Fear of man or fear of God?

7 August 2013

In last Sunday’s sermon from Mark 6.14-29, we saw a clear contrast between two basic motivations, which the Bible often calls the ‘fear of man’ and the ‘fear of God’. They are either/or; you can’t have both. Either the fear of man controls you, or the fear of God does.

Fear of man rears its head in different ways; peer pressure, co-dependency, being a ‘people-pleaser’, and so on. It gives a craving for affirmation or approval from a particular person or group of people (real, or imagined); ‘if they like me, then I’ll be safe’. Yet it can also lead to bullying and cruelty to other people; ‘if I can control people, then they can’t hurt me, and I’ll be safe’. The desire for a ‘safe refuge’ runs deep within the fear of man.

In contrast, the fear of God is about living ‘for the audience of one’; being controlled by wanting to live rightly before God and under God. Its attitude is, ‘if I am right with God, then I’ll be safe’. Interestingly, the Bible calls the fear of man a ‘snare’, while it calls the fear of God a ‘strong tower’. Pick your place of refuge.

King Herod (Herod Antipas, for the historians) is a tragic illustration of the fear of man. Although he is king, he backs himself into a corner (a ‘snare’) trying to please everyone – his wife, his dinner guests, and his stepdaughter. It leads him to do something he knew was wrong. Although he loved to build fortresses (such as the famous one at Masada), he ends up being a prisoner inside. Meanwhile John the baptist, the prisoner, is – in an ironic way – utterly free, since he is only concerned for doing and speaking what is right under God.

John is a prototype of the kind of follower Jesus calls for, one willing to ‘deny himself, take up his cross [i.e., die to yourself], and follow’ him. The one who ‘loses’ his life for Jesus will ‘find’ it; Jesus promises eternal life to those who trust and follow him, and his resurrection guarantees it. A person controlled by the fear of God will ultimately, as the Bible puts it – ‘never be put to shame’. John the baptist knew.

To read more about the fear of man and the fear of God, we highly recommend ‘When People are Big and God is Small‘, by Ed Welch.


This blog post was written by Dan Martin.