Anxiety is a very common problem. It can come from a number of sinful desires, but what has been most troublesome for me is what the Bible calls “the fear of man.” We fall into this when we desire the approval of others so much that we seek to please them more than God. As Ed Welch says, “our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God).”1Edward T. Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ. 1997), p. 19.
My fear of man shows up when I share the gospel with others, when I coach my kids’ sports teams, when I must confront a patient or a brother in Christ, when I speak in front of people, or even when I make decisions in my own home. This type of anxiety has greatly hindered my service to the Lord in many areas of life. Solomon tells us the “fear of man will prove to be a snare” (Proverbs 29:25). Just as an animal caught in a trap can’t perform its God-given function, when you or I give in to the fear of man, we can’t do what God is calling us to do.
Here’s an example from my life that you may be able to relate to. As the leader of a church small group, I carry unrealistic expectations about how I lead discussions. I prepare well partly to impress the other members of the group. When the time comes to lead, I wonder: Will people like what we talked about? Will I do a good job? Will they see me as lazy? Unprepared? An unfaithful Christian? A bad leader? Afterward, I wait for someone to tell me what a good job I did. As you can see, these thoughts focus on myself, not on pleasing the Lord and loving others. How does the fear of man show up for you?
Fear of Man in the Bible
Proverbs 29:25 tells us how to overcome the fear of man: “trust in the Lord.” This is essentially a call to believe in, rely on, and please the Lord in all that we do. Paul helps us to understand the mindset of one who pleases the Lord in Galatians 1:10. “Am I now trying to win the approval of men or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Paul overcame the snare of the fear of man and made it his central goal to honor and please God.
We may read this and think that we could never be as bold as Paul, however, God has used many people in the Bible despite their fears, such as Abraham, Moses, Peter, and Timothy. We can draw encouragement and inspiration from the stories God authored in their lives. Let’s look specifically at what we can learn from Timothy.
Timothy was a young man from a mixed ethnic background who came to know the Lord on Paul’s first missionary trip to Lystra (Acts 16:1-3). When Paul returned later, he took Timothy under his wing and discipled him. Eventually, God called Timothy to the difficult task of pastoring the troubled church at Ephesus. People in the church ridiculed and rejected Timothy, which caused him much anxiety. In fact, he is often referred to as “timid” Timothy because of Paul’s words to him in 2 Timothy 1:6.
In light of Timothy’s natural timidity, Paul sought to encourage Timothy in his second letter. He called Timothy a “dear son” with a “sincere faith” who was constantly in his prayers. He commanded Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God,” which Paul clearly saw in his life. Then in verse 7, he delivered three wonderful promises: “for God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and self-discipline.” Let’s see how these promises can help us overcome the fear of man!
First, Paul says the Holy Spirit gives us supernatural power to live the Christian life and overcome fear with boldness and courage. The literal God who made the world and everything in it lives within us. This is mind-blowing and, when we think deeply about it, brings great encouragement. In addition, Jesus also promises us this power in Acts 1:8: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” What great encouragement to know that the Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead lives in us and is working for our good (Ephesians 1:19-21)! God promises power from the Holy Spirit to overcome the fear of man and to do what He is calling us to do! Do you believe and act on this?
Second, Paul tells Timothy that the Spirit will give him love. It seems unusual, but the Bible teaches that the opposite of fear is love and that love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Tim Keller writes, “The only thing that casts out the fear of man is a deep love relationship with God.”2Timothy Keller, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life, p.96. Timothy’s fear was conquered by love, as Paul describes in Philippians: “I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.” Timothy was so moved by the Spirit that he had a deep love for God and others that gave him great effectiveness in the ministry. God’s Spirit gives us a deep love for God and others that enables us to overcome the fear of man. Do you believe in and pray for this love?
Third, Paul reminds Timothy that the Spirit has given him “self-discipline.” The same word appears later when Paul tells Timothy to “keep your head in all situations.” (2 Timothy 4:5) This essentially means to think the right way in all situations. When we are afraid, our thoughts go astray and we struggle to focus on what is true about God, ourselves, and our situation. However, Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit directs our thoughts and minds to focus on what is pleasing and honoring to the Lord. Isaiah 26:3 says, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.” God’s Spirit gives us the ability to think correctly when we are tempted toward fear. Do you regularly meditate on God, His character, promises, and precepts to help you overcome the fear of man?
How might memorizing and meditating on these promises help you to serve the Lord more faithfully and overcome your anxiety? Peter tells us that “he has given us his great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).” In other words, the promises of God’s Word will empower us to please the Lord and emulate Christ. What other promises may God use to help you overcome your anxiety?
It’s noteworthy that this “timid” Timothy’s name actually means “one who honors God.” The Bible’s last mention of Timothy in Hebrews tells of his release from prison, likely because of his boldness to preach the gospel. Church tradition tells us he died at the hands of those who opposed the gospel. Timothy did honor and please God in the end, and we can too. May the Lord empower us through these promises to overcome our fear of man, honoring Him in all He calls us to do!