In the wake of the recent editorial in Christianity Today calling for the removal of President Trump, I think it’s worth asking how much personal reputation affects our judgment on controversies such as this.
In other words, to reduce it to its simplest expression, does What do they think of us? really matter a lot more than it should?
When Christians stand up and speak out in the marketplace of ideas and they’re conscious that it might trigger some vigorous reactions, they usually incorporate some reference to “our witness” in the message. The implication is that our credibility–and therefore our effectiveness in being salt and light in the world–is at stake.
I’ve been in the church long enough (more than 40 years—I’m 62) to know that certain popular evangelical phrases such as “our witness” (or “good stewardship”) are elastic enough to cover rationalization as well as sincere belief.
Or, figuratively, by our words we may be making a fig-leaf covering for something we don’t want to admit.
What I’m alluding to is what the Bible calls the fear of man. You probably haven’t heard that phrase as much as “our witness” or “our testimony.” But like the love of money, another phrase with more mileage, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
If you do a great job on a year-end project and as a reward you get a year-end bonus, you have every reason to be pleased. That’s not the love of money. There’s a built-in relational aspect to this and the fear of man that goes beyond the plain-English sense of the phrase.
The rich young man who came to Jesus for spiritual guidance [Mk 10:17-31] and Zacchaeus the tax collector [Lk 19:1-10] were both wealthy; this much they had in common. But when they met Jesus, their responses were poles apart.
The rich young man went away because he loved money and couldn’t part with it. Zacchaeus swore to make restitution to any he cheated because, though he surely loved the life money had given him, he loved righteousness more.
Fear of man is like that as well. If I come upon an altercation between persons that threatens to escalate into violence, I am right to fear the policeman with the gun on his hip and the taser in his belt who arrives to defuse the situation. He’s the one with the authority to stand between parties trying to harm each other, not me.
But if I’m having coffee with colleagues and the subject of evangelical support for President Trump comes up in conversation, I may be faced with a choice. If I’m bending over backward to avoid offending some or swallowing my words to avoid anticipated ridicule, that is the fear of man.
Proverbs 29:25 has the perfect description of the dynamics involved: “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”
A snare was a loop of cord or rope used to capture birds or animals. It had the added feature of co-opting the victim into rendering itself helpless. As the snare closed it induced panic, so struggling to get free only drew the knot tighter, making it impossible to escape.
The persons who fears man is like this. He can never stop wondering what others think of him. Instead of holding on to what is right, his imagination is in overdrive, interpreting body language, tone of voice, etc., as clues to whether he is on the good or bad side of the other person. And it surely affects the things he says.
The irony of this is that your imagination may be way off in your assessment of what others think of you. Add to that the typical response to persons who are relentlessly ingratiating: The person you are trying to please is usually repelled by it.
And so, after going to great lengths to please, your reputation sinks even lower, the very opposite of what you hoped for. This is the kind of snare the fear of man becomes.
[Next post: Yes, it matters]
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