When People Are Big and God Is Small

By Welch, Edward T. When People Are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1997.

Edward Welch insists that fear of man is an insidious sin that every human being deals with one way or another. For an adult, it is called codependency, for an adolescent, peer pressure. It is a desire to be valued and wanted by others that manifests itself in low self-esteem, shame, feelings of rejection, jealousy, anger, and/or preoccupation with external appearance.

Welch writes that the fear of man keeps us “in bondage, controlled by others and feeling empty,” because we are “controlled by whoever or whatever [we] believe can give [us] what [we] think [we] need” (13). In When People Are Big and God Is Small, Welch exposes this sin from the recesses of our hearts and prescribes ways to counteract it.

In order to demonstrate that this seemingly innocuous need to be loved by others is indeed harmful, Welch offers a fascinating critique of our Post-Modern culture. Beginning with Freud and Maslow’s propagation of the idea of psychological need, there has been a gradual shift in our culture from the older moral concern with self-control and self-sacrifice to an emphasis on self-expression, self-realization, and self-fulfillment (86).

Underlying this shift is the faulty assumption that human beings are inherently moral and that their emotions (i.e. feelings), therefore, always express what is true and good (81-84). This assumption elevates psychological “needs”(i.e. love, significance, security, etc.) to the level of biological (i.e. food, water, clothes, shelter) and spiritual (i.e. redemption, sanctification, and glorification) needs (138).

Many Christians have uncritically accepted this understanding of the human being as psychologically needy, arguing that there is a “God-given need to be loved that is born into every human infant … that must be met from cradle to grave,” and that “if that primal need for love is not met,” we’ll “carry the scars for life” (88).

However, Welch contends that this psychological “need,” far from being divinely-ordained in creation, was a consequence of the Fall. It reflects an anthropocentric, rather than a theocentric, worldview. It is a “self-serving [need] … not meant to be satisfied, … [but] put to death” (162-163). In fact, this theory of psychological need is responsible for the unbridled self-ism and victim mentality of our therapeutic culture (89).

Welch observes that the idea of “psychological need” has found support in the common conception of a person as body, which has physical needs, soul, which has psychological needs, and spirit, which has spiritual needs. However, he insists that this tripartite view of personhood is inaccurate, because the Bible uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably (cf. Mt. 10:28 1 Cor. 7:34; Jas. 2:26). In cases where “soul” and “spirit” are separately mentioned (e.g. Heb. 4:12; 1 Thes. 5:23), the two words form a tandem describing one inner person (141-142).

If I may elaborate on Welch’s explanation, “soul and spirit” constitute a hendiadys, a rhetorical construct that expresses a single idea by two words connected with “and.” For example, when John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt. 3:11). He is not saying that we need to be baptized with both the Holy Spirit and fire, but rather conveying a single idea of the “fiery Holy Spirit.”

But don’t we have genuine, God-given need for other people? Didn’t God create mankind male and female because he deemed it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18)? Didn’t Jesus intend that the Church be an interdependent body of believers that needs its various parts to fulfill their various roles (1 Cor. 12)? Didn’t God command us to love one another (Jn. 13:34-35)?

Welch does not discount these realities, but he makes a teleological distinction between these genuine, spiritual needs and pseudo-psychological needs. Psychological needs are inherently self-serving, while spiritual needs are God-honoring. What we really need, writes Welch, is not to feel better about ourselves, but to repent from our ways and obey God. We are called to love others, “not because people have psychological deficits,” but “because God first loved us” (162-163).

Our problem, then, is that “we need [people] (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God)” (19), and Welch’s main thesis is that we need to “need other people less [and] love other people more” (183). This, of course, is not a natural human inclination, and for this reason we need the fear of God. If the fear of man is a centripetal orientation that uses people for one’s ownneeds, the fear of God is a centrifugal orientation that loves people for God’s glory. 

But wait, what about 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” That is true, but the fear that is cast out is the terror of God’s judgment. For Christians who have been forgiven of their sins, the fear of God is a reverent submission to God that leads to obedience. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10). “The fear of the LORD leads to life” (Prov. 19:23). “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13; Dt. 1:17).

In other words, the fear of God involves seeing God as He really is–powerful, awesome, and holy–and humbly submitting to Him. The fear of man puts man under a microscope and makes small people appear big, while the fear of God sets a telescope on God and makes our big God appear as He really is.

Welch goes further than most Evangelicals by saying that the “fear of God” rather than the “love of God” is the cure for the “fear of man.” It is true that God loves us, but applying this truth as a psychological balm is little more than a baptized version of Melody Beattie’s prescription that to be Codependent No More one must love him or herself more (18). It spurns personal repentance and condones a self-centered worldview in which God exists merely to boost our self-esteem (18).

As Welch puts it, “To look to Christ to meet our perceived psychological needs is to Christianize our lusts. We are asking God to give us what we want, so we can feel better about ourselves, or so we can have more happiness, not holiness, in our lives” (150). The antidote for the fear of man is not to think more highly of ourselves, but to think more rightly, and therefore more highly, of God. Then, we will not think so much about what other people think of us and more about how we can love them.

Those who have weathered a hurricane are not concerned about the spring rain. Those who have “walked among the giant redwoods [are] never … overwhelmed by the size of a dogwood tree” (119). In the same way, those who have been in the presence of God fear no man:

“Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. Fire goes before Him and consumes His foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim His righteousness, and all peoples see His glory” (Ps. 97:2-6).

Welch’s simple, yet profound, little book offers a welcome alternative to the plethora of self-help books that pander to our self-centered worldviews.

Buy When People Are Big and God Is Small HERE.

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