Welch, Edward T. When People are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997. 239 pp. $14.99.
In When People are Big and God is Small, Ed Welch addresses a problem that appears universal in the church: the fear of man. Welch is a noted biblical counselor, author, and teacher for the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. His many books, lectures, and journal articles have earned Welch the respect of biblical counseling students as well as many in the broader Christian community.
Before offering some words of commendation of Welch’s work, I will briefly present a summary of the book. Welch presents two major parts to addressing our fear of man. In part 1 of the book, he calls us to a greater understanding of the fear of man and its popularity in our world. In part 2, he challenges us to defeat the fear of man by replacing it with appropriate, biblical alternatives.
In part 1, chapters 1-5, Welch first helps us to identify and understand the fear of man. In chapter 1, with the aid of a humorous and vivid illustration, Welch explains to his readers that our modern obsession with self-esteem, peer pressure, codependence, love needs, and a host of other issues are simply new terms to mask the fear of man. In chapters 2-4, Welch presents three forms that the fear of man can take: fear of being exposed by others, fear of being rejected by others, and fear of being physically hurt by others. Then, in chapter 5, the author points out for us to see that the world has deeply influenced the church with its faulty understanding of “needs” and of psychological issues.
After exposing to us the problem and convincing us that we all have it, Welch moves on in part 2 of his book to offer the solutions we need. In chapters 6 and 7, Welch challenges us to know and grow in the fear of the Lord. As one might assume, these calls are calls for us to better understand and more deeply experience the true fear of God. The clear teaching is that the way to truly defeat a sinful fear of man is to replace that fear with an appropriate fear of the Lord.
In chapters 8-10, Welch takes another angle in the battle against the fear of man, devoting these three chapters to a discussion of our needs. Chapter 8 is a call for us to examine what we think are our needs in comparison to the false set of assumptions foisted upon us by needs psychology. Chapter 9 is a reality check in which we learn what are our true needs as people created in God’s image and for God’s glory. Then, chapter 10 is a hopeful section in which we joyfully learn that God is the one who will truly meet our real needs.
Welch concludes his book, chapters 11-13, with a look at true love and obedience. In chapter 11, he challenges us to love our friends, family, and neighbors. This call is a contrast to the needy and selfish way that we approach such people when we fear them. In chapter 12, Welch turns our focus inward, toward the church, to call us away from individualism, selfishness, and self-sufficiency in our relationship with and service to God. Finally, he wraps up the book with an inspiring call to fear God and do our duty before him—a sure way to defeat our fear of man.
One final element that I will mention in this summary is the fact that Welch does not write this book from a simply scholarly point of view. This book is very much focused on application. Through its pages, Welch offers the following 7 steps for us to use in order to work toward the defeat of the fear of man:.
· Recognize that the fear of man is a major theme both in the Bible and in your own life.
· Identify where your fear of man has been intensified by people in your past.
· Identify where your fear of man has been intensified by the assumptions of the world.
· Understand and grow in the fear of the Lord.
· Examine where your desires have been too big.
· Rejoice that God has covered your shame, protected you from danger, and accepted you.
· Need other people less, love other people more.
Points of Agreement
Over the next few paragraphs, I will present some of the high points of Welch’s book. First among these points is how Welch simply yet profoundly helps us to identify symptoms of the fear of man in our lives. In chapter 1, he writes, “It is true: what or who you need will control you” (14). Throughout the rest of the book, Welch gives us picture after picture of what it looks like for a person to believe that they “need” something or someone and how that “need” ends up driving them away from God. Welch later says, “We've seen that whatever you think you need, you come to fear. If you ‘need’ love (to feel okay about yourself), you will soon be controlled by the one who dispenses love” (87). This simple point is one that all believers ought to identify in their lives. It is so very easy for us to miss that, when we give ourselves over to a need mentality, we give ourselves over to the control of that which we think we need.
Not only does Welch point out the danger of the fear of man, he also does a masterful job of helping us to identify some of the more hidden signs of the fear of man in our lives and in the lives of others. For example, he points to the shyness of children, and issue which many overlook, as the fear of man when he writes, “It may be true that some children are naturally more timid around people, but a great deal of shyness is the child's version of the fear of other people. They are being controlled by others” (192). In another place, Welch tells us, “The road leading to the fear of man may be expressed in terms of favoritism, wanting others to think well of you, fearing exposure by them, or being overwhelmed by their perceived physical power” (71). Back in chapter 1, Welch catches nearly all Christians in the fear of man when he ties it to evangelism by writing, “Have you ever been too timid to share your faith in Christ because others might think you are an irrational fool? Gotcha” (17). In all of these places, and in many more, Welch shows us the great prevalence and danger of the fear of man in our own lives; and this is a good, if painful, thing for us to see.
Not all of the book has a painful feel. There are many places in which, as the reader progresses through, he or she will be quite encouraged. It is encouraging to see that our fear of God is a worshipful fear when the author says, “The Bible teaches that God's people are no longer driven by terror-fear, or fear that has to do with punishment. Instead, we are blessed with worship-fear, the reverential awe motivated more by love and the honor that is due him” (98). In chapter 10, which focuses on how God meets our true needs, Welch writes, “Don't think that God's forgiveness is a begrudging forgiveness and with that thought deny some of God's glorious love” (170). In the same chapter, the author uses the account of Hosea’s marriage to illustrate the wonderful, gracious, overwhelming love of God toward his church. Because god has so loved us, we need not fear that others will expose us or hurt us. We can find true hope and joy in God, and that joy frees us from the crippling effects of the fear of man. As Welch reminds us, “WHEN you spend time in the throne room of God, it puts things in perspective. The opinions of others are less important, and even our opinions of ourselves seem less important” (135).
While I could say many more positive things about this book, I will mention only one more. Welch’s right presentation of replacing the fear of man with the fear of God is a life-changing principle. Welch writes, “Therefore, the first task in escaping the snare of the fear of man is to know that God is awesome and glorious, not other people” (95). He presents genuine worship of God as an antidote for the worship of others when he says, “If you have been in the presence of the almighty God, everything that once controlled you suddenly has less power” (119). So many books make it clear that we should not let the actions or opinions of others drive our lives; Welch’s book is superior because it offers us a clear alternative instead of simply a reproof.
Though there are few books that I could write this about, When People are Big and God is Small is a very difficult text with which to find fault. My complaints about the book are most often limited to wanting more than what was given in this brief text. For example, Welch exposed shyness as the fear of man in children. I would have liked for him to go deeper into that topic. How, for example, should a Christian parent address this fear in the lives of unbelieving children? Is there a shyness that is not fear of man, and if so, what is it? But, given the scope of the book, it is understandable why Welch would not be able to address every contingency that his teaching brings out.
There are very few books that I have read in the past few years that I think are more applicable to everyone I know, including myself, than When People are Big and God is Small. This book is easy-to-read, brief enough to not be a burden, and hard-hitting enough to catch almost anyone’s attention. Welch has done a masterful job of bringing to light an area of needed change for me. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to any believer.