Pastor Craig Carter
I am thankful that I have accumulated very few regrets during my lifetime, but if it was possible to relive a particular moment, there is one incident that I wish had never happened.
It occurred many years ago when I was a member of our high school wrestling team. Feel free to take a moment to snicker as you try to imagine me as a big, bad wrestler, which of course, I wasn’t! Instead, I was small and wiry – like Barney Fife. Anyway, it was an away match and we were competing at a school about 30 miles from where I lived.
As we took the mat for warm-ups, I was surprised to look into the stands and see my dad. His presence was completely unexpected as I didn’t figure he would be able to make the long journey on a weeknight. With very few, if any, other parents in attendance, I was proud my dad had taken the time and effort to come see me wrestle.
I have no memory of whether I won or lost – perhaps I’ve purposely forgotten a humiliating defeat – but I do have a vivid recollection of what else happened, or didn’t happen, between me and my Dad that night.
You see, even though I saw him in the stands I never acknowledged his presence – not a nod, not a wave, nada! Even when the match was over and people milled around conversing, I never said a thing to my dad. Not “Thanks for coming,” not “See you at home,” not a word.
On the long bus ride home all I could think about was my dad rushing from work to get there, sitting by himself all evening, and then getting home late knowing he’d have to get up early to go back to work. And I didn’t even give him the time of day.
Why did I behave the way I did? Because I hated my dad? Because I wasn’t appreciative? No. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager knows the true answer: Because it isn’t “cool” to talk to your parents when other kids are around (or even acknowledge they exist!) I was afraid of what the other guys would say if they saw me with my dad.
In reality, they probably would’ve said (or at least thought), “That’s pretty neat your old man came to the match, I wish my parents cared that much about me!”
Even though I later apologized to my dad, that incident is indelibly etched on my consciousness and has been filed away under the heading, “Life’s Most Regrettable Experiences.” In many ways, that story has become a parable for me. The lesson that it taught me later shaped my relationship with my parents and also my relationship with the Lord.
On that cold, winter night in Neosho, Missouri, I learned a valuable lesson about the danger of giving into a particularly destructive, yet common type of fear. It’s a subject Jesus once addressed with His disciples.
They were on their way to Jerusalem where Jesus had predicted He would be rejected, suffer many things, and be killed. In addition, He had told those wishing to accompany Him on this journey that they too must deny themselves, take up their own crosses, and follow Him.
The Lord knew that if they were going to remain focused on the goal and stay the course they were going to have to rid themselves of things like unbelief, pride, excuses, and distractions (that we have explored in this series). They were also going to have to overcome their fears, especially of others.
So Jesus told them, “My friends, don’t be afraid of people. They can kill you, but after that, there is nothing else they can do. God is the one you must fear. Not only can he take your life, but he can throw you into hell. God is certainly the one you should fear! Five sparrows are sold for just two pennies, but God doesn’t forget a single one of them. Even the hairs on your head are counted. So don’t be afraid! You are worth much more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:4-7 CEV)
Jesus was concerned His disciples would fear other people more than God. And it seems like He had good reason to feel that way because, in the days ahead, His most loyal followers betrayed, abandoned, and denied him. The reason they turned aside was primarily due to their fear of others.
Let’s return to the story of me and my dad at the wrestling match. We often are tempted to relate to our Heavenly Father in much the same way. We push Him aside, we fail to acknowledge Him, we make Him play second fiddle to everything and everyone … all because of our preoccupation with the opinions of others.
Whether we like to admit it or not, to some degree we all have a fear of others. Satan uses it to damage and possibly even destroy our relationship with God.
Let’s look at what Jesus has to say about this obstacle that prevents us from following
Christ and enjoying the abundant and eternal life He has to offer.
First, we tend to fear others more than we should.
Why didn’t I acknowledge my dad’s presence at the wrestling match? Because of my teammates. While I wasn’t physically afraid of them, I was fearful of losing their approval, having my reputation damaged, being made fun of, being considered a geek, etc.
Were those fears justified? At the time they seemed to be, but certainly not in the grand scheme of things. Their opinions ultimately had little or no lasting effect on me.
And if they were so influential then, how about now? Whatever happened to them? Where are they today?
I have no earthly idea.
While we know that teenagers are concerned about how their peers view them, most of us feel like we have outgrown this tendency. Sometimes we even take pride in boasting, “I don’t care what other people think about me,” “I don’t need anybody else’s approval, I’m my own man.”
To say such things means we’re either a sociopath or a psychopath (or both). God has created us with a need to be loved and accepted. But that quest for others’ approval can spiral out of control and adversely affect us.
In a recent devotional, Rick Warren made the claim that “fearing the disapproval of others causes more problems in [our lives] than almost anything else.” He then cites evidence that it causes us to do the popular thing even when it’s wrong, make commitments we can’t keep when we try to make everybody happy, and compromise our morals for the sake of keeping the peace.
More than anything else, fearing others is a recipe for disaster because it threatens our relationship with our Heavenly Father and hinders our spiritual growth. Just consider some of the ways that fear influences our Christian behavior:
How many times do we say “no” to something at church because of a demand placed on us by an employer? That’s because we fear losing our job or missing out on a promotion
Do we ever let an off-color joke slide by when we’re out with our friends? That’s because we’re afraid of being thought of as a fanatic.
Are we ever restrained in worship – in praising the Lord or responding to an altar call? That’s because we fear what others may think of us or how they might label us.
The absolute foolishness of giving in to those kinds of fears is demonstrated through my experience as a teenager with my wrestling teammates. I mentioned I have no idea where those guys are today (and really don’t care). And yet, now I’m influenced by another group of individuals – namely, you, the members of the Lynn Haven UMC.
But throughout most of my life, I didn’t even know you existed. I didn’t previously care what a bunch of folks in Lynn Haven, Florida thought of me. But of course, that all changed when I moved here in the summer of 2013.
Prior to that time, I was concerned about the opinions of a group of folks in Wetumpka, AL (and had been for nearly two decades). But today I give virtually no thought to how they feel about me and they certainly don’t influence my behavior on a day-to-day basis.
Are you beginning to see why Jesus said we shouldn’t “be afraid of people.” After all, the worst thing they can do is “kill you, but after that, there is nothing else they can do” (v. 4).
While that seems fairly significant, it is actually a very limited amount of power. This world and its effects are temporal and there are greater eternal realities. In Matthew’s account, Jesus says, “They can kill you, but they cannot harm your soul.” (Matthew 10:28 CEV)
Likewise, influential people and their effect on us are temporal and short-lived. Even if folks destroy our reputation, scoff at us, or deride us, they’re here today and gone tomorrow, so there’s absolutely no need to fear them.
That leads us to a second effect related to our fear of others …
We tend to fear God less than we should.
Returning to my example, I feared what other teenagers would think about me but didn’t give a second thought to how my behavior would affect my relationship with my dad. But he was the one that I should have been most afraid of that night.
Why? Because he had significant control over my well-being and virtually held my destiny in his hands. He fed, clothed me and housed me … and he could have stopped doing all of those things at any time.
Many of us have things completely mixed up in our relationship with the Lord. According to the Bible, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” (Proverbs 1:7a NIV)
In other words, fearing God is the wisest, smartest thing we can do. But how many of us really fear the Lord?
In today’s world, God has largely been reduced to nothing more than a harmless old grandpa to be humored, i.e., “the man upstairs.” It’s a far cry from the awesome, majestic, sovereign Lord described in Scripture. The One who Isaiah encountered in the temple and cried out, “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man … Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” (Isaiah 6:5 NLT)
He is the One who even controls our eternal destiny.
“God is the one you must fear. Not only can he take your life, but he can throw you into hell. God is the one you must fear.” (Luke 12:5 CEV)
The Lord’s control and authority extends far beyond this present world. Sadly, we have become what Jesus warned against as most persons today are filled with fear of others with little fear of God.
Dr. Samuel Miller was a 19th century physician, attorney, and Supreme Court Justice. He observed that “peer pressure” had become in his day what salvation and damnation were in earlier times.
From the Middle Ages until the 1800’s, the thing a person feared most was displeasing God and becoming a recipient of his wrath. But is that still true today? Not even close! It’s doubtful our nation could still be moved to a great revival and spiritual awakening as it was in the 1730’s when a New England preacher named Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Most of us give little thought to that possibility because our fears are more immediate. Who can worry about heaven and hell when there are taunts to be avoided, jobs to be held on to, and reputations to be protected? We’ve allowed fear of others and what humans may do to us to replace genuine fear of the Lord.
No matter how much we try to avoid the subject, there is a future judgment coming. If the Bible is clear about anything, it is single-minded in its contention that there is a heaven and a hell … and God determines who goes where.
But He has provided the criteria in advance: “If you tell others that you belong to me, the Son of Man will tell God’s angels that you are my followers. But if you reject me, you will be rejected in front of them.” (Luke 12:8-9 CEV)
Saying “yes” to Jesus during this life brings salvation (and eternity in heaven). Saying “no” to Him (i.e. rejecting Him) leads to damnation (and eternity in hell).
Since the Lord is the one who holds the key to our future, He is the one (and only one) to be feared. One day, it won’t matter what other people think or say about us. All that will matter is that we hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
So, in this present age, our highest priority should be pleasing God, not others.
That brings us to a final thought on the subject … We should not take God for granted.
Let’s return once more to why I feared my fellow teenagers more than I feared my dad. One of the reasons was because I knew he would never reject me – no matter what. My friendships with my fellow teenagers were fragile, but my relationship with my dad was solid. I knew there was nothing I could do that would keep him from loving me. So when a decision had to be made, I took advantage of that relationship.
I was right in my confidence that he wouldn’t reject me despite my behavior, but I suffered as a result of my choices that night. In seeking the approval of others, I risked hurting the one who cared about me the most.
Do you realize we often do the same thing to God? We know that what Jesus said about Him is true:
“Five sparrows are sold for just two pennies, but God doesn’t forget a single one of them.” (Luke 12:6 CEV) In Matthew’s version, Jesus says it this way: “Aren’t two sparrows sold for only a penny?” (Matthew 10:29a CEV)
So I guess they were two for a penny and if you bought four, you got one free. But even though one is free, he is not forgotten.
“Even the hairs on your head are counted. So don’t be afraid! You are worth much more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:7 CEV)
Our Heavenly Father knows us better than we know ourselves. What more convincing evidence do we need of how much He cares for us?
Because we are so certain of God’s love and care, we tend to take Him for granted and take advantage of Him.
“God will understand that I can’t spend time with Him in prayer and Bible study since I’m so swamped at work.”
“I’d like to go to Holy Week services but my son has games every night this week.”
“I know I should put an end to the dirty jokes in the office, but I don’t think God would want me to risk this great job He gave me.”
Instead of taking advantage of our standing before God, we should want to do everything humanly possible to preserve it.
Back to the incident with my dad: The real reason I should have put him above others was not out of fear of what he could do to me. I ought to have done it as a response to his love for me and out of respect for him. The same is true of our relationship with God.
It is not His desire that we be motivated to be true to Him because of fear of eternal damnation … although if that’s what it takes, so be it. Instead, the Lord wants us to know how much He cares about us. His unconditional love for us then becomes the motivation for remaining faithful and responding to Him with “reverential awe and respect.”
That’s what genuine fear of the Lord actually is – holding God in high regard.
Do you now see why my regrettable teenage experience has become a parable for my relationship with the Lord? I am so convinced of God’s love for me that I don’t want anything or anyone to jeopardize it and I want to show God nothing but love and respect in return.
But to do that I must get past my human tendency of fearing others. It is one of the things that must be crucified and done away with, once and for all. In order to do that we must adopt an eternal, heavenly perspective rather than a temporal, earthly one.
It’s fitting that we are addressing this subject today, at the start of Holy Week, for the events we commemorate during Holy Week give us two case studies.
First of all, Peter is the poster child for fearing others. Because he was more concerned with what other people thought than with being faithful to Jesus, Peter failed Jesus by denying the Lord, not once, but three times. But let me add, he later recognized his shortcoming and dealt with it. He was restored into fellowship with Christ, became a bold witness for Jesus, and when forced to choose, declared he had to obey God rather than people.
Second, Jesus shows us what it looks like to crucify fear of others. He never would have made it to the Cross unless He had resolved this issue. His fear of failing God was greater than His fear of what humans could do. So He trusted God completely and though it cost Him His life, that’s all people could do to Him and Christ triumphed three days later with His glorious resurrection from the dead.
When we are crucified with Christ and nail our fear of others to His Cross, we share in His victory and receive His abundant and eternal life. Dying with Christ in this regard is actually quite freeing. I’ve never met a corpse that cared one bit about what others thought, have you?!
Paul understood that reality and it’s why he said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20a NIV)
So let’s take Jesus’ words to heart: “Don’t be afraid of people … God is the one you must fear.” (Luke 12:4-5 CEV)
I’m convinced some, if not all, of us need to resolve this issue or we’re never going to be able to fully follow Jesus. Perhaps we need to confess that we’ve feared others more than God and, as a result, tried to please people more than the Lord.
Or maybe we need to ask God to help us overcome our fear of others. That fear may be rooted in a hidden wound caused by a past hurt, rejection, or abandonment. The answer is to trust in God to heal our hurt and make us whole.
The Bible is correct in its assessment: “Fearing people is a dangerous trap, but trusting the Lord means safety.” (Proverbs 29:25 NLT) Make no mistake about it, the only place to find true security is in a relationship with God.
Most of all, let’s commit ourselves to Christ, resolve to not take our relationship with Him for granted, and decide right here, right now to live for Jesus and make Him the sole focus of our lives. When we do that, we are well on our way to crucifying fear of others once and for all.