Big people, small God, big problems

(A simple but powerful biblical worldview framework in Ed Welch’s biblical counseling book When People Are Big and God is Small.)

I recently read Ed Welch’s book, When People are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. It is a good book in general and one I would recommend. It struck a chord with me from the beginning—from the Table of Contents, actually. I am not sure if it was intentional or not, but I immediately saw the biblical-theological outline behind the work, which is nevertheless not explained in the work. I think providing this explicitly may be of help to some readers, as well as the general recommendation.

The book is certainly good as general spiritual nourishment and growth, but also for a myriad of other more specific biblical-psychological reasons. Anything that provides material on psychology from a biblical viewpoint is sorely needed, and anything that does so and is accessible to most average readers is of added benefit.

I am a proponent, in general, of biblical counseling, as opposed to humanistic psychology, although I am not as dogmatic on all points as some may be. I generally follow in the mold set by Jay Adams and his next-generation heirs at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation in Glenside, PA (adjacent to Westminster Seminary). Ed Welch is one of those heirs, and this book is a fitting addition to the developed tradition.

My interest was aroused first by the outline of chapters in “Part One: How and Why We Fear Others.” The chapters outlining the reasons why are:

“People will see me.”

“People will reject me.”

“People will physically hurt me.”

“The world wants me to fear people.”

Perhaps you see it already, and perhaps the author designed it this way, but this is as fundamentally biblical as it gets, and it draws from the most fundamental passage about sin in all of Scripture, Genesis 3:1–6, particularly verse 6 here:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

The woman saw three things in the forbidden fruit: physical food, delight to the eyes, and the lust for superior wisdom. Lusting after these three things—the flesh, the sight, the pride—she defied God’s command.

These three things compose a kind of shorthand for the aspects of the sin nature. They appear in key moments in Scripture, especially in the one place the temptation in the garden was repeated: the temptation of Christ in the wilderness.

After fasting 40 days and nights, the same old serpent who came to Eve came also to Jesus. He tempted Christ in the same three ways: 1) turn stones to bread (physical food), 2) proving prophecy of him was really true of him (superior wisdom/pride), and 3) the sight of all the kingdoms of the world (delight of the eyes). (See Matt. 4; Luke 4; Mark 1:12ff.)

Jesus succeeded in these where Adam and Eve failed. He resisted each of these temptations.

The apostle John lists these same three things for us as the summary of all that is in this sinful world:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world (1 John 2:15–16).

I think this is generally a good outline for the nature of temptation and sin: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Focusing on a relationship with Christ and spiritual growth means overcoming these aspects of life and putting them behind you.

Welch’s chapters (2–4) correspond to these three aspects of “Why we fear others,” and his chapter 5 is a summary of the aspects combined as we face them in everyday life. “People will see me” is an expression of fear based upon the lust of the eyes. “People will reject me” is a fear based on pride. “People will physically hurt me” is a fear based upon the flesh itself. “The world wants me to fear people” is precisely that of which John speaks in his epistle quoted just above.

Meat for spiritual growth and maturity

I would not normally spend much time with a random book on biblical counseling and relationships, but when I see one well executed and developing biblical psychology in powerful ways I want to share it and get the word out. The Word of God is the ultimate power for transforming lives, and but too often we do not let it shine into the deeper crevices of our fallen natures—maybe we are not even aware of what those crevices are. This book shows us many of them, and many are unexpected. We leave many places for sin to hide, and shallow teaching and application allow it to continue in too many clever guises. We need the light to shine more deeply.

Consider some basic starting points. We know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10), and we also know that rebellion against God is the fear of man, or self, which is the same thing reflexively. Consider Welch’s view on how this manifests (p. 23):

1. We fear people because they can expose us and humiliate us. (Eyes.)

2. We fear people because they can reject, ridicule, or despise us. (Pride.)

3. We fear people because they can attack, oppress, or threaten us. (Felsh.)

This gives rise to some specific applicational questions we might ask ourselves, as a preliminary devotions:

  • Have you ever struggled with peer pressure? “Peer pressure” is simply a euphemism for the fear of man. If you experienced it when you were younger, believe me, it is still there. It may be submerged and revealed in more adult ways, or it may be camouflaged by your impressive resume (your perceived successes).

It is precisely something so simple that can be so far reaching. Just when you thought this was for middle-school children, suddenly it’s for grown ups as well. Suddenly, it sweeps up the most accomplished men among us—those who have the most of which to boast, or those who may boast of their “fruits” of ministry or work, or who compare theirs to others’. Yes, you have some growing to do as well.

Maybe you are not some “great” man or woman. Perhaps you are just an average hardworking Joe. Maybe you are not caught up in all that stuff. Not so fast. Many people with deep spiritual problems may just be hiding behind the fig leaves of average hardworkingdom—a perfect cover for many. You have devotions to do as well:

  • Are you over-committed? Do you find that it is hard to say no when wisdom indicates that you should? You are a “people-pleaser,” another euphemism for the fear of man.

When we should be first seeking our sanctification in a relationship with God, we instead seek it in a variety of other places and motives based upon all that is in the world. We end up shallow spiritually, even if we have many pious outer garbs. We have not submitted fully to him, so we submit to idols: work, pleasure, accomplishment, personal or national greatness, race, gender, spouses, children, vicarious experiences, vacations, treats, “manliness,” beards, food, strength, religious traditions, political action, etc.

The spousal relationship is especially affected by this. It is also one where the most pious coverings appear: biblical demands for “love” or “respect” can easily be cited and tossed about with authority. Welch nails the sin that can hide beneath such biblical teachings:

  • Do you “need” something from your spouse? Do you “need” your spouse to listen to you? Respect you? Think carefully here. Certainly God is pleased when there is good communication and mutual honor between spouses. But for many people, the desire for these things has roots in something that is far from God’s design for his image-bearers. Unless you understand the biblical parameters of marital commitment, your spouse will become the one you fear. Your spouse will control you. Your spouse will quietly take the pace of God in your life.

I would add here what Welch fills out in so many words in other places in the book: this “control” can be active or passive. It can be a domineering demand of the other, a nagging drag upon the other, or even unconscious expectations which cause anxiety, mood swings, and more.

More:

  • Do you ever feel as if you might be exposed as an imposter? Many business executives and apparently successful people do. The sense of being exposed is an expression of the fear of man. It means the opinions of other people—especially their opinion that you are a failure—are able to control you. . . .
  • Are you afraid of making mistakes that will make you look bad in other people’s eyes?

That last line lies behind a vast, almost universal, problem among leaders in our society: the refusal to repent, and the refusal even to acknowledge obvious sin, error, or even the slightest misstatement. All manner of evil, especially at high levels of both politics and ministry, is hidden because people cannot accept responsibility for their error out of fear that if they confessed and repented, they would lose their esteem in the eyes of men (not to mention material advantages, etc.).

  • Do you feel empty or meaningless? Do you experience “love hunger”? Here again, if you need others to fill you, you are controlled by them.

Most men I know would never confess “love hunger.” Not only is the reticence to confess that reality often a sign of a very similar fear of man, but most are nevertheless affected by it to some degree, and some are eaten up with the need to feel loved and admired by others.

  • Do you get easily embarrassed? If so, people and their opinions probably define you. Or, to use biblical language, you exalt the opinions of others to the point where you are ruled by them.

We usually associate shyness with meekness and humility. This is not necessarily a good thing. Shyness can be reflective of the fear of man, and many people hide in it to avoid spiritual growth. It is based more in shame than in humility, and it is closely related, often accompanied by, a lack of self-deprecating humor, taking oneself too seriously, magnifying the words or deeds of others into the level of an attack or offense against oneself, defensiveness, etc.

  • Do other people often make you angry or depressed? Are they making you crazy? If so, they are probably the controlling center of your life.
  • Do you avoid people? If so, even though you might not say you need people, you are still controlled by them. Isn’t a hermit dominated by the fear of man?

That last one can be me, very often. I have to watch it closely these days. I have to draw nearer to God, affirm my callings, and go embrace and obey them—in family, work, church, state, and more.

And with all of that, I have only covered a few points made in the introductory chapter on pages 14–16 of Welch’s book. He then goes on to describe each of the three areas—flesh, eyes, and pride—in separate chapters. And that’s only the first half of the book.

A Biblical response to felt needs, sin, and shame

Welch then devotes well over half the book to biblical prescriptions for remedying these selfish patterns of behavior. I have not even begun to describe these parts, which are as helpful as the sections providing the diagnoses.

His summaries are helpful as well. The sins can be summarized like this: “Regarding other people, our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God)” (p. 19).

The remedy for this is simple (even if not easy): we need to love more and need less, or “the path of service is the road to freedom” (p. 19).

Ultimately, the remedy for all of the fear of man is something along these lines: humility is not thinking less of ourselves, it is thinking of ourselves less, or at least less often.

Many people mistakenly believe that thinking less of ourselves is the answer. There is some perspective to this: we should not be puffed up, prideful, etc. We think many people need to be “knocked down a notch or two,” because they think so highly of themselves. But the perspective is this: someone could take the same talents, energy, strength, attributes, etc., and use them to serve and promote others, and we would think it proper. The person does not need to be taken down a notch—just submitted to the proper master and tasks. The person—all of us, that is—needs to think not less of themselves. We are the image of God, after all, and what self-esteem course can top that? What we need instead is to focus upon ourselves less often, and to serve others more instead.

Indeed, those who would put more effort into debasing themselves more and more are still spending inordinate time upon self and the fear of man.

Conclusion

This is a book I think many people need to read. It is not perfect by any means. I have a few question marks written in the margins. But overall it is good. It is helpful because it has a solid, biblical framework for the doctrine of sin and shame. It understands how shame operates, and that it is much more pervasive that we think—especially as it manifests at the margins of strength for men, and weakness for women. This is especially helpful teaching precisely because the manifestations of the fear of man are often counterintuitive. They lurk precisely where we think we have them mastered.

As such, the large majority of psychology and relationship books only feed the problems in various ways. Because we associate fear and shame with victimhood and not with sin, things can only get worse. When there is genuine victimhood, justice or restoration are necessary. When there are only self-manufactured feelings of victimhood—shame and fear of man resulting from one’s own sin—there we need to address the sin (pastorally) and be reconciled to God.

I will say for now—since I have not yet mentioned this elsewhere—that this is not the singlebest book on biblical psychology. That honor I think goes to R. J. Rushdoony’s Revolt Against Maturity: A Biblical Psychology of Man. That book is indispensable for exactly what it says, and it provides a much deeper and profound biblical theological foundation for future work than anything else I’ve ever seen on the subject. I would also add Cornelius Van Til’s Psychology of Religion for more advanced readers seeking theological foundations.

But in addition to Rushdoony on this, I would say many definitely need to read Welch’s When People are Big and God is Small. Personal spiritual growth and sanctification are often merely assumed in the larger theonomy movement, and not often given much actual space. Here’s a good place to start.

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