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. If we serve people to please them and please them to receive their approval, what does that do for us?

If we contrast serving people with serving Christ, we can remember that Paul said that those who seemed influential added nothing to him (Gal. 2:6). By contrast, if we serve people, those whom we deem influential will add something to us. I believe this is crucial. At the root of the fear of people is surely the belief that there are people who we believe have the power to either add to or take away from us.

We should observe that Paul frames this in terms of identity, of who he understands himself to be. Paul is saying that these influential people added nothing to him. His understanding of who he is and how he fits in the world is not dependent on those otherwise influential people. It is not to say that he does not care about them or love them, but it is to say that he does not depend on them. This is something that many of us could not say of 0urselves.

Is it not our dependence on people which lies under our fear of them? If we depend on something, we will feel threatened when it is in danger of being removed. And if we believe that other people add something to us that we need, we will be threatened to the extent that we believe their approval of us is vulnerable.

We seem to derive a sense of identity from other people's approval or disapproval of us. Our self-identity is predicated on how others define us. We infer from other's treatment of us who we are and where we fit in the world. Why do so many people struggle with fear of people? At bottom, many of them simply don’t know who they are.

Our Union with Christ

We should recognize how hard it is to go it alone like Paul did. How necessary is a strong sense of our union with Christ, and how much do we need to help build that unity in one another! We should not be cultivating an interdependence in the body so much as a willingly self-giving and Christ-serving independence. This, ironically, will result in us doing much more good to each other than if we relate to each other from fear working through selfishness rather than faith working through love (cf. Gal. 5:6).

How was Paul able to do it? Clearly, he did not do something that fills up much of our time: meditate on what others thought of him. Paul did not serve to establish his identity. Paul served from an established identity.

I use the term “meditate” advisedly. Many of us do not identify as people who meditate. But meditate we do. We meditate on how we relate to other people. We ponder how we can improve their thoughts of us. We think deeply about how they think of us. We fret about our latest interactions with them. And when we are with them, we constantly measure the good or bad of what we do according to how we believe they will react. This is not principled living but fretful living, and it is characteristic of our fear of people.

At this point, the bulk of the solution is obvious. I do not say all of the solution, but only the majority, and I am content with that. 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.

How to Live for God with Fear of People