You have two options when you’re faced with opposition: fear God or fear man.
Nehemiah faced with choice when the wall around Jerusalem was finally completed, reconstructed after 52 days of hard labor. For those unfamiliar with the story, Nehemiah chapters 1 through 6 follows the story of a man named Nehemiah. Nehemiah was appointed by God to lead God’s people back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city walls, which were destroyed 141 years earlier. This was a task that seemingly nobody took upon themselves for a century and a half! Yet, even in the face of much opposition from others, Nehemiah succeeded where those others had failed. He succeeded because he was a man commissioned by God on high. This was God’s city, God’s wall, God’s people, God’s plan. Nehemiah succeeded because his mission was the Lord’s mission.
And when those walls went up and the final bricks were laid, the hordes of critics and haters were finally silenced, right? Wrong. There was at least one relentless critic: a man named Tobiah.
“So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days…Moreover, in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and Tobiah’s letters came to them…And Tobiah sent letters to make me afraid.” (Nehemiah 6:15,17,19)
Tobiah had been a critic of Nehemiah’s since Nehemiah 1. He was mean, harsh, and relentless. He was a critic when Nehemiah was doing God’s work, taunting, “You’ll never get it done!” And when that work was done and the walls were up, Tobiah still served a generous helping of criticism.
Most of us are just like Nehemiah.
You and I will have critics and opponents in our lives that will never go away. And when we face those critics, there is a temptation to either hide or cower before them. There is a temptation to stop working, stop praying, stop serving. Few things can get a firmer grip on the human heart than this temptation, which the Bible calls the “fear of man.”
Ed Welch, a biblical counselor, offers a helpful definition on the “fear of man”:
The fear of man can be summarized this way: We replace God with people. Instead of a biblically guided fear of the Lord, we fear others … . When we are in our teens, it is called “peer pressure.” When we are older, it is called “people-pleasing.” Recently, it has been called “codependency.” With these labels in mind, we can spot the fear of man everywhere.
Under this definition, we are all guilty, right?
You can fear man in two ways:
- buckling under those against you, like Nehemiah was tempted to do.
- catering to those around you, like caving into peer pressure.
Whichever the case, here’s what the fear of man really is, at the very core: slavery.
After all, the fear of man grips the heart and refuses to let go. It dictates our values and the yearnings of our hearts. It diverts us from our mission to glorify God and it glorifies others instead. Because of it, we exalt the opinions of others and spend ridiculous amounts of energy trying to establish ourselves as pitiful little gods in our own narrow little worlds.
To remedy the fear of man, we need to fear the Lord.
We need to exchange fear for fear—the fear of man for the fear of the Lord.
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.
(Prov. 29:25 ESV)
The fear of man is the opposite of the fear of the Lord because it is nothing less than an outright rejection of his Lordship. When you fear men and not God, then you will do things out of impure motives, you will say things that you don’t mean, and you will cross moral boundaries you never intended to cross.
But we can take our cues from Nehemiah. His singleness of purpose and loyalty to God alone served as a shield for Nehemiah in this final showdown with Tobiah. Nehemiah feared disobeying the God he served more than he feared the opinions of the mortal Tobiah. Thus, God empowered Nehemiah to persevere, and He used Nehemiah in mighty ways to continue leading His people on His mission.
Nehemiah wasn’t the only one who valued a healthy fear of the Lord.
Jesus valued the fear of God too.
In fact, a prophecy in Isaiah 11:3 says this of Jesus: “his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”
Jesus has a lot of haters and critics too (and so do his followers). People say harsh things about Him and spread lies about Him all the time. Critics question whether Jesus was truly God or whether His life was truly real. Even still, just like Nehemiah had to continue his ministry in the face of opposition so that God’s city could be built, Jesus had to continue his ministry so that His church could be built. Jesus said He would live perfectly. And He did. He said He would die in the place of sinners. And He did. He said He would rise again. And He did. Jesus also said He would build His church. Just look around; He’s been building it for centuries and continues to build it today. Jesus is the God who not only sets out on His mission, but He never fails because He is the Faithful and Mighty One.
Christians, we are called on a mission to glorify God too. Just like Nehemiah. Just like Jesus. And, like them, we will get criticized for it. When you do, you can either buckle under the pressure or press on to the prize. If you press on, the reward to come is surely great. God proved it with Nehemiah’s finished wall. He proved it with Jesus’ empty tomb. And if we continue, by God’s grace, in humble and God-fearing obedience, God will honor that, and we will see our lives bear fruit like Nehemiah’s did. This we can be assured of because God is the ever Faithful One, worthy of holy fear and mighty to save.