If we thought half as deeply about how God thinks of us as we do about how others think of us, I believe we would see our fear of people similarly curtailed. And if we pondered Christ’s reactions to us twice as much as others, the large part of what struck fear in our hearts before would seem much smaller and less intimidating. As is so often the case, our union with Christ and the accompanying doctrines do all the heavy lifting. If only we would incline our people-fearing hearts to Christ so he could teach us to love them instead of fearing them.
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. – Galatians 1:10 (ESV)
It may be true that no discussion of common fears which compete with the fear of God is complete apart from a discussion of what is commonly called the fear of man. I use the term “people” rather than man not because I have any issue with the term “man” but because the term, “people” fits better with our vernacular.
What is the fear of people? Paul seems to put his finger right on the nose when he mentions three sets of opposing pursuits: seeking the approval of man versus God, pleasing man versus God, and serving man rather than Christ. These three seem intrinsically connected since seeking man’s approval is to attempt to please him, which in turn is equivalent to serving him. That is my interpretation. Paul only makes the connection between pleasing man and serving Christ explicit.
In this context, Paul is reminding the Galatians that the gospel he is preaching is not his but God’s and that the people who are preaching a different gospel only want to boast in the Galatians’ flesh (6:13). Paul, by contrast, is not trying to get the Galatians’ approval, nor to please them, nor to serve them rather than Christ. Instead, Paul desires God’s approval by pleasing God, which he does by serving Christ. In an ironic twist, Paul serves the Galatians in order to serve Christ. So he ends up doing the same thing, yet for very different reasons. This serves as an illustration of just how drastically different distinct motives for the same action can be.
But what would it look like if Paul had been trying to gain their approval by pleasing them and therefore serving them? This, I put out for consideration, is the sum and substance of the fear of people.
Loving More and Needing Less
For many of us, the question, “What if I am disapproved of by X?” strikes fear into our hearts relative to how strong a possibility it appears to be. So we strategize how we can please them. And in doing so, we seek to serve them.
I recently heard an answer to a question about the fear of people which I think is insightful. The person said part of the solution to the fear of people is to love them more and need them less. I believe there is something to this.