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Interview with Dr. Ed Welch on the Fear of Man

WelchA few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Ed Welch, the author of an extremely useful and challenging book called, When People are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency and the fear of Man.The interview was intended to be an episode on The Church Planting Podcast but due to some technical problems we were unable to publish the audio. Instead, we’ve provided a transcript of the conversation.  Enjoy!


I want to spend some time talking about your book “When People are Big and God is Small” a few years ago I went through an internship and the book was assigned in the internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. It was really helpful to me the discussions that followed in our group and helped exposed scenarios in my own life that I needed to cope with and as I’ve been coaching church planters I’ve realized this issue comes up over and over again but it’s not talked about a whole lot. I wanted to talk about first of all the subject of the book which is fear of man. In the book you said “that fear of man is such a part of human fabric that we should check our pulse if someone denies it” but I’m going to assume that not everybody who is listening to us today knows what that phrase means, or has maybe even heard that phrase can you describe what you mean by the fear of man?

This verse doesn’t show up in all kinds of different places throughout Scripture but you find it especially in Proverbs 29, it talks about the fear of man being a snare. But then you can go from that particular verse and you get this concept of we are controlled by what people do or what people possibly could do. And then you move to things like trusting in man and then you get this wonderful passage in Jeremiah chapter 17 where it identifies two types of people you trust in the lord or you trust in other people. So I think that opens the discussion up so we’re not dependent on the word fear. But then we see the thing all over the place in Scripture. You see it in Genesis 12 and 20 with Abraham being controlled by pharaohs and being controlled by the King of Gerar and lying as a result. And then the book end to Abraham would be Peter. And here’s Peter, it seems to me, being the denial section in Scripture, is really making a point where here’s this little servant girl who’s asking were you with this Jesus and he profusely denies it and the fact. That Scripture uses this servant girl is trying to show the foolishness of being controlled by other people.

Right. So how does that problem that you just described manifest itself in the lives in people?

9780875526003Well, oh boy, in the lives of church planters.. I am so glad I’m not a church planter and I am so thankful that there are men who desire to be church planters. To think specifically about church planters, here’s the issue: It’s a toss-up between who has to deal with the fear of man more? A salesman who is dependent on cold calls every day or a church planter? They’re at the very top of the heap where every single day the experience of failure is something they have to deal with. Failure I haven’t measured up, I haven’t won this person over. Despondency is certainly something that you encounter. Despondency is something every preacher encounters where you look around and you see there are some people who are twiddling their thumbs, most people are on their phones doing something, other people are falling asleep. And then you’re afraid to ask anybody what they thought of the sermon because they probably don’t get the gist of it. So the despondency of here you pour out your life for the week anyway in a particular sermon, and you are essentially rejected by other people. So the possibility of this for church planters, let’s assume it’s gonna be every single day of their life, how do they get the approval of those who are around them to win them to a church plant? That’s just right for the fear of man.

Well in the book you make the case that the fear of man really is an issue related to worship. I want to read a brief section here, you say: “Fear in the biblical sense includes being afraid of someone, but it extends also to holding someone in awe, being controlled or mastered by people, worshiping other people, putting your trust in other people, or needing other people.” So my question is, church planters as you already mention, spend a ton of their time trying to win people to the gospel, trying to win converts, trying to win supporters and friends so do you have any advice for the guys who are listening to this to finding a balance between loving others, and serving others, and seeking the resources you need to start a new church, while not finding your worth in their response to you?

Great question. Let me respond to the word fear first, perhaps we haven’t identified the breadth of that particular word. I think where it intersects with our language is when you are afraid of spiders, it means spiders can control you. You are unnaturally on high alert when there might be a spider around. That’s the idea, the thing that we fear can be the thing that controls us. That’s the kind of fear that we’re most concerned about. There are other kinds of fears that move more towards honor and respect. We fear the Lord, we are both controlled by Him, we honor him we respect him. Where it talks about fearing the king, it’s not so much being controlled by the king it’s honoring and respecting the king. So, Scripture has a wider range of meaning for the word fear than we do. But the essence of it, being controlled by something else, is really what we’re after. I think what church planters are after is very, very simple but it takes a lifetime to grow in, and one of the reasons I was looking forward to our call is because it keeps the issue in front of me and I so appreciate that. Here’s what we’re after: How can we love people more than we want to be loved by them? And you could make that imbalance in all kinds of ways: How can we desire to honor people more than we desire to be honored by them? How can we want to admire people more than we want to be admired by them? That’s what we’re aiming for. We’re aiming for that subtle imbalance in what we hope to give to another and what we hope to receive. From my perspective, if we think about it in terms of percentages, if my desire is to 51% love the person and 49% want to be loved by the person, it doesn’t matter how much it is imbalanced it’s simply that we want to maintain that imbalance. I think that’s what it means to really be a human. We feel as though to be human means to be loved by other people, and certainly that’s part of our community, but when we look at the true human being, when we look at Christ himself, we clearly see that particular imbalance. That’s what church planters are aiming for, that’s what they’re praying for, that they would love others more than they want to be admired by others.

So when you address this as an issue of worship, you say it’s really at the heart an issue of worship, how is that?

It’s the nature of all the matters of the heart. Where, in its seed form it’s something very appropriate. Should we want to be loved by other people? Absolutely, we were forged in this context of love by our loving Father, and to be loved just feels right and natural and it’s the way it will be. To not want such a thing, that’s a real problem that we’d have to deal with, but obviously we don’t have that particular problem. What happens in our heart is that good things grow in to these mammoth proportions, or as the Old Testament says good things grow into these idolatrous proportions. And that’s the problem: when it moves from something we want to something we must have.

So there’s a margin in there though that is an appropriate level of desiring a positive response from others

Yeah absolutely, and that’s why we’re giving the 49% to the imbalance. That to want people to join us, to want people to appreciate us, to want other people to see us as part of their community, those are all natural and good human things, what we’re always aiming to do is to have those things outweighed by my desires to love a person. Let me give you a quick illustration of how I’ve seen this work out recently. This isn’t quite a church planting situation but it’s analogous: Some people wanted to leave a particular church, and they did it well, they actually spoke to the pastor about it. And they did have some concerns about the pastor and the preaching and some other things. And I was stunned, this pastor is a friend of mine, his concern was how are they going to be fed, how are they going to be cared for? His question was essentially: where are you going to go and how can I help you to find a church home? And I can remember when he was telling me this story, I said what planet is this particular man from? Because it seemed so unusual but at the same time it is so right and so natural that is what we’re aiming for, that kind of freedom. Did it hurt that these people were leaving? Absolutely. Did he feel the sting of rejection? Did he notice this experience of failure rising up within him? Absolutely. But it was outweighed by this simple question: How can I love this person? What is in their best interest right now? It was brilliant, it was beautiful, it was holy, it was impossible, and that’s exactly what we’re aiming for by the nature of the Spirit’s power.

That’s helpful. So pastors and planters though they have not only have to spot the fear of man in themselves, but they have the job of helping others grow in their walk with Christ. So they also will begin to as they become aware of this problem they will begin to notice that in the lives of others I’m going to assume, so how can pastors and planters do a good job of ministering to those who are dealing with fear of man issues?

Absolutely. You assume that you’re going to see this every day in ministry. Every marriage has to deal with this. Well, just think of my own marriage. How does my wife love me? Does my wife love me the way I want to be loved. That can so easily be the prominent question. And if I feel like I am being rejected by my spouse I can feel utterly powerless. And my tendency is to mope around or to be angry rather than to love. And that’s the issue in marriage. Then in singles, it’s the same question: How can I put my best foot forward in order to win the affection of other people? It’s a human issue. Now, in my own ministry I rarely say the phrase the fear of man, although I do believe that’s a biblical phrase that comes out of that passage in Proverbs. I think what you would hear more often is probably every week I will set out this vision, and I’m thinking about husbands particular now, here’s what we’re aiming for as husbands: our desire is to respect our spouses more than we are respected by them, our desire is to love our spouses more than we want to be loved by them. That is our quest: to outdo our spouses. We can see the freedom in such a thing. In some sense we give up everything. We give up our own quest for honor and affection and to be the most important. And in the midst of that there power to be able to love, where there’s nothing then that my wife can do to that would keep me from loving her. I would say, especially with husbands, that particular formula is something that I end up identifying just about every week as our vision. Here’s where you get stuck by your wife: You want something from her and you don’t feel like she’s giving you what you want. Or to make it worse, what you think that God commands her to give you, which is a thornier issue. But instead of dealing with the thorny issues of headship and submission, which I think at a time like that might not be the easiest thing to deal with, I offer this simple model, here’s what we know: we want to be imitators of Christ who love people more than he cared to be honored or respected by people.

I can see how that principle can carry over to even pastoral ministry and in the lives of our church members we want to love them more than we are seeking to beloved by them.

And in marriage that doesn’t mean we’re silent in the face of rejection, it gives us the freedom to speak about such things but in a way that’s not angry and accusing. It gives us the freedom to say: “honey when you said that to me that really hurt.” That’s the kind of thing we’re expecting to say. But that’s a whole lot different than turning away and moping or turning at and accusing. You have a concern for the relationship rather than a concern for your own individual rights.

In the book you say, “there are some situations that Jesus doesn’t intend to necessarily meet our needs but change our needs.” Can you tell us what you meant by that and how we can tell the difference in our spiritual lives as Jesus trying to change our needs in this instance?

In this particular culture I think there is a prominent way that we tend to think. And sometimes you actually will hear it in books or sermons, but you don’t even have to hear it. It’s sort of like the prosperity gospel,you don’t have to hear the prosperity gospel to identify it in some way and to live out of it. But there’s this sense that who are we by design we are created to be loved by others and we need love. That tends to be an acceptable way of identifying ourselves. But I would say that’s not the way the Scripture puts it. By creation do we desire the affection of other people? Absolutely we desire it. But to need it is another way of saying “I must have this! This is essential for my very life!” And I would suggest that word “need” is a euphemism for lust, it’s a euphemism for idolatry. The word need by definition is I must have this in order to live, this is most important to me. And if that is what’s happening, and certainly I can still see these things in my own life that’s why I’m glad we’re able to have this conversation, to be able to have that simple transfer to Jesus and say “Oh dear, I’m not being loved sufficiently by my congregation, but I am loved by Jesus.” Well the problem with that is we’re going to Jesus with our lusts. And saying “Jesus, here’s what I must have and I’m not getting it from others well you have to be the one to give it to me.” We don’t go to Jesus with our lusts we go to him with our brokenness and things that are hurtful and the rejection we experience from other people, but we don’t go to him with our lusts. So I think for me the in-between step is simply some form of repentance. And repentance can be seen as taking an idol and cutting it down to size. So repentance for me a lot of times can be shorthanded as: “Oh lord there it is again, why am I so concerned about me?, why am I so concerned about what they think of me? Lord, forgive me for living for the approval of other people.” And then from that vantage point to be able to delight in the forgiveness of Christ in the very love of Christ. But then our lusts have sort of been cut down to desires and hurt and though the comfort of Christ in the midst of it. So I think that’s the critical step we can bring to it, as we bring sort of cleaner theological eyes, that wonderful little step.

In pastoring and planting one of the things that has arisen in my life quite a bit, and I know my wife has dealt with this, and as I’ve talked with other pastors and planters they’re dealing with this is the issue of how vulnerable we should make ourselves to those that we’re shepherding, or particularly in a church planting environment you’re on a small team of people that are working together, all working very hard for the same goal of establishing a new church and spreading the gospel in your community. So how transparent do you think pastors should be with others about their own struggles with sins and their own situations?

I love that question, and if we had time I’d want to ask you to ramble for the next hour about or so because I think it’s a very, very important question. I don’t think 30, 40 years ago people were even considering that question. But now, I think you’re right. That’s an essential question for pastors to consider in ministry. I’ll give two quick thoughts on that: One is that we are by definition needy people. And we’re not needy for love, we’re needy for Christ, we’re needy for forgiveness of sins, we are creatures who are still sinners and those two things make us very needy people. Faith, almost by definition, if faith can be understood as simple allegiances, we put our trust in Christ. But faith also says I need Jesus, it shows our own inability. So the first thing I’m thinking is how can pastors demonstrate that? Well the easiest way would be simply to ask for prayer. That they would be able to speak of Christ clearly as they’re called to. That in their daily conversation with others they would have both the wisdom and a boldness to speak of Jesus. Because inbred in the very gospel is this foolishness, it’s wonderful, the gospel never makes us look smart. And so it sets us up for a certain rejection in relationships. So for pastors to have this steady diet of asking the prayer in the church for something as simple as if a church is planted and they’re going to be preaching the sermon or if they’re doing small group bible study just simply ask somebody to pray for them and give them some guidelines from Scripture on how to pray. That could be a non-negotiable in a pastor’s life: to be asking for prayer and to be asking for prayer publicly. The question of how far do we go in talking about our own sins, that’s a more challenging question. My own sense there would be let’s keep 2 Corinthians in mind. Paul doesn’t confess his own sin in 2 Corinthians, but he is very vulnerable in the book, so let’s hang out in a book like 2 Corinthians to see how he is open with his congregation, and then be asking the question, “Lord, give me wisdom for what that openness looks like in my relationship with my church.” I know the illustration that I have which is very significant in my own life, it wasn’t until after I was out of seminary, That I really ever heard a pastor speak about his neediness and sin, I had never heard that before. But I did notice throughout those years his confession of sin was… I would say there are two kinds of sins. One kind of sin is the sort of the common to man sin, in the sense when you say it people are shaking their heads, you talk about the fear of man for example, that would be a great thing to ask for prayer. This particular pastor used talk about could you pray for me that I would listen well to my wife. And whenever he said that the men in the congregation would usually laugh, which is another way of saying here is a sin which is common to us all. There are some sins that if a pastor confessed them nobody would be laughing, nobody would be nodding their head in agreement, they would be starring. “What? You?” That’s the divide between those two things is the challenging one for pastors. I think what I’ve seen over the last two years is pastors are really being encouraged to have relationships where they can speak openly about those struggles that cross those lines to places where they wouldn’t want to speak about those things publicly, because people would have so many varied responses, probably wouldn’t be edifying for the church. But those other common to man sins.. to allow Paul to give you a way to think about those things and then to throw in what that’s going to look like in your own ministry. Great question.

In your own experience in ministry could you finish up today by telling us a story of how you’ve seen God’s Word heal somebody with a fear of man issue?

Over the last week, two conversations: one was with a woman who leans towards anorexia and bulimia. I have the opportunity to know that and other people can see it in her because of the way she looks physically. But as far as she knows she has it very, very well hidden. And her lifestyle is one where it’s “don’t see me.” And in some sense that’s the logic of anorexia, I don’t want to be seen, I want to disappear. And over the last week this woman simply asked me to pray for her. And that seems like a small thing, but that’s a glorious thing. She’s saying I’m going to acknowledge my neediness. In other words she went from “I want other people to think everything’s perfect with me,” to “I am willing to let this person know that I am not.”

The other is my own daughter. She called the other day and she was talking about her desire to speak of Christ with her neighbor. She’s had a growing relationship with her neighbor and she’s wanted to break through to more explicit spiritual things. And I haven’t followed up on that conversation yet to know where it’s gone but simply that request. It’s my daughter saying I want that boldness, that wisdom and love and boldness to be able to speak of Christ even if it puts the relationship at a certain risk. So those are two places that I’ve seen over the past week that if you have your eyes open you realize the fear of man lurks in all of us, and look at them and say wow that is the work of the spirit.

I don’t think I’ve ever considered until just now how the fear of man relates to evangelism in that way. That’s really helpful. Dr. Welch thank you very much for spending time for us I suspect this is going to be very helpful to bringing this issue onto the minds and radars of the guys who will be listening to this like the book was for me. Thank you so much for taking a few minutes and talking with me.

Thanks Clint. I have the greatest admiration for your denomination and especially for your church planters so thanks for the opportunity.

Edward T. Welch, M.Div., Ph.D. is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF. He earned a Ph.D. in counseling (neuropsychology) from the University of Utah and has a Master of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. Ed has been counseling for over 30 years and has written extensively on the topics of depression, fear, and addictions. His books include: When People Are Big and God is Small; Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave; Blame it on the Brain; Depression—A Stubborn Darkness; Running Scared; Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away From Addiction; and When I Am Afraid: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Fear and Anxiety.

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