What to Do About the Fear of Man by Matt Sutton

Several years ago my father began to have difficulty swallowing. He didn’t experience any pain, or at least he didn’t communicate it to me if he did, but he described his experience with swallowing as being similar to eating a peanut butter sandwich really fast with no glass of milk to wash it down. He said it felt like everything he ate was sticking in his throat and no amount of effort would make it go down. He wasn’t just imagining this, however. An examination by our family physician revealed that he had developed esophageal cancer. As a result, his esophagus was not able to stretch as it normally would, and therefore food had a more difficult time navigating to his stomach. Furthermore a cancerous growth began to protrude into the lining of his esophagus, which further restricted the flow of food and water. Consequently, he began to lose weight and he struggled with dehydration due to the difficulty he experienced in swallowing.

Ironically, when the doctors initially treated his illness, they did not focus directly on methods to improve his swallowing ability, even though experientially that was his primary ailment. Instead, they aggressively targeted the cancer itself with drugs and radiation. The experience wasn’t always pleasant. But, they knew if they eliminated the cancer they would eventually restore his ability to swallow as well. Now, they could have taken a different route and given him an IV, which would have supplied all of the nutrients and fluids his body needed. It also would have fed the cancer and done nothing to retard its growth. No, the issue that needed to be addressed was the cancer itself. Difficulty in swallowing was merely an uncomfortable, yet undoubtedly serious, symptom of a still more serious problem.

I think the fear of man for believers in many ways parallels my dad’s initial experience with esophageal cancer. The fear of man is merely an uncomfortable symptom of a more serious sin issue: the sin of pride. Like other sins, however, pride is a sin issue for which Christ died and purchased our ultimate redemption, and therefore as believers we have perfect hope. However, the method by which we address the fear of man will likely be vastly different than any method offered by psychologists and secular counselors. Our culture proposes that we bolster our self image; that we coddle our fearful hearts. But, the world wishes to only treat the uncomfortable symptom because it loves the disease and cherishes ‘self’ above all. Instead of pursing the vicious cycle of self esteem, let’s look at a Biblical alternative.

The Little Red Attitude Book

I’m not much of a golfer, but I understand there was once a golf coach in Texas named Harvey Pinnock who wrote a book on golf called “The Little Red Book” (I realize that there is another Pinnock who wrote some books on theology that re-invent God and make him god, but I am not referring to him. I am not even sure if that “Pinnock” plays golf). Apparently, there are some players of decent skill, like Ben Crenshaw for example, who absolutely swear by it. Personally, I’ve never read it, and probably never will, so I can’t comment on its capacity to cure a wicked banana slice. Nonetheless, when I think of the book of Philippians, the spirit of Pinnock’s book comes to mind. Perhaps we can dub the book of Philippians as “The Little Red Attitude Book.” Philippians is a short little letter that pins our attitudes down with a steely vise grip. If we simply submit to what is says, then we soon find it allows us no wiggle room whatsoever. Just listen to a few of these verses and perhaps you will agree with me that Philippians is indeed “The Little Red Attitude Book”:

1:27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…
2:5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…
2:14 Do everything without complaining or arguing.
2:18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
3:1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!
3:12-14 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, Rejoice!
4:8-9 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
4:11 …for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
4:12 …I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.
4:19 And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

The fear of man manifests itself in ways that are as unique as our individual personalities. There are, I suppose, broad categories into which we can organize some commonalities amongst our individual struggles. However, I hesitate to offer up any cookbook solutions. We are all commanded to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Of course, we trust that God stands behind the circumstances we find ourselves in and he gives us the motivation to live for him as we struggle against sin. Furthermore, we know that as believers He will bring us safely to the end, even though the path we travel might differ vastly from our anticipated course. And, we know we are commanded to come along side one another and encourage each other. But nonetheless, my struggle will look different than your struggle. Furthermore, the degree to which I struggle may differ in magnitude as compared to the degree to which you struggle. However, even though you and I differ—and perhaps we differ radically in our struggle—there is a particular verse in Philippians that I feel addresses the fear of man in my life better than any other verse of which I am aware. Let me share it with you.

Philippians 2:3 reads:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
Personally, I am not aware of a single manifestation of the fear of man in my life that is not directly addressed by this verse. The reason for this is clear. This verse squarely attacks the root issue of the fear of man: my pride and self-love. There are a couple of points I wish to make from my own experience regarding this verse.

First, sometimes doing nothing amounts to doing something. Let me explain. For me, the fear of man often manifests itself as a reluctance to do something I know I otherwise should do, especially if I am going to consider others above myself. For example, I may hesitate to take a risk, start a conversation, make a phone call, share a struggle, and be transparent all because I harbor vain conceit. I cherish myself and fear that taking such action may potentially result in rejection or ridicule or some other uncomfortable situation. In this case I consider myself of greater value than my neighbor. Therefore my unwillingness to act constitutes a decision based on vain conceit. I have in fact acted out of vain conceit by making a decision not to do anything.

Second, sometimes doing something amounts to doing nothing. There is a movie set being constructed a few miles from where I live. A whole town is being built. Actually, the building fronts for a whole town are being built. There is nothing actually behind the fronts, just some telephone poles for scaffolding. Likewise, my selfish ambition often manifests itself in a carefully constructed mask. I want to have just the right quip, look just the part, and be effortless in my personal interactions. Fueled by selfish ambition and the desire to be cherished and made much of by others, I carefully build up my movie set. I expend vast amounts of energy trying to impress others and hide perceived imperfections. In the end I gain nothing, and moreover, you certainly would be hard pressed to describe my effort as considering others better than myself. I end up acting like something that honestly amounts to nothing.

You may be asking, so what do I do? what’s the answer? Well, the answer is that we each have to evaluate our own lives and apply Scripture in context to our current situation. For me, keeping Philippians 4:3 in my mind and applying it to the decisions I make has helped me with my struggle against the fear of man. But, even though I can’t see the finish line, and moreover, I seemingly see more of my struggle with fear each day, my heart resonates with Paul’s injunction in Philippians 3:12-14. Let me leave you with this passage as you and I strive to follow Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:3

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:12-14

Matt Sutton

3 thoughts on “What to Do About the Fear of Man by Matt Sutton

  1. Thanks for sharing. I have struggled with the fear of man all of my life. It wasn’t until about 2 years ago when I started attending NCBF that I was actually able to read and understand what scripture had to say about my sin, read books on the subject, share with other believers about my sin, receive prayer and watch God do an amazing work in my heart. The more I have shared about my struggles(fearing rejection) the more other believers in the fellowship have been able to pray and encourage me. You did a great job describing something that I think all of us struggle with but cant always express. Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. Hey, Holly, I appreciate your kind words. Sounds like we’ll have to keep 1 Cor 10:13 around for a while longer. Its kinda thread bare like Rom 8:28, but still fits well. 🙂

  3. I found this article on target. I have discovered that my own “fear of man” was inspired by pride and lack of confidence in God, my Father. I was brutally raped as a young teenager by a man who I thought was a friend. I have blamed myself for being so stupid to get into the situation in the first place. I have not interacted with men properly ever since. Rather than pressing on as Paul said in Philipians 3.14, I chose to medicate in addictive behaviors, especially in gay contexts.

    What I have learned recently is that what triggers my sin, even now, is the “fear of man”. I have found great freedom since I learned this.

    This article has shown me how the fear of man I have gets its strength….pride.

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