Jeremiah does more than describe the symptoms of the fear of man, though. He also helps us understand what it really means to fear man. “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5). The fear of man is not only fearing what others might think, say, or do, but entrusting ourselves to them, instead of to God and all he is for us in Christ. The fear of man is about ultimate allegiances: Do we hide ourselves in the grace and help of God or in the praise and approval of people?
Fear of man, unlike other more glaring sins, often hides itself behind various masks of love. It stalks the fearful and vulnerable while wearing camouflage, covering malice with the appearance of safety, warmth, kindness, even selflessness. It preys on friendships, marriages, families, churches, and workplaces, often without anyone noticing it. And because it kills without a gun, it covers its tracks well. At least for a time.
While the fear of man may be difficult to discern or detect in the moment, the wreckage left behind tells us everything we need to know (if we’re courageous enough to look). At least in my own experience, it can be challenging to distinguish love from fear in the context of difficult or complex situations, but it’s been far easier to see the consequences of sinful fear over time. The prophet Jeremiah warned us about such consequences.
Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.” (Jeremiah 17:5–6)
I see the fear of man most clearly in my own heart when it begins to suck the moisture out of my soul — when I am plagued by the restless dryness it produces in me and my relationships. Counselor Ed Welch calls these lesser-known verses the classic text on the fear of man.
Fruit of Fear
When we indulge the fear of man, however good our intentions may seem (even to us!), it will slowly lead us to arid places (Jeremiah 17:5–6). Love frees, delights, forbears, overflows. The fear of man oppresses, dehydrates, even suffocates. And anyone who has fed their fears knows so. Trying to make everyone happy, without a deep, intense, stabilizing happiness in God, can feel like running a marathon, or ten marathons, in the desert. Worse than that, we can feel like just a shrub in that desert, not even able to run or move or do anything. And with no hope of help, relief, or any good to come (Jeremiah 17:6). We feel small, fragile, exhausted, scorched.