What Does “Fear of Man” Really Mean? And Other Observations About Fear

Yesterday I talked about 3 kinds of good fear, fear that isn’t sinful and is actually good and pleasing to God. Today . . .

Three scenarios when fear is unnecessary and even harmful

And sinful? Well maybe in some cases. (But then again in most of these cases, probably not.)

1. When we know there is nothing (else) we can or should do to accomplish physical safety

In a medical crisis, for example, when the healing is out of our hands, or a weather crisis, when safety is out of our hands.

Even in a crisis that’s life-threatening because of the wickedness of others—if we’ve done all we can.

This is why in Acts 12 Peter was able to fall asleep next to the soldier in prison while the folks back home were praying for him.

The good purpose of fear, as I mentioned yesterday, is to fill a person with the energy to take action in a dangerous situation. But under these circumstances, when all has been done that can be done, fear will cause adrenaline to course through the body with no outlet for (further) action. This will ultimately cause harm to the body, mind, and spirit.

On the contrary, when we’ve done all we can, then we trust Him according to promises of His care in the Scriptures.

How can we know when all the action that can be taken has been taken?

Good question. That’s one people argue over all the time.

This again is where Christians need to be led by the Holy Spirit, not just in times of crisis, but all the time. The Christians who are led by the Holy Spirit and understand abuse and wickedness can help those who are in crisis to make wise decisions.

But what if we do have fear in these circumstances? Is that sinful?

I haven’t seen anything in the Scriptures to indicate that it is. In cases like these, we can think of it more like a child looking at a thunderstorm out the window. It’s still fearsome (it even could still potentially cause harm), but the wise and gentle parent can soothe the child and tell him not to be afraid. He wouldn’t rebuke him, telling him his fear is a sin.

For those who have been terrorized over and over throughout childhood or marriage so that their fear-of-danger mechanism is on hyperdrive?  I’ll plan talk about that in a future blog post. But is it sin? I don’t think the Bible indicates that anywhere!

2. In the specific circumstances when God said “Fear not”

There are many cases in the Bible when our Lord gave commands to “Fear not.” But in every one of them, it’s important to observe the audience and the circumstances. The fact is that that vast majority of these aren’t simply blanket commands to all believers.

After all, we know it’s appropriate to listen to the emotion of fear that motivates us to take action for safety of ourselves and those we care for. We know that fear of God is right and good. We have Godly examples of fearing for the state of the souls of others.

So what are the contexts of the “Fear nots” in the Bible, so that we can see when and how to apply them to ourselves? That will be the subject of a future blog post.

3. When it’s “fear of man”

Please note: “Fear of man” is not the same thing as fear of danger! Not not not. When it is a “man” (human) who is bringing danger into your life, that is a completely different fear. It is NOT what the Bible calls “fear of man.”

What the Bible calls “fear of man” is what I call “relationship fear.” We’re social creatures—yes, even the introverts among us—and we need to have relationships.

From my study of the New Testament (and again, the Old Testament would have more to add here), relationship fear looks like it can manifest in a few different ways.

          a. Fear of falling from a high position

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day feared the people, because if the people turned away from them to follow Jesus, they would lose their authority. (See Matthew 21:26 and 46.)

I believe this is an indicator that cult leaders often live in fear of losing their positions of power. (I wouldn’t necessarily call the fear itself a sin, but it is born of the sin of desire for power and authority over others that’s not right or good.)

But notice that one of the crucial ways cult leaders stave off the fear they themselves live with is by instilling fear in their followers . . .

          b. Fear of being rebuked (or even scorned) by those in a perceived higher position (especially in front of others)

This type of “fear of man” boils down to “fear of shame.” Shame is a very powerful motivator to force compliance in controlling cult situations. (If God’s people are willing to stand against fear of shame because our awe/reverence fear of Him is greater, then we can move forward for His Kingdom with far greater strength and vision. But that’s a whole lot easier to say when you’re not in it.)

Galatians 2:12 gives a good example of this when it says that Peter

ate with people who were not Jewish, until some men James had sent from Jerusalem arrived. Then he drew back and would not associate with people who were not Jewish. He was afraid of those who insisted that circumcision was necessary [the wicked Judaizers].

Paul roundly and publicly rebuked Peter for this fear that led to these hypocritical actions.

But as Helena Knowlton pointed out to me in our conversation about fear, cultic churches will work to increase “shame-based fear” in the hearts of their followers:

The foundational fear [in a cult] is fear of disagreeing with the leaders, since they are the “covering and authority,” and have “the truth” and the “REAL” interpretation of the Bible. This is closely related to the fear of being unsubmissive and in rebellion, which would mean you are dishonoring God and practically committing witchcraft. The fear is that you and your family will lose everything, both now and in eternity.

This fear extends for parents to their children as they grow, that they will walk away from God and be tempted by “the world” if they don’t stay in obedience under the “authorities” who have “the truth.”

And then there’s

Fear of being watched and reported on.

Fear that speaking truth about what’s really happening is gossip, which is like the hissing of the snake.

Fear of being called in before the leaders to “account for your soul.”

And then, when you’re living in fear every moment because of the cult, you’re told that your fear is a sin against God. See how that works to create even more shame?

It is from the devil. This fear is in no way from God. As Proverbs 29:25 indicates, this is the “fear of man” that lays a snare for a person’s soul.

Those of us who love God and others can be of tremendous help those who are coming out of cults. Instead of shaming them further for their shame-based fear, we can help them see that they can be free from needing to fear these so-called authorities. (One way to do that might be when the “rebellious one” is excommunicated from the cult for contumacy, to have an excommunication party. I’d love to hear ideas others have implemented.)

This shame-based fear within the cultic church community is closely followed by the next kind of relationship fear or “fear of man” . . .

          c. Fear of being cast out and shunned by one’s community

Though all of the “fear of man” fears are powerful, this one is the extreme. To be cast out and isolated from one’s community can be so painful as to cause tremendous anguish. This “relationship fear” is the fear of loss of all relationships.

This is one of the most powerful tools of cult control.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day held the power of excommunication over the Jewish people, which held perhaps as much terror as the excommunication of the Catholic church during the Middle Ages.

A Biblical example is that of the parents of the man born blind that Jesus healed. John 9:22 tells us that they refused to proclaim Jesus as their son’s healer because they feared being cast out, losing not only their position on the synagogue, but any standing they might have had in their community, no matter how lowly, which would have meant they would have been shunned by even their former friends.

I know several people to whom this has happened. They’ve lost family members, lifelong friends, their children’s friends, and in some cases even their employment. As Helena said, they will be “black-listed, cold-shouldered, and character-assassinated.”

It is excruciatingly painful. It’s understandable that they would fear such deep and long-lasting pain and take measures to try to avoid it. The desire to avoid this deep relationship pain can cause a person to stay in the cult long past the time when he has realized the cult is unhealthy, unBiblical, and even downright wicked.

The fear of losing relationships, again, isn’t necessarily sinful, especially in a context of such tremendous confusion. But those who love Jesus need to come to a place of clarity to see that their relationship with God and safety of the ones they cares for has to supersede the relationships with all these other people. That can be excruciatingly difficult, but it’s worth it.

Once a person is out and in a non-cultic church, it would be helpful for those of us who follow God rather than man to understand something about trauma.

The fear felt by those getting out of a cult (church or family or compound) can be compared to the fear felt by those getting out of a concentration camp, when for example, the startle reflex is so high that any small noise might cause the escapee to feel that a demonized soldier is at the door.

In both types of situations, once a person is safe, the brain needs to be re-trained to truth. It it no help at all to tell the Christian that he or she is sinning by being afraid.

We will do well to remember that when a person’s fear comes from trauma that has been inflicted on him, it is the result of someone else’s sin, not his own. This is when learning and understanding who Jesus Christ really is and the healing power He offers will be most vital to that person’s health and well-being.

When you’ve been manipulated by others, you’re not sinning by being afraid. One of the most precious “fear not” verses I know is one that shows clearly the heart of Jesus Christ for followers of His—people who felt significant relationship fear because they followed Him. You also can take heart in the kind words of your loving Shepherd for you.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

Here’s the joy for fear-filled believers in Jesus Christ. With gentleness He speaks this “fear not.” He encourages you to come to Him, to rest in Him, and to trust Him. He wants you to take wise and necessary action when fear of danger motivates you to do so, but He also wants to heal the places that have been scarred by the shame-filled fear you’ve felt of others. He is kind, and He is good. There is great hope to be found in Him.

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3 years ago

Thank you, Rebecca, for sorting through this issue from a scriptural perspective. It is so very helpful in untwisting the lies that our former “church” taught.
The leaders used the idea of “fear is sin” to shame and guilt me when I was experiencing post traumatic symptoms as a result of growing up in an extremely violent and abusive family of origin.
Their use of deceptive methods to trigger me as a form of “healing” almost put me over the edge, and only added to the trauma I had already experienced.
I was unaware of their methods until after I had gone through the breakdown. The Holy Spirit gave me the wisdom to realize what was taking place in spite of the mental distress I was going through. Our family left the church and those “friends” who chose to be loyal to the leadership, rather than admit that they had betrayed me by sharing personal information with the leadership.
They spoke and acted as if it was some special badge of honor in God’s Kingdom not to experience fear of anything.
From my personal experience, I learned that all that teaching accomplishes is to further shut down the mental processes which God instilled in our brains to function in a logical and healthy way. (Perhaps that is part of their goal.)
Every time I read your posts I feel like I’m breathing in a breath of fresh air.
Thank you and God bless you!

3 years ago

Dear Rebecca,
Your comparisons of trauma-based fear to having been in a cult so resonated with me! My family of origin and my large extended family as well as all their family friends all called themselves “Christians” but their daily lives disproved that possibility. Lots of examples I won’t take up space here with.

Of course, the fact that I and my siblings were physically abused regularly (other abuses of every kind too but the physical ones could be seen and heard by the neighboring relatives who lived in same apartment building) and the violent Domestic Violence between parents also could be heard by all. The resulting bruises on all of us were ever-present. We children often ran out of our house to a relative’s house to escape the beatings. They ALL KNEW children were being harmed and did and said nothing to help.
Yes, they feared 1) My father’s-the “cult-leader”-wrath coming onto themselves; 2) They feared being ostracized from the cult/clan. MORE than they feared the Holy Wrath of the God they purported to outsiders that they “served”.

To this day the violence is still happening by the same abusers and now my siblings are counted among the cult members. They are enablers, they cover up their own abuses and others’, they lie, they smear me relentlessly for exposing the truth about them as an adult.

I have lost ALL MY RELATIONSHIPS. I went to “No Contact” with my family after a violent attack for which I had to call the police. That was the big “No-No” I committed. I exposed them to outsiders. Everyone in my “family”, extended family, lifelong “friends”, duped church “friends” and congregants..turned against me for calling the police. I suppose I was “excommunicated” from the cult I had extremely minimal contact with-for my family’s physical and mental safety. I didn’t and still don’t fear that. The consequences were costly for sure. My family is isolated and we are wary of people, including obviously easily duped church people. My family STILL arrogantly goes to church and are in “good standing” there despite the very real criminal evidence against them! WE are the outsiders. So we attend a “virtual church” pastored by an abuse and trauma informed pastor. (Pastor Jeff Crippen.)

I thank you for this post and look forward to your upcoming ones on related subjects. Thank you for taking the time and effort to come alongside abuse victims. Especially those whose abusers were “professing christians”. God bless you and your ministry dear sister Rebecca.

3 years ago

By reading your blog, I learn how much more of what I’ve heard over the years has been incorrect. So many churches teach these things, like “Fear not!” as though to fear is to sin and it’s good/beneficial to pretend that evil doesn’t exist. So many times a person is taught to ignore and dismiss the inner sense of doom/danger as though to heed such warning is to live in fear and be sinfully afraid.

I find that abusive relationships are cult-like. Marriages to an abuser are mini-cults. The abuser will instill fear in the victim as to keep the victim in the cult of their so-called ‘marriage’. And the abuser’s threats are credible. How many times do abused women find themselves isolated, given the cold shoulder by others, smeared to others? It’s pretty standard.

I learned a lot from this two-part blog postings on fear. Thanks for writing and posting it.

3 years ago

These are Rx for my soul… re-read as necessary. Thank you for your diligence in presenting truth with clarity in places where spiritual environment’s confusion has often been sown in deceit.

3 years ago

I’m someone who easily senses oppression about a person or a situation, and I have learned through the years that downplaying and ignoring that won’t help. Sooner or later the truth comes out, and often as much worse than I could anticipate..
Praying for wisdom, protection and direction is what I do now, whenever I feel anything unsafe.

As I am somewhat hypervigilant, due to so many unspleasant and traumatic situations over the last few years, it’s my prayer to have real discernment when needed and be free from paranoia (baseless fear and demonic intimidation..) Ignoring my gut isn’t the solution, but brining it to the Lord is the way to go.


[…] Is Your Fear Sinful . . . Or Actually Pleasing to God? What Does “Fear of Man” Really Mean? And Other Observations About Fear […]

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