Why Fear God, Not Men?
“TREMBLING at men is what lays a snare, but he that is trusting in Jehovah will be protected.” (Proverbs 29:25) With these words the ancient proverb alerts us to the kind of fear that is indeed a mental poison—the fear of man. It is likened to a snare. Why? Because a small animal, like a rabbit, is helpless when it is caught in a snare. It wants to run away, but the snare holds it relentlessly. The victim is, in effect, paralyzed.
If we are seized by the fear of man, we are a lot like that rabbit. We may know what we should do. We may even want to do it. But fear holds us in thrall. We are paralyzed and unable to act.
The Snare of Fearing Man
Think of some examples in Bible times of those who were captured by the snare of fear. In the days of Joshua, 12 men were sent to spy out the land of Canaan prior to the Israelites’ planned invasion. The spies came back and reported that the land was fertile and rich, just as God had said. But ten of the spies were overawed by the strength of the inhabitants. Thus, seized by fear of man, they gave an exaggerated report about this strength to the Israelites and caused the whole nation to be seized with fear. The Israelites refused to obey God’s command to march into Canaan and take possession of the land. As a result, during the next 40 years, the entire adult male population of that time, with a few exceptions, died in the wilderness.—Numbers 13:21–14:38.
Jonah was another victim of fear of man. When assigned to preach to the great city of Nineveh, he “proceeded to get up and run away to Tarshish from before Jehovah.” (Jonah 1:3) Why? The Ninevites had the reputation of being a ruthless and violent people, and Jonah certainly knew that. Fear of man caused him to run in a direction away from Nineveh. True, he eventually accepted his assignment but only after receiving unusual discipline from Jehovah.—Jonah 1:4, 17.
Even kings may fear men. On one occasion, King Saul directly disobeyed an express command from God. His excuse? “I have overstepped the order of Jehovah and your words, because I feared the people and so obeyed their voice.” (1 Samuel 15:24) Some centuries later, when Jerusalem was under attack by the Babylonians, Jeremiah, a faithful prophet, counseled King Zedekiah to surrender and thus save Jerusalem from much bloodshed. But Zedekiah refused. Why? He confessed to Jeremiah: “I am in fright of the Jews that have fallen away to the Chaldeans, for fear that they might give me into their hand and they might actually deal abusively with me.”—Jeremiah 38:19.
Finally, even an apostle could be afraid. On the day Jesus was to die, he warned his followers that they would all abandon him. Peter, however, boldly declared: “Lord, I am ready to go with you both into prison and into death.” (Luke 22:33; Matthew 26:31, 33) How wrong those words proved to be! Just a few hours later, Peter fearfully denied having been with Jesus or even knowing him. Fear of man overpowered him! Yes, fear of man is indeed a mental poison.
Whom Should We Fear?
How can we overcome fear of man? By replacing it with a much more wholesome fear. This type of fear was encouraged by the same apostle, Peter, when he said: “Be in fear of God.” (1 Peter 2:17) The angel seen by John in Revelation called out to mankind: “Fear God and give him glory.” (Revelation 14:7) The wise king Solomon also encouraged such fear, when he said: “The conclusion of the matter, everything having been heard, is: Fear the true God and keep his commandments. For this is the whole obligation of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) Yes, fear of God is an obligation.
Fear of God brings benefits. The ancient psalmist sang: “Surely [Jehovah’s] salvation is near to those fearing him.” (Psalm 85:9) A Bible proverb also stresses: “The very fear of Jehovah will add days.” (Proverbs 10:27) Yes, fear of Jehovah is a healthy, beneficial thing. ‘But surely,’ you may say, ‘Jehovah is a loving God. Why should we fear a God of love?’
Fear a God of Love?
Because fear of God is not the abject, paralyzing fear that grips people in some situations. It is the kind of fear that a child may feel for his father, even though he loves his father and knows that his father loves him.
Fear of God is really a profound reverence for the Creator that stems from the realization that he is the complete embodiment of righteousness, justice, wisdom, and love. It involves a healthy dread of displeasing God because he is the Supreme Judge with the power to reward and to punish. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” wrote the apostle Paul. (Hebrews 10:31) God’s love is not something to be taken for granted, nor is his judgment something to be downplayed. That is why the Bible reminds us: “The fear of Jehovah is the start of wisdom.”—Proverbs 9:10.
We should remember, however, that while Jehovah has the power to punish those not obeying him—and has often done so—he is by no means bloodthirsty or cruel. He is really a God of love, even though he, like a loving parent, sometimes gets righteously angry. (1 John 4:8) That is why fearing him is wholesome. It leads us to obey his laws, which are designed for our good. Obeying God’s laws brings happiness, while disobeying them always brings bad results. (Galatians 6:7, 8) The psalmist was inspired to declare: “Fear Jehovah, you holy ones of his, for there is no lack to those fearing him.”—Psalm 34:9.
Whom Do You Fear?
How does the fear of God help us to overcome fear of man? Well, humans may mock us or even persecute us for doing what is right, which puts pressure on us. But a respectful fear of God will put pressure on us to stick to a right course, since we do not want to displease him. Moreover, a love of God will urge us to do what brings pleasure to his heart. Additionally, we remember that God rewards us richly for doing what is right, which makes us love him all the more and makes us want to do his will. Hence, a balanced view of God helps us to overcome any fear we may have of men.
For example, many are pressured into doing what is wrong because of fear of what their peers think. Young people at school may smoke, use bad language, boast of sexual experience (real or imagined), and even experiment with alcohol or drugs. Why? Not always because they want to, but because they are afraid of what their peers would say if they acted differently. To a teenager, mockery and ridicule may be as hard to endure as physical persecution.
An adult may also feel pressure to do wrong. Perhaps the boss at work will tell an employee to inflate a bill to a client or to fill out a company tax form dishonestly so as to reduce the tax liability. The Christian may feel that if he does not obey, he will lose his job. Thus, fear of man may pressure him to do what is wrong.
In both cases, a healthy fear of God and respect for his commands would prevent the Christian from being paralyzed by fear of man. And a love of God would restrain him from engaging in acts that God has forbidden. (Proverbs 8:13) Moreover, his faith in God would assure him that if he acted according to his Bible-trained conscience, God would support him no matter what the outcome. The apostle Paul expressed his faith with these words: “For all things I have the strength by virtue of him who imparts power to me.”—Philippians 4:13.
The Bible provides numerous examples of men and women who were faithful to Jehovah under even the most severe tests. They “received their trial by mockings and scourgings, . . . by bonds and prisons. They were stoned, they were tried, they were sawn asunder, they died by slaughter with the sword.” (Hebrews 11:36, 37) But they did not allow fear of man to control their minds. Rather, they pursued the same wise course that Jesus later gave his disciples: “Do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather be in fear of him [God] that can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”—Matthew 10:28.
Following this counsel of Jesus to fear God rather than man also enabled early Christians to endure all manner of hardships, trials, and persecutions “for the sake of the good news.” (Philemon 13) The apostle Paul is a noteworthy example of this. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he shows how fear of God emboldened him to endure prison terms, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, various dangers on the roads, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, cold, and nakedness.—2 Corinthians 11:23-27.
Fear of God also strengthened those early Christians to stand up to severe persecution under the Roman Empire, when some were even thrown to wild beasts in the arena. In the Middle Ages, courageous believers were publicly burned to death because they would not compromise their faith. During the last world war, Christians preferred to suffer and die in concentration camps rather than do things that displeased God. What a powerful force godly fear is! Surely, if it strengthened Christians to overcome fear of man under such trying circumstances, it can strengthen us in whatever situation we may find ourselves.
Today, Satan the Devil is doing all he can to pressure us into displeasing God. True Christians should therefore have the same determination as that expressed by the apostle Paul when he wrote: “We are not the sort that shrink back to destruction, but the sort that have faith to the preserving alive of the soul.” (Hebrews 10:39) The fear of Jehovah is a real source of strength. With its help, may we “be of good courage and say: ‘Jehovah is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’”—Hebrews 13:6.
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Fear of God emboldened Paul to endure all things, including beatings, imprisonment, and even shipwreck.—2 Corinthians 11:23-27