Jean-Claude Van Damme on any spider that dares infiltrate the house, but that’s another phobia altogether.
When I was a kid, my fear was the monster that I was convinced was hiding in the closet. Every night when I went to my bedroom, I’d burrow down under the covers and hide … Because certainly a thin layer of sheets would shield me from a slobbering, buck-ugly, child-kidnapping beast. Today, I no longer crouch in fear of imaginary creatures … Instead, I’m pant-wettingly afraid of climbing extension ladders.
Before you start chortling too hard at my fear of ladders, may I point out that you’ve certainly got your own fears too? Just watching the evening news is enough to induce any number of phobias, ranging from train derailments to suicidal airline pilots to ebola. In 2014, Chapman University conducted a large-scale study on personal fears, determining that the top five personal fears that Americans have are: (1) Walking alone at night; (2) Identity theft; (3) Internet security; (4) Mass shootings; and (5) Public speaking. The same survey determined that 8.9% of Americans are scared of zombies … 7.6% are scared of clowns … 7.3% are scared of ghosts. And many of our fears today are driven by – you guessed – television shows. Thanks The Walking Dead.
But there’s one fear that every single person throughout history has shared in common: The fear of people.
When we speak of the term “fear,” we typically think about nightmarish creatures and blinding anxieties that make us shudder and break out in a cold sweat … Like something out of Poltergeist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre … Like zombies, clowns, ghosts and cannibals (oh my!). The fear of people is far more subtle and insidious. Simply put, the fear of people really means worshiping people instead of God. If we allow people to control us … If we functionally “need” other people … If we constantly compare ourselves to others … If we crave the respect of other people, we are actually worshiping them. In professional circles, this fear is rationalized as “self esteem” or “co-dependency.” In High School, our guidance counselors label this fear as “peer pressure,” and we unwittingly believe that we grow out of that pressure when someone hands us a diploma. Instead, that fear in adulthood simply takes other guileful faces that are often socially acceptable: Demanding respect … Professional jealousy … Habitual anger … White lies to protect our image … Hiding in our homes while cuddling up with a Snuggie, Papa Johns and Netflix while hoping the whole world fades away. The narcissism of social media only exacerbates our fear of people as we’re constantly checking our smart phones for the number of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “re-tweets” on our accounts. The fear of people is the monster with a million heads. Before you know it, you’re throwing a metal folding chair after hearing the results of a paternity test on the Maury show.
The most common fear observed in the Bible is the fear of people. Although God exhorts His people to fear the One who spoke the world into existence and parted the Red Sea, His people always seem to cower like a cornered rabbit before mere lowly people. In fact, the most of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets gave in to the fear of people in one form or another:
- After the cold-blooded murder of his brother, Cain was more afraid of the judgment of people than God (Genesis 4).
- When Abraham sojourned in another country, he passed off his wife as his sister for fear that people would kill him to take his wife (Genesis 12:10-20). Abraham did this twice and somehow remained un-divorced afterwards (Genesis 20).
- Lot was afraid of his nightmarish sodomy-obsessed neighbors and offered up his own daughters to be raped, molested and deflowered (Genesis 19).
- Isaac repeated the fearful mistake of his father, Abraham, by passing off his wife as his sister (Genesis 26).
- Jacob twice tricked his brother Esau and fled in fear of Esau’s death threats (Genesis 27). Then Jacob flees his uncle Laban’s household for fear of Laban taking Jacob’s wives back (Genesis 31:31). When Jacob returned to his homeland years later, he was still in deathly fear of his brother (Genesis 32:11).
And that’s just the book of Genesis, folks. Most of the patriarchs and prophets – particularly Moses and Elijah – had moments where the fear of people brought them crumbling to their knees. The conflict of whether to fear God or men might be the most common conflict of the Bible.
Just like the patriarchs and prophets, the church and its leadership is no stranger to falsely (and often unwittingly)fearing people instead of God. In terms of pastoral ministry (or any church member’s personal ministry), the fear of people can be a crippling issue that takes a variety of forms in the church:
- When no one is willing to dethrone the reigning dictatorial church bully …
- When exceptionally talented or extremely generous church members remain un-confronted over spectacular sins (“What would we do without them?”) …
- When churches won’t kill sacred cows of church programs …
- When “not making waves” is loved more than Biblical convictions …
- When “it’s always been done that way” is the church’s central core value …
As a pastor, I’m guilty of committing all of these sins in one form or another … And likely much more. One common pastoral joke hits the “fear of people” nail on the head: “My church would be a great place to work if it weren’t for all the people.”
In my Seminary’s Pastoral Ministry class, I was assigned to read Ed Welch’s book on the “fear of people” entitled When People Are Big And God is Small. Frankly, I skimmed through the book, thinking “I’m not afraid of people … This book is going to be fairly worthless to me.” After all, I’d come out of working in the local government, which essentially consisted of listening to folks complain 24 / 7. Nope … no fear of people here.
I wished I’d paid more attention.
Case in point: During the course of my ministry, I’ve come to hate Mothers’ Day. Not that I hate mamas … I hate all of the complaining. Around Mothers’ Day every year, the blogosphere and church pews turn into a virtual complaint-fest about who is being insensitive to whom. The childless and the single complain that Mothers’ Day is disrespectful to them, and churches should be more compassionate. Those whose mothers are deceased wax sentimental about the difficult feelings of the day. The “restless and Reformed” crowd complain that Mothers’ Day isn’t Christ-centered and shouldn’t be celebrated at all. So how does a pastor respond to all of these competing voices? Last year, I tried to be sensitive to the childless and the single in my church, and didn’t make much ado about Mothers’ Day … Which led to a truckload of extremely nasty complaints from most of the moms and grandmoms. Even more painful, several families actually left the church as a result. So I dreaded what to do for Mothers Day this year. Certainly my decision was going to torque off somebody.
After prayer and deliberation, I came to the following simple and satisfying conclusion about Mothers Day: Who cares what people think?!? Be more concerned about honoring God than people. As long as I honor God and stay faithful to His calling, the complaints don’t matter. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to say that churches should be intentionally insensitive to the plight of the motherless and the childless … I’m saying that honoring God is more important than what people think … Or how much people complain … Or whether someone gossips about the pastor … Or even whether someone else quits the church as a result. If I’m basing my decision-making on how much people complain, I’m shepherding Christ’s church totally wrong.
Unfortunately, the pastor’s problem with the “fear of people” doesn’t just end with the conviction of church leadership: Our churches have been Petri dishes breeding the “fear of people.” In pastoral circles, we know this phenomenon by another name: Consumerism. Many of our church cultures have grown into grotesque Frankensteins, where members are trained that they are the ones calling the shots. He who complains loudest typically gets their way. And if church members don’t “get their way,” they’ll hold the church hostage by withholding their offerings or their attendance. Or they’ll just jump ship to other church where leadership will cow-tow to their megalomania. Whether by passive aggressiveness or by just plain old aggressiveness, many churches are drowning slowly under the weight of the fear of people.
I recently found some encouragement on the subject of the fear of people while doing sermon prep in the book of Jeremiah. When God called the prophet Jeremiah to prophecy to the nation of Judah, Jeremiah’s initial response was: “Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). Jeremiah politely declined God’s request: “Deuces! I’m out!” But God’s response to Jeremiah is fascinating. You see, Jeremiah isn’t really concerned with his public speaking prowess or his age … He’s afraid of how people will react. So God sees Jeremiah’s heart and responds directly to his fear: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:8). After this moment, Jeremiah would go on to speak on God’s behalf to the nation of Judah for 40 years. The messages that God laid on Jeremiah to preach were bold, counter-cultural, condemning and devastating. No one listened or repented. Jeremiah was rejected by friends, neighbors and family (Jeremiah 12:6, 20:10, 26:8). False teachers laughed off his message (Jeremiah 28:1-17). He was held captive in prisons and cisterns (Jeremiah 37-38). Often, Jeremiah was incredibly depressed with only God to lean on. Every time Jeremiah doubted, God responded with the same comforting words from His initial calling: “I am with you to save you and deliver you” (Jeremiah 15:20).
Through Jeremiah’s life and ministry, God’s encouragement to pastoral ministry is thus: If God called us, He won’t abandon us. And nothing can separate us from the deliverance and hope that we find in Christ. No matter how hard the soil or how thorny the ground, God has called us to work His field for a purpose. We might face a situation similar to Jeremiah or (a more modern example) William Carey, where we have scant few real tangible evidences of “progress.” But as long as we are faithful to His calling, we can trust that He won’t abandon us where He sent us.
Ultimately, we must learn to fear God more than people. When Jesus sends out His disciples in Matthew 10:28, He speaks to them about the fear of people: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” As we are similarly sent out to serve in Christ’s kingdom, we might face the occasional mean and persnickety church member who seems to have perpetually woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Or the deacon who seems to think you’re total nincompoop, who can’t do anything right. Or the incessant complainers that make us want to cover our ears and sing “la-la-la-la-la-la.” Or the self-righteous critics who manipulatively dance like Salome to have our figurative heads on a platter. At the end of the day (literally), we don’t answer to any of them. We find ourselves accountable to the One who called us out of darkness and into His glorious light. No matter what people think, our Father in Heaven loves us and hold incomparably more power and majesty than any mustache twirling enemy.
So find hope friends: If our God is for us, who can be against us?
Yes, even deacons.
* This post leans heavily on Ed Welch’s awesome book When People Are Big And God Is Small. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.