I once knew an otherwise normal person who had a fear of cotton. I have no idea what would make someone afraid of cotton, but she claimed she was. I didn’t believe her, so one day I surprised her by throwing a cotton ball on the table in front of her. She screamed, jumped up and panicked. I still don’t understand.
For many people the only thing more harmless than a cotton ball is their idea of God. God is soft and cuddly and certainly should never be feared. Yet, the Bible says a lot about the fear of the Lord. Here are a few verses that talk about it:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” –Proverbs 9:10
“Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” –Proverbs 31:30
“Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” –1 Peter 2:17
“An oracle is within my heart concerning the wicked: there is no fear of God before his eyes. For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate sin.” –Psalm 36:1-2
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” –Ecclesiastes 12:13
In all, there are about 150 referenced to fearing God in the Bible. No, we shouldn't be afraid of God as if He is some sort of monster, on the other hand the fear of God is lifted up in the Bible as a good thing of critical importance.
FEAR = HEAVY CONCERN
For our purposes here, let’s define “fear” as heavy concern. I am tempted to say "healthy concern" but the problem is that the fear of God is not the only kind of fear out there. Another kind of fear is the fear of man. So, when we talk about fear in this context, it doesn't have to include the idea of terror, although it might. Instead, when we fear God or fear man it means that we have heavy concern about them.
Heavy concern can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. Some things are appropriate to have heavy concern about. Some things aren't. It is strange for a person to fear a cotton ball, but it wouldn't be weird to fear a table-saw. In fact, there is a lot of danger in not fearing a table saw. If you don't have heavy concern about your relationship with a table-saw, your new nickname might end up being Lefty.
The reason I bring this up is because your choices will be determined by what you fear the most. If you have a higher concern for what other people think of you, your choices will be controlled by that. But if your healthy fear of God is greater than your fear of man, then you will choose God. Unfortunately, way too often our fear of man is huge, but our fear of God is small.
We care about the praise that comes from man more than the praise that comes from God. We are like the people described in John 12:42-43,“Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”
Fear of Man goes by different names. Sometimes we call it peer pressure, people-pleasing, or even co-dependency. Edward Welch describes the fear of man in his excellent book When People are Big and God is Small:
The fear of man is such a part of our human fabric that we should check for a pulse if someone denies it.
In the United States we are on the tail end of a revolution that included scores of books on codependency. For years every book that had the word "codependency" in the title was a guaranteed best seller. Melodie Beattie, for example, made millions with Codependent No More. She obviously hit on a topic that was important to many people, yet it was basically the fear or man in a secular garment. Melody Beattie talked about the problem in terms of being controlled by or dependent on other people, and her prescription was to love yourself more.
That approach sounded a little shallow to the evangelical world, so many Christians responded by saying that a better treatment for codependency is to know God loves you more than you think. God can fill you with His love, so you don't have to be filled by other people.
This certainly is better than the exhortation to love yourself more, but—and this might sound controversial—even this answer is incomplete. The love of God is a profound answer to just about any human struggle, but sometimes we can use it is such a way that it becomes a watered down version of a profoundly rich truth. For example, sometimes, because of shortcomings in us rather than Scripture, this answer misses the call to "consider others better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3), or it ignores personal repentance. Sometimes it allows us and our needs to be at the center of the world, and God becomes our psychic errand boy given the task of inflating our self-esteem.
We need to go further in searching the Scriptures so that we can truly understand the nearly universal experience of the fear of man… To really understand the roots of the fear of man, we must begin to ask the right questions. For example, instead of "How can I feel better about myself and not be controlled by what other people think?" a better question is "Why am I so concerned about my self" "Why am I so concerned about self-esteem?" "Why do I have to have someone—even Jesus—think that I am great?"
…We need a way to think less often about ourselves…
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. Instead of looking for ways to manipulate others, we will ask God what our duty is toward them. This perspective does not come naturally to any of us, and many of us need to look at this truth from several angles before we can see it. But the conviction of this book is that this truth is another of Scripture's divine paradoxes—the path of service is the road to freedom (17-19).
For all of us, our fear of man is too big and our fear of God is too small. We hold people in awe and wonder, but God not as much. We are more concerned about losing the pleasure of people than displeasing the God and King who made us.
We all need to learn to fear people less and to fear God more. To do that, we’re going to start with the first three steps listed in When People are Big and God is Small:
Step 1: Recognize that the fear of man is a major theme both in the Bible and in your own life.
Step 2: Identify where your fear of man has been intensified by people in your past.
Step 3: Identify where your fear of man has been intensified by the assumptions of the world.