Book Review: When People Are Big and God is Small, by Ed Welch
It is always sobering when the Lord reveals to me a previously unrecognized vein of sin in my life. I’m not talking about a previously unknown “sin,” as in the particular ones I commit on a daily basis, though I am well acquainted with those, as well. I commit them, recognize them as sin, confess them and repent of them. But sins like that, the one-offs, most often remain isolated in my mind. They’re aberrations from the norm, mistakes, and when I look at them, I see just that—an imperfection, an irregularity, “a” sin. What is profoundly sobering to me, though, are those times when the Lord shows me a vein of sin, a deep-running deposit of rebellion and depravity that colors every minute of the day how I think, how I feel, and how I conceive of life. Those are the times that strike at my pride and remind me that for all God has given me and spared me, I am still a part of this whole fallen mass of sinfulness we call humanity. And yet those are the times that most raise my eyes to heaven in wonder that God would ever stoop to save such a decayed and infected sinner as myself.
Ed Welch has given his book a relatively innocuous title, When People are Big and God is Small, but the pages of the book are filled with anything but benignity. Welch’s book is a discussion of a sin that is common to everyone probably in one form or another—the fear of man. This has been a popular topic even in secular psychology lately, only it is called codependency if you’re an adult, or if you’re a teenager, it’s peer pressure. The problem is not most essentially one of psychology, though, argues Welch. It is one of sin and of rebellion against God. Don’t pick this book up expecting to read it for someone else’s benefit. Welch is uncompromising in his insistence that the fear of man, the desire to be wanted and accepted and needed by other people, is common to us all. In the first five chapters, Welch defines the fear of man by discussing a list of ways that it manifests itself: through fear of exposure or humiliation, fear of rejection or ridicule, or fear of physical attack or oppression. In one way or another, every human being struggles with this. The point is brought home quite humorously on page 29 when Welch writes, “We can be singing with all our heart when we are by ourselves, driving to work, radio blasting. But if someone happens to see us, we are embarrassed. It doesn’t matter that the person who saw us was completely anonymous, never to be seen again. He or she still saw us and briefly reminded us of the deeper fear of being exposed.” It’s true, isn’t it? In one way or another, we are all tainted by the tendency to make an idol out of other people.
The central thesis of Welch’s argument is this: “Regarding other people, our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God.). The task God sets for us is to need them less and love them more,” (p.19). I’m sure it is not foreign to anyone reading this article to feel a need for affection and acceptance from people, or even from a particular person. If that acceptance is withheld, we get angry or depressed. It would be easy to call such a feeling “love” for that person, a desire to be with them and to have them as a friend. The problem, though, is that those kinds of feelings are not finally founded at all on the good of the other person; almost without fail, they are centered on my desire to feel good about myself. If this person will accept me, if this person thinks I am okay, if I can be identified with this person, then I feel good about who I am. If they reject me, though, or do not give me the attention I feel I deserve, then that will just prove me to be the loser I suspected I was all along. At that point, our lives and thoughts begin to center on gaining the acceptance of that person, who finally becomes what Welch calls a “person-idol.” What brings on this kind of sin? When we come to the point that we need love and acceptance from other people in order to feel good about ourselves, it is then that those people begin to hold undue sway over us. As a result, Welch writes, we find ourselves “in bondage, controlled by others and feeling empty. [We] are controlled by whoever or whatever [we] believe can give [us] what [we] think [we] need. It is true: what or who you need will control you,” (p.13-14).
The remedy for this sin is the same as it is for many others: He must increase, while we must decrease. People, or more properly your need for people, must get smaller, and God must get bigger in your mind. For two chapters, Welch teaches on what it means to fear the Lord, to be in awe of Him and to recognize that His holy gaze into the deepest parts of our lives is infinitely more profound than any exposure that could be inflicted by people. His ability to punish us for sin is infinitely more frightening than any person’s ability to reject us. “If the gaze of man awakens fear in us, how much more so the gaze of God. If we feel exposed by people, we will feel devastated before God,” (p.33). The remedy, then, is to grow in the fear of the Lord. As light crowds out darkness, and holiness displaces sin, so a healthy fear of God will dissolve a debilitating fear of man.
But what are we to make of these needs for acceptance and love? Is the Bible silent about them? Some people have argued that a need for other people is a God-given part of our identity as the divine image-bearers. After all, God recognized that it was not good for man to be alone; therefore, He created a helper for him. If that is true, then isn’t it also true that these feelings of need for other people, for affection, are divinely-ordained from our very creation? Welch makes a careful distinction here. Psychological needs, that is, needs for other people in order to feel good about ourselves, are not a result of creation, but a result of the Fall. “After the fall into sin, people remained image-bearers, but Adam’s disobedience brought fundamental changes to our ability to reflect God’s image. The direction of the human heart became oriented not toward God but toward self. In the garden, man began repeating a mantra that will persist until Jesus returns. Adam said, ‘I want.’” The nature of psychological needs is intrinsically selfish. They are a result of sin. Consequently, to seek the satisfaction of those needs is to feed sin itself. “Self-serving needs are not meant to be satisfied; they are meant to be put to death,” (p.162). What, then, is a healthy need for people? Why did God create us male and female if needing other people is sinful? The answer is finally in the motive. So long as the need is centered on ourselves, the need for other people is sinful. So long as my need for others is based on my desire to feel good about myself, the need is rooted in iniquity. Healthy relationships with other people are built on recognizing that any relationship exists solely to make the image of God more visible. This is the reason that God puts Christians together in churches; this is the reason He created them male and female. It was not so that they could idolize one another in order to fill up psychological needs and feel better about themselves for awhile. It was so God Himself might be glorified in their love for one another. Certainly we need other people in the sense that we cannot stand alone, but the end is different. The end is no longer the fulfillment of our own selfish lusts, but the glory of God manifested in the corporate nature of His people.
This book would be useful to any pastor who is willing to have numerous and extended conversations with his people. In a world so sunk in egotism and narcissism as our own, Welch’s book will no doubt bounce around quite unpleasantly on many people’s hearts. The fear of man is widespread in our churches, which is really not too surprising, since the fear of man is widespread among human beings. As Christians, we are redeemed and justified in God’s sight. Even so, the Fall has colored all of us more than we can possibly know. Yet to know how we are depraved, and to be able to recognize the sick colors with which sin has marred us, is an invaluable weapon in the war against it. For pastors and church members alike, Welch’s book will provide a road map to uncovering and tracing the roots of a sin that deserves to be destroyed, or if not that on this side of eternity, at least recognized and resisted.