It’s a Trap: Defining Fear of People

He pushed hard on the pencil to get the darkest shades of green he could. This was his best tree yet. He set down his pencil and studied his work. He might even need to add black to made the foliage really seem dark enough. He squinted at it, then reached for his black pencil.

“This is truly marvelous, Matthew!”

He nearly dropped his pencil. “Oh, uh, thanks.” She usually didn’t sneak up on him like that.

“This is exactly what I was talking about,” she picked up his paper. “See, class? May I borrow this, Matthew?” He didn’t answer because she was already holding it up.

“Notice how Matthew used light and shading in his work here. On the side of the tree that faces the streetlight, he added lighter colors of green. On the opposite side of the tree, we seem some of the darkest greens there are. Well done, Matthew!”

She set the paper back down on his desk. “Would you like to put it on the display board?”

Matt looked around. Everyone else was either looking back at their papers or pretending not to talk to their neighbors. Just as he turned back to Mrs. Ludstrom, he noticed the seventh-graders walking down the hall outside the classroom. The basketball players walked by last, seemingly unconcerned about being late.

“Um, no thanks, Mrs. Ludstrom. I think I’ll take it home.”

What is Fear of People?

When we think of fear, we usually think of physical danger or harm. Sometimes that can be true of our fear of people; sometimes we’re afraid of what people can actually do to us. We worry about increasing street violence or North Korean missiles instead of trusting in the God who holds all people and their lives in His hands.

But there is another kind of fear of people that is more common for most of us. We might think we’re not afraid. But ask someone to get on a stage and speak to an audience and you’ll see just who is fearful…which will be most of us (it will certainly be me).

Some polls say that 25% of Americans are afraid of speaking in front of an audience, a fear that tops fears of snakes, drowning, and needles (and clowns, by the way). We are more afraid of standing in front of people just like us and talking to them than we are of suffocating underwater. What?

We can’t handle it when one person thinks less of us, much less a large group of them all at once. And they would think less of us, wouldn’t they, if they saw us as we are?

People scare us. Their opinions scare us.

When we fear people, we base our worth on their acceptance, then live in fear that they will take away their acceptance—and take our worth right along with it. We fear others through relationships, and refuse to show our true selves out of a fear that we might be rejected for it. “We are more concerned about looking stupid (a fear of people) than we are about acting sinfully (a fear of God),” Edward Welch writes in When People are Big and God is Small.

Why is Fear of People a Problem?

The exact phrase “fear of people” is not found in Scripture and the similar term “fear of man” is only found once: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25). What kind of snare does fear of man put in our path?

Meet Herod. There were several Herods in the Bible, and this is not the one who met the wise men after Jesus’ birth. This Herod executed the apostle James not long after after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to Heaven; when he saw that James’ death pleased the people, he decided it was a good thing. So he imprisoned Peter, intending to do the same to him.

But Herod forgot something. He forgot that God is sovereign, not Herod. An angel walked right into Peter’s cell that night, woke him up (the guy never could stay awake), and escorted him to safety. Peter would not die that night.

But Herod’s days were numbered. Shortly after this attempted execution, Herod gave a speech in all his political glory to subjects who, ironically, wanted to please him. The people began chanting that Herod the king was actually a god. He liked that praise and glory from the people who stood before him, and he prided himself in their chant. And he died.

What kind of snare does fear of man lay for us? The trap of looking to frail, fallible people instead of the conquering, incredible God. We forget to follow God and instead start following people like us.

Herod was an extreme example, but an example nonetheless. When we rest our faith and joy in people and glory in their praise, we forget that God alone has any right to that praise. It’s a trap.

Not Alone

This is serious stuff. It seems to be a universal human experience to struggle through this heart-problem: Who will we look to for acceptance, for our worth?

Israel’s first king (provided, by the way, because the Israelites wanted to be like all the peoples around them) was chosen by God and began his reign as a humble and wise leader. Yet eventually, Saul’s fear of the people he ruled drove him to break God’s direct command in order to do what would command their respect. “Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice'” (1 Samuel 15:24).

In the New Testament, we find the Pharisees lived in constant fear of people. For a bunch of bossy holier-than-thous, they were surprisingly scared. The Bible tells us they feared the Romans and their hold on the Pharisees’ authority (John 11:48), but they also feared the people (Luke 22:2), and inspired fear in others (John 12:42).

And then there is what might be darkest example of fear of people. The night cocky Peter fell to fear and didn’t acknowledge that he even knew the One who was giving His life for Peter’s soul (Mark 14:66-72). How low fear of people can take us.


But perhaps it is this darkest example that brings our deepest hope. Because Peter’s story didn’t end that night in Jerusalem, not far from the hill Golgotha where the cross was raised.

When Jesus conquered death and rose again just three days later, the story wasn’t finished. Peter now had the unending power of God, the unshakeable hope, and the steadfast love he could base all of his life on. And because of this hope and love and power, Peter would not always be afraid.

We don’t have to be, either.

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