Awhile back it was "button day" at school. That's a lot like "green day" of the week before except that it was buttons now-big ones, jangling ones, outrageous ones-that were de rigueur in Miss Rotenberg's third-grade class. The time was 7 a.m. and I had no buttons, and my 9-year-old was doing a fetching imitation of a man being sent to the guillotine. And as I watched him I was appalled-but not at him. It was myself I was watching: the fear of man, stripped of all its sophistication.
When we think of the sins that ruin men's lives, we tend to think of the sensational ones-alcohol, gambling, sex, gluttony. But that's not my experience. As I survey the blighted landscape of my past it was fear of man at every step of the way, directing what I said, what I did, what I joined, what I didn't. James, in his epistle, talks about "a course of life set on fire by hell." That's a good description of a person in bondage to the fear of man.
The trouble with fear of man, of course, is that you have a thousand masters instead of one to please. You think fear of God is bad? It's nothing compared to the alternative. Fear of man is a cruel tyranny. It's exhausting, it's complicated, and you're not nimble enough to pull it off.
Who knows why we don't weary of it sooner, just chuck it and simplify our lives by living coram Deo all the time? "Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted" (Isaiah 1:5-6).
The fear of man is an exciting lifestyle, though, there's no denying that: always looking over your shoulder, always checking the popularity polls, being ready at a moment's notice to alter your philosophy. Nice work if you can get it. But not all of you can afford a personal Dick Morris.
I'll bet at least half the '60s phenomenon can be explained by the fear of man. Think about it: What else is powerful enough to make you ingest unidentifiable man-altering substances from the dirty hands of a grungy stranger in bellbottoms?
On a good day the fear-of-man person goes to bed happy: "Cleaned the house so I look good to the Joneses. Was told by three people at church that I did a good job in something. Helped a neighbor in distress, and was seen doing it. Got a column published in WORLD."
Downside: I'm only as good as my last essay.
As far as I can tell from Proverbs, fear of man is anything that's not fear of the Lord-all those wretched little strategies we use that just end in disaster. Are you a decent chess player? Well, you'd better be a fabulous one if you want to play the fear-of-man game, because you're playing chess with God-and He's always 10 moves ahead of you.
I often think Ahithophel was the miserable guy in the Bible. Just imagine what a big shot he was: King David himself came to him for advice. Then a day comes when his counsel is passed over, and you know what he does? He quietly gets up, saddles his donkey, puts his house in order-and hangs himself. This is the end of the fear of man, of an identity and self-worth that rests on something other than being God's child. When he loses his job, he loses his life.
Imagine King Herod waking up in hell because he worries more about the opinion of his dinner guests at Salome's dance debut than about God's opinion. Imagine the gnashing of teeth that goes on there. Imagine the tragedy of a lifetime spent fearing the opinions of people who aren't even on the right wavelength. The very thing you live for is an illusion.
Christianity is nothing if not reasonable. "Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come" is not only the right prayer first thing in the morning; it's the only place of peace. Replacing a delusion with reality. Replacing pursuit of the praise of man with the praise that comes from God (John 5:44). Replacing the quest to be loved with the quest to love. Doing it daily, hourly, 10 minutes at a time.
"As for a man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear him" (Psalm 103:15-17).