January 2024 will be five years since my younger brother died. Jeff was two years younger than me and also mentally disabled. When we were growing up in the ‘70s, it was called mental retardation, but that’s not a helpful description anymore, nor does it seem kind. Jeff was disabled enough that he was never going to be able to live on his own. My parents insisted that Jeff live with them; they took parenting him very seriously, and he lived with them until his death in 2019. He was almost 49. Jeff couldn’t understand the question why? If you asked him about his motivations, he would just repeat the question back to you. Physically, he was fine while we were growing up. Later, sometime after I left the house, Jeff started having seizures. When he died in 2019, it was while he was recovering from a seizure.
My older brother was always the better brother to Jeff. I never told him at the time, but I marveled that he never seemed embarrassed by Jeff. As a preteen and teenager I was. Jeff didn’t have Down Syndrome; you couldn’t tell he was disabled by his appearance. But as soon as he spoke, it was obvious—at least it was to 13-year-old me. He wasn’t cool, and while I was never going to be cool, I also didn’t want to stand out in any way. Jeff occasionally stood out, and I thought that made me stand out. It’s embarrassing how sinful my thinking was. I’m embarrassed of my embarrassment then. I didn’t love my brother well. That love he got from our older brother, Bill.
Jeff was hardly the only reason for my embarrassment. I struggled with what I now know the Bible calls fear of man. I still see it in my life, but thankfully I’ve seen growth. For the longest time, I didn’t even know what was going on in my heart.
It was Edward Welch’s book, When People Are Big and God Is Small that first alerted me to this biblical theme. I’m sure others have had the same experience, but as I read it, incidents in my past started to make biblical sense.
Of course how I responded to my brother when I was a teenager came to mind. Also, others. For example, I attended a small seminary and was the president of the student body for a semester. One of my responsibilities was to organize the annual Christmas chapel. I did organize the program, but I recruited other students to actually do it. I didn’t want to be up front if it failed. I cared way too much what others thought of me.
The fear of man brings a snare, But he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted. Prov 29:25
Scripture describes this problem as a trap, and I was trapped. I had lived my life to that point in slavery to the opinions of others. No, that’s not accurate. To the slavery of what I thought might be their opinions. I didn’t even know whether they thought that or not. But the fact that they might think poorly of me was an outcome horrible enough to paralyze me. The most obvious symptom was I didn’t tell others about Christ. What might they think?
For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ. Gal 1:10
The Bible also tells me that pleasing God and living for the approval of men are opposites. And that contradiction is why Welch titled his book, When People Are Big and God Is Small. Either God or people are going to be big in your thinking. Whom will it be?
Welch’s book is far more helpful than this short blog could be. He is a fellow sufferer of the fear of man. His vulnerability gives the book authenticity. This one thought—either I fear people or I fear God—has been so helpful to me. It’s invaded my language of confession of sin. It changed how I parented my own kids. We talked about how the fear of man can control us, but we actually want to be controlled by God. Pleasing God must be more important than pleasing others.
But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 1 Cor 4:3–4
Scripture described my problem, and it gave me a way out. Growing in the fear of God chases out every other fear. The Apostle Paul didn’t live for the opinions or values of the world. He knew that only God’s opinion matters.
So what to do? I know this. Since it’s sin, Scripture has a solution. Realizing what Scripture calls it was the beginning of help for me. Seeing its tentacles in my life made me realize that I need God’s sanctifying grace even more than I thought.
May it help you too.