Why do we fear others’ disapproval so much? We all experience this fear, and most of us don’t want to admit how serious its tyranny can be.
The Bible calls this the “fear of man,” and it can weave a web of ambiguity around issues that are biblically clear. The fear of man can immobilize us when we should take action, and gag us into silence when we should speak. It feels powerful, but its power is deceptive.
That’s why the Bible tells us, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe” (Proverbs 29:25). The Hebrew word here for “snare” refers to traps hunters used to catch animals or birds. Snares are dangerous. If we get caught, we must do whatever it takes to free ourselves.
God has the power to free us and he wants us living in the safe freedom of trusting him. But he frees us not by removing our fear of disapproval, but transferring it to the right place. And typically, he frees us by helping us face our false fears so that they lose their power over us.
God’s Design in the Fear of Disapproval
It’s important we understand why our desire for approval and fear of disapproval is so strong.
Due to our sin, weaknesses, and perhaps traumatic past experiences, we might assume these things are merely consequences of the fall. But at the core, they’re not. God actually designed us to be motivated by these emotionally powerful forces, for they uniquely reveal what we love.
Each of us instinctively knows, as creatures, that who we are and what we’re worth are not things we define for ourselves. We didn’t create ourselves. We didn’t choose our DNA, intellectual and physical powers, families, cultures, early education, time periods, or most other major influences. We are not autonomous but contingent creatures.
And each of us also instinctively knows our existence fits into a larger purpose or story and, despite postmodernism’s attempts to convince us otherwise, it is impossible for us to create our own ultimate meaning. Deep down, we know such self-created meaning is absurd.
So, we cannot help but derive our identity, value, and meaning from external sources. Moreover, we instinctively seek them from external personal sources; we know deep down they are bestowed on us by a Person.
The person(s) to whom we ascribe most authority — to define who we are, what we’re worth, what we should do, and how we should do it — is the person(s) we fear the most, because it is the person(s) whose approval we want most.
God designed us this way, for it reveals who and what our heart loves. This fear comes right from the place where our heart’s treasure is stored (Matthew 6:21). It is a fear of losing or not obtaining something we really desire, which is why it wields such power over us.
You Obey the One You Fear
When we feel this fear, it can stir up emotional fog and psychological complexity. But we cut through to the heart of things if we remember a simple biblical truth: we obey the one we fear.
The person(s) whose reward of approval we desire most — whose curse of disapproval we most fear to receive — is the person(s) we will obey, our functional god. That’s why the Bible so often commands us to “fear the Lord.” Here are two examples:
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12–13)
“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.” (Matthew 10:28)
Both Moses and Jesus command us to love God supremely (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37), and both of them command us to fear God supremely. They’re not mutually exclusive commands; they’re two sides of the same coin.
They’re commanding us to seek the massive eternal reward of God’s approval more than puny man’s fleeting approval, and to fear the terrible eternal curse of God’s disapproval more than puny man’s fleeting disapproval. They’re commanding us to direct our love and fear to the right God.
Lay Aside the Fear of Man
The fear of man is a snare because man is a false god, but the fear of the Lord is safe because he really is God (Proverbs 29:25). The fear of man is a closely clinging sin that entangles our legs in the race of faith and we must lay it aside (Hebrews 12:1). How?
- Confess your fear of man. As soon as you recognize fear of man, confess it as sin to God and repent. If possible, confess 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 really have 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 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).
Trusting God is safe; fearing man is not (Proverbs 29:25). God usually teaches us this through the hard lesson of obeying in spite of feeling afraid. For then we learn to trust God’s promises more than our perceptions and reach the place where “we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6).