Seven Letters Seven Dangers: Fear of Man
But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him
be your fear, and let him be your dread. – Isaiah 8:13
My dearest Theophilus:
We live in a soft age. Our idols are soft and so our fears too.
In the old days our idols were hard. Literally. Made of stone. Made of wood. Sculpted and carved. But today our idols are supple, mutating three or four times in a year. Made of new virtues and progressive posthuman ideologies, they demand our genuflection and honor.
The slow shift from hard to soft idols says nothing new, of course, about the source of idolatry. Its headwaters are still the sinful human heart. Which means the primitive embrace between idolatry and the oldest fear remains – the fear of man.
“Whom did you dread and fear, so that you lied, and did not remember me, did not lay it to heart?” (Isaiah 57:11). In this reproof of the church, the Lord exposes the motivation behind Israel’s alliance with the wicked and the corrupt worship it entailed. The fear of man had carried them headlong to ruin, driving them far from the safety they desired: “When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them all off, a breath will take them away” (57:13).
Soft idols speak to soft fears. Today fear of man is less about avoiding physical injury – being invaded – and more about avoiding social illegitimacy – being mocked. The soft gods offer a soft security: “We will validate you. We will confirm your legitimacy before the people of this age. Listen up pastor. Listen up Christian. Listen up local church. Embrace the new virtues, the new categories of sexual normativity, the new explanations for human conflict, the new man-centered theology and worship. Embrace it and you will be safe. Turn from it and off to exile you go.”
This threat of exile, of course, comes not from God but man. It is man’s wrath against God’s righteousness. Man’s wrath against God’s holiness. Man’s wrath against God’s appointed King. And as long as man’s wrath fills the frame by which we see our future, we will tremble before men. We will make alliances with the world. We will seek legitimacy from unregenerate men. And we will lose the safety and vindication of God.
“I just want them to like me!” is the heart cry of the coward. This ugly impulse is easily stirred in any one of us. Ugly because it puts self at the center, bowing before mortals on the throne. Christ the King is ousted. The word of Christ is silenced. The coming of Christ is forgotten. The humiliation of Christ dishonored. But not me. In my fear of men I am not ousted, not silenced, not forgotten, not dishonored. In my fear of men my legitimacy becomes the quest of my soul.
“A coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man dies but once.” This insight, first found in Shakespeare and later in Hemingway, is a fitting exposition of one of the most fearless conversations in the New Testament. A conversation we all need to hear, for it teaches us to keep company with men who did not fear mortals. Indeed, Christ makes such giants upon the earth.
In Acts 24 Paul is delivered to the custody of Felix at Caesarea. After some days, the governor initiates conversation with his prisoner. He comes accompanied by his wife, Drusilla. Historians report these two had formed an illicit union after Drusilla was enticed out of a previous marriage simply because Felix desired her.
When Felix and Drusilla come to speak with Paul (24:24), we are watching two elite cultural gatekeepers engage the Lord’s bondservant. Of what do they speak? Paul speaks “about faith in Christ Jesus.” More specifically, verse 25 says, Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment,….”
This is striking fearlessness! Imprisoned, standing before a power couple, elite influencers of culture, and Paul does not flinch. He unsheathes the sword which will not rust. He wields it to glorify the life work of the crucified One. He wields it to separate a man and woman from their sins. He wields it to illuminate the fixed Day on which all the world will be judged, the very subject which brought him so much derision at Athens (Acts 17:31-32). “O, how the fear of God has swallowed up the fear of man!” (John Flavel).
But Felix has remained a coward. Alarmed he slinks away to die another one of his thousand deaths, seeking bribes (v. 25) and playing favorites (v. 26). Paul, on the other hand, though still in prison, has glorified and enjoyed Christ the Lord. A life worth living. His vindication, though unseen, will not be taken away. Fear not.
John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.