From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 1 – What it means to be a disciple and how Christian character is formed
We all have a strong desire to be liked and approved of by others. Therefore we are prone to neglecting our duties as disciples, or even denying Jesus, in order to avoid being disapproved of or criticised by other people. That craving to be approved of, or at least not to be disapproved of, keeps many of us trapped and paralysed with fear. The Bible calls this “the fear of man” and says that it becomes a ‘snare’.
Fear of man will prove to be a snare,Proverbs 29:25 (NIV)
but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.
If you can’t conquer this fear of other people you will never get very far as a disciple of Jesus. You will always be the prisoner of other people’s opinions. You will stay silent when you ought to speak, and also moderate the little that you do say, so as to avoid antagonizing the world around you. But if you do that, you are effectively following those people and are their disciple, rather than Jesus’.
The answer is to meet your fear head on and to refuse to submit to it. When you do that you will find that your fear of other people will diminish, or even disappear. At any rate, whether we find it easy or hard, the fact is God commands us not to fear other people:
7 “Hear me, you who know what is right,Isaiah 51:7-8 (NIV)
you people who have taken my instruction to heart:
Do not fear the reproach of mere mortals
or be terrified by their insults.
8 For the moth will eat them up like a garment;
the worm will devour them like wool.
But my righteousness will last forever,
my salvation through all generations.”
We must also take active steps to rid ourselves of any sense of shame or embarrassment at being openly identified as being a disciple of Jesus. Many Christians feel reasonably relaxed about speaking about ‘church’ or even ‘God’. However, there is something about the specific name of ‘Jesus’ and also about speaking of the cross or the gospel, that makes even real Christians feel awkward and embarrassed. So they avoid the use of the Name ‘Jesus‘ and also avoid or tone down any reference to the gospel. We need to resolve to overcome that sense of shame, as apostle Paul did, and be open about the whole gospel:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.Romans 1:16 (NKJV)
I once had a one to one meeting with the senior leader of a particular church. I asked him why he consistently avoids controversial or unpopular themes when he preaches. He admitted that he fears the reaction of the people in the congregation and that he is also afraid of people generally. I was impressed by his honesty in being willing to admit those things to me. Few other leaders would do so, even though many are just as fearful as him.
He impressed me even more when he then asked: “How can I get rid of that fear of people?” My reply was that the best way would be to replace his fear of people with an even stronger fear of God. That is we need to develop such a strong fear of the LORD that it negates, or drives out, any fear of people that we might still suffer from.
He then asked “But how can I develop the fear of the LORD?” My reply was that he could develop it by making a series of small decisions, day by day, to do what God wants, rather than what people want. Therefore, in his preaching. I said he should resolve to say exactly what God’s Word says and not to avoid any part of it, even if it is controversial or contradicts current orthodoxy or political correctness.
I said that each time he does that, even if only in small ways, or in front of small groups, his fear of man will get slightly smaller and his fear of God will get slightly bigger. The increments might only be small, but they add up and make a profound difference over a period of time. By doing this, even the most timid person can eventually learn to behave in a remarkably bold way, which he might never have thought possible.
Imagine you were afraid of the school bully but were even more afraid of the Headmaster. What if they were both nearby and were telling you to do the opposite things? Your fear of the Headmaster would outweigh your fear of the school bully and therefore set you free from it. It is a little bit like that with the fear of the LORD. As it grows, it sets us free from all other competing fears.
I also said, to this particular leader that I was meeting with, that we can develop the fear of the LORD by seeking to develop a fear for His written Word. Far too many of us are casual about God’s Word and handle it as if it was the word of a mere man, i.e. as if we were reading a passage from Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. That is true of many preachers too. They have little or no fear of God’s Word, because they don’t fear God Himself. However, the same is true in reverse as well. That is they do not fear God, because they do not fear His Word.
We are meant to fear God’s Word. It is meant to be awesome to us, because of whoseWord it is and also because of its power. However, there is another reason why we should fear God’s Word, which few of us ever realise. That is that when we are judged at the Judgment Seat of Christ, one of the criteria by which we will be judged is the extent to which we have taken note of, and obeyed, God’s written Word. (See Book Four for a fuller discussion of this theme).
The point is that whenever we read God’s Word, and even more so whenever we teach or preach from it, we will be held accountable, and one day judged, for how we handled it. Jesus will hold us accountable for whether we believed it and also whether we took it seriously or treated it lightly. If we are in any position of leadership, such that we teach or preach, then Jesus will judge whether we compromised and edited His Word, so as to avoid making ourselves unpopular or arousing antagonism, or whether we presented it fully and accurately.
Countless preachers do alter the meaning of God’s Word, or they leave out parts of it, so as to avoid controversy. The same is true also of those who are not preachers. All of us face the same temptation to compromise God’s message in order to preserve our own image and reputation. But we have no right to do so and we will have to face the rebuke of Jesus Christ Himself if we do.
We should much prefer to be rebuked now by the world rather than be rebuked later by Jesus. That’s because we should fear Him far more than we fear them. And we should fear His Word far more than we fear their words. The prophet Isaiah says that God is looking for people who actually tremble at His Word, i.e. because they take it so seriously and are so concerned to abide by it:
All these things my hand has made,Isaiah 66:2 (RSV)
and so all these things are mine,
says the LORD.
But this is the man to whom I will look,
he that is humble and contrite in spirit,
and trembles at my word.