Book Review

When People Are Big and God is Small

July 11, 2017

When People Are Big and God is Small, by Edward T. Welch, was assigned reading by Dr. Frank Catanzaro, to partially fulfill the requirements for Biblical Counseling in the Master of Divinity program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The following is a book review submitted by Brett W. Marlowe during the Summer Term, 2009.

Welch holds a Master of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. He serves as both a Christian counselor and a Christian educator. He is a member of several organizations and serves on staff at Westminster Theological Seminary where he teaches practical theology. As an author he has written several books and numerous journal articles (p. 240).

Welch’s credentials and achievements are impressive, but his simple and conversational style writing is equally impressive. He uses sound hermeneutical principles and is very knowledgeable about the subject matter. It is apparent from the beginning that he has a message to share and he communicates it with passion. This writer found it easy to follow the flow of his argument and to identify with it on a personal level.

Welch has written an informative book that discusses a fundamental issue that all people deal with in some way, shape, or form – fear. Located at the heart of the book is whether a person has a fear of God or a fear of man. The thesis can be summarized by saying that a biblical response is needed to fully understand the “nearly universal experience of the fear of man” (p. 18). How can the teachings of Scripture correct the faulty view of people seeing people as “bigger” than God? Welch teaches that Scripture gives three basic reasons as to why this happens. These three reasons include: (1) people can expose and humiliate us, (2) people can reject, ridicule, and despise us, and (3) people can attack, oppress, or threaten us (p. 23).

We often replace God with people because we fear man more than we fear God. Welch develops this thesis from a biblical perspective.

Chapter one discusses the concept of people as empty tanks in need of being filled. People are often more concerned with what others think than they are what God thinks. This causes a person to live focused on the opinions of others, which leads to their being controlled by others. Welch uses the picture of a tank in need of being filled. We can either be filled with the finished work of Jesus and find ultimate freedom in Him, or we can seek the acceptance and approval of others and never be satisfied (p. 12). Welch makes the point “Is it really Christ that I am standing on, or am I standing on my perceived successes and the favorable opinions of others?” (p. 12).

Chapter one establishes the foundational argument that Welch continues to build on throughout the book. Fear defined biblically means “being afraid of someone, but it extends to holding someone in awe, being controlled or mastered by people, worshipping other people, putting your trust in other people, or needing people” (p. 14). Fear is a broad term that can manifest itself in many different ways. For example, Welch says that teens refer to it as peer-pressure, while older people know it as people-pleasing. In recent days, it has been referred to as codependency. The bottom line is that fear leads to controlled behavior. When a person places paramount concern on the opinions of others they will ultimately be guided and controlled by those opinions.

Welch offers some questions that are helpful in identifying a fear of man (pp. 14-17):

  • “Have you struggled with peer pressure?”
  • “Are you over-committed?”
  • “Do you need something from your spouse?”
  • “Is self-esteem a critical concern for you?”
  • “Do you ever feel as if you might be exposed as an impostor?”
  • “Do you feel empty or meaningless?”
  • “Do you get easily embarrassed?”
  • “Are you jealous of other people?”
  • “Do you avoid people?”

Welch proposes “the most radical treatment for the fear of man is the fear of the Lord. God must be bigger to you than people are” (p. 19). This opening chapter establishes the fact that the love of God is the most important ingredient to fearing God. People need to know that being filled with the love of God eliminates the need to be filled by other people. Somehow we have confused a love for people with a need for people. Loving people is not the same thing as needing people. We need to learn to love more and need less. A key phrase that this writer took away from this chapter is that “our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God)” (p. 19). When this happens we find that we fear people more than we fear God.

Chapter two teaches that a fear of man comes as a result of being exposed or humiliated. Welch uses the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to illustrate this point. When they sinned against God they immediately tried to cover up their sin and shame. Of course, their effort was meaningless because nothing is hidden from the sight of God. However, Welch makes an interesting observation from Genesis 3:7[1] that strengthens his fear of man argument. He says, “The story of Scripture quickly became one in which people frantically looked to hide and protect themselves from the gazes of God and other people” (p. 24). There are two areas where this hiding and protecting can be observed. These two areas include: (1) shame that comes from sin, and (2) shame that comes from being sinned against. Regardless, the term shame can be defined as self-esteem. Welch says, “Shame, and its feeling of disgrace before God and others, surfaces in our culture as low self-esteem, with its feelings of worthlessness” (p. 28).

Welch makes the point that nothing man-made can ever cover shame (p. 30). Adam and Eve tried to cover their own nakedness, yet that was a job that only God could accomplish. An illustration of this would be celebrating Halloween. Each year people put on masks and go out in public. While they wear a mask there is a constant fear that an unveiling will take place and their true identity be revealed. Welch says “Everyday is Halloween. Putting on masks is a regular part of our morning ritual” (p. 33). This illustration strengthens the thesis of the book. It is not the eyes of other people that should be feared, but rather a deeper fear: the eyes of God (p. 33). This writer agrees with Welch in that a fear of people is really just a more conscious version of being afraid of God. People often live with a greater awareness of people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, while suppressing a more desperate fear of God (p. 33).

Sin veils and covers shame, while the Bible teaches that all sin must be unveiled and uncovered.

Sin stands in need of forgiveness. This highlights the overarching truth of Chapter two that “the Gospel is the story of God covering his naked enemies” (p. 34). The Gospel is the greatest demonstration of God’s love[2] toward fallen humanity. It is also the only answer for the shame of sin and the victimization of sin. This writer was pleased that Welch presented the Gospel early in the book and that it was clearly stated as the primary step in fearing God; “The roots of shame-induced fear of man lie in our relationship with God…we are still naked and need a covering for sin that only God can provide” (pp. 35-36). Only Christ can remove shame.

Chapter three addresses perhaps the most common reason people are controlled by a fear of man; people can reject, ridicule, or despise us (p. 37). Fear of rejection can lead to severely handicapped behavior from not being invited to a party to being turned down for a date. A guy may fear being rejected by a girl when asking her on a date. Therefore, he decides not to ask her out. While this example may seem elementary, it includes the fundamental elements of a fear of man. Welch says, “I wonder how many of us fear (respect or reverence) those who have more money, more power, more education, more attractive-ness” (p. 38).

Welch turns to King Saul and the Pharisees of the New Testament to illustrate the fear of rejection. God commanded Saul to completely destroy the Amalekites, but he chose to go against God’s orders and spare Agag, the sheep and cattle, and all that was good. Perhaps he felt pressured by those back home to receive good spoils seized from the war. As a result, Saul lost his kingdom because he demonstrated a fear of others over a fear of God. The Pharisees opposed those who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah. Yet, it is clear from reading through the Gospel accounts that some of them believed in the ministry and message of Jesus. Unfortunately, however, they feared confessing their faith because of other people’s reactions and how it might impact the synagogue (p. 39). While the Pharisees may have been feared by people, the truth of the matter is that they were also fearful of others, even their own kind. As a result, ironically, their lives were controlled by others.

One of the most powerful statements in the book is found in this chapter. Welch says, “Sometimes we would prefer to die for Jesus than to live for him” (p. 39). Many people would be willing to die a quick and painless death for the sake of Jesus, but many would not be willing to surrender to an entire life of being “unpopular, ignored, poor, or criticized” (p. 39). Instead, we place a greater emphasis on living for others. Since people are created beings[3] and often steal worship away from God, the Bible refers to this as idolatry (pp. 44-45). Welch’s thesis includes the fact that God alone is worthy of our worship. Therefore, this part of the book provides crucial support to the thesis.

A negative critique of this section, however, is that the idolatry discussion moves from the Children of Israel[4] to modern day examples. This creates a gap between the then and the now. This writer believes that the thesis could have been strengthened had the author included New Testament teaching on the sin of idolatry. Especially since the second half of the book deals with overcoming the fear of others through the ministry of the church.[5] For example, it would have been good to bridge the then and the now with the Apostle Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill from Acts 17 where he speaks of idolatry and the created worshipping the created. Nonetheless, Welch rightfully teaches that people become idols when they are feared above God.

Chapter four discusses the unfortunate affects of violence that cause people to fear others. There is no doubt that a past experience can have a major influence on the life of a person today (pp. 52-53). This includes physical actions and spoken words. Words are powerful and when used recklessly they can cause a person to fear others. For example, a child who is often made to feel inferior by a parent when sharing from their heart will decide over time that it is best not to share. These experiences can have a significant influence in a child’s life and will follow them into adulthood.

Welch revisits earlier teaching when he says, “Our jealous God demands that he alone be worshipped and exalted” (p. 57). He uses the examples of Joshua and David as men who feared God, not man. “Being afraid is not wrong in itself. As creatures living in a sinful world we should be afraid at times. The problem is when fear forgets God” (p. 60). Fear should drive us to the Father not away from Him. This section includes a solid discussion on the Psalms, which is instrumental in gaining a biblical understanding of what it means to fear God. This section strengthened Welch’s thesis.

Chapter five introduces the idea that a fear of man comes naturally; “Since the Fall, it is human instinct” (p. 73). While people are naturally gifted professional sinners, the world also encourages people to live in the fear of man. Welch unpacks this idea by saying that the world seduces hearts into thinking that approval and acceptance of others is a necessity. In other words, the world says that a person must gain the approval and acceptance of others if they are to live a successful and satisfying life. He takes this reasoning one step further by saying that because we live in a culture of victimization, there is a temptation to blame-shift (p. 74). The implication of this is that the locus of control is shifted away from oneself and toward other people. As a result, “We are saying that other people control our behavior” (p. 74). The tragedy is when people adopt the argument that someone made them do or say something. This removes any element of personal responsibility and accountability. Both are critical for developing a fear of God. The truth is that no one makes another person say or do something. Everyone stands accountable before a holy God for their own behavior and conduct.[6]

The thesis of the book is supported in this chapter. Welch points out that we have a double-whammy when it comes to fearing God. Not only are we fighting against our own sinful nature, but we are also fighting against the influences of culture (p. 75). This writer believes that Welch makes accurate assertions about the spiritual condition of modern culture. He suggests that while we live in a time of spiritual resurgence (talking about God), conversations rarely get to the thing of first importance: the Gospel (p. 77).[7] Rather, the culture makes assumptions based on misguided views of God. These assumptions include: man is morally good, emotions are the way to truth, and all people are spiritual. Welch makes the point that “Modern spirituality has no hell, no doctrine, and no substance. It is about feeling” (p. 84). Unfortunately, modern culture is conditioned to the governance of feelings. A higher premium is placed on feelings and experience than on faith and a fear of God. In short, culture lacks biblical doctrine. Talking about God cannot be equated with talking about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many who claim to be “spiritual” and use phrases such as, “the man upstairs” or “the good Lord was watching out for us,” but they never arrive at an understanding of the person and work of Jesus.

Being spiritual is not equal to salvation.

Welch concludes this chapter by discussing psychology and Christian psychology. These two realms often collide in the area of needs. If a person has unmet needs they feel justified in looking to someone or something to fill those needs. Psychology is often viewed as the manager of cultural assumptions, specifically as it relates to human needs. Welch puts his finger on the pulse of the issue; “Whatever you think you need, you come to fear” (p. 87). Additionally, that which creates fear also controls. For example, if you are a person who needs to be loved in order to feel good about yourself, then you will soon be controlled by the one who gives you love. You will constantly be searching for someone to love you. This pursuit will become a controlling factor in your life.

Psychology approaches needs from a self-esteem perspective. The goal is to get people to feel good about themselves. But, is this really the goal of life? No. Welch puts it this way, “There is no reason why we should feel great about ourselves. We truly are deficient. The meager props of the self-esteem teaching will eventually collapse as people realize that their problem is much deeper” (p. 29). Of course, the problem is a sin problem, not a self-esteem problem! Our greatest need is Jesus not a spiritualized pep rally or motivational speech about how good we are.

We are sinners in need of God’s grace.

There is one revelatory remark from this chapter worth remembering; “Jesus does not intend to meet our needs, but He intends to change our needs” (p. 89). Jesus will often change our needs in the light of His glory. Philippians 4:19 says, “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (NASB). Christian psychology recognizes the tendency of needs being shaped by culture not God’s Word.

Chapters six and seven collectively discuss knowing and growing in the fear of the Lord. “The first task in escaping the snare of the fear of man is to know that God is awesome and glorious, not other people” (p. 95). Welch presents this as the starting point for dealing with the controlling fear of other people. It is necessary to see ourselves in light of who God is. We are unholy, unlovable, and powerless. God is thrice holy, all-loving, and all-powerful. Before one can grow in the fear of the Lord it is first essential to understand the fear of the Lord. What is the fear of the Lord? Welch presents fear as occupying two main categories; (1) threat-fear, and (2) worship-fear.

Threat-fear is a terror fear that results from an all-powerful God holding punishment and judgment in His hand. Welch says, “We are rightly ashamed before him, and punishment would be completely just” (p. 96). For non-Christians, this is perhaps the most commonly held view of God; a judge sitting on a throne holding a gavel. However, Christians hold a different view. Christians acknowledge that God is all-powerful and He indeed holds all punishment and judgment in His hand because He is holy and just, but there is also the understanding of His mercy and love (p. 97). Christians have a “reverent submission that leads to obedience” view of God. This is the essence of worship-fear. Christians look to the finished work of Jesus upon the cross and realize that it is only by the grace and mercy of Almighty God that salvation is provided. Therefore, joy and fulfillment are possible because they are by-products of salvation. Worship-fear is recognizing that God alone is worthy of worship (p. 98).

The fear of the Lord is grounded in the holiness of God.

He alone is worthy of worship because He alone is pure, undefiled, and all righteous. This has caused some to refer to God’s holiness as the otherness of God. He is other than His creation. There is no category sufficient for classifying the moral character of God. All of creation is on one hand and the God of all creation on the other. Yet, in His profound otherness He has come down, lived among us, and revealed Himself to us.[8] Now, we can know Him, and learn and grow in knowledge of Him.

As we grow in the fear of the Lord we must also recognize three opponents: the world, our own flesh, and the Devil (p. 100). These three adversaries are constantly battling against us and competing for our hearts. Deception is one of the most effective strategies the Devil uses. He desires to deceive people into thinking that what God has condemned is not all that bad and what God has ordained is not all that good. This is where our three primary resources come in: the Word, the Spirit, and the body of Christ (p. 101). Growing in the fear of the Lord is learning the Scriptures and seeking to be transformed by sound teaching. Growing in the fear of the Lord also means seeking the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to grow as a child of God apart from the Spirit’s empowerment.

Welch suggests the problem is that people are too big and God is too small. Our greatest response should be to learn that God is more loving, beautiful, holy, and powerful than we could ever imagine (p. 113). The author says, “If you have been in the presence of the almighty God, everything that once controlled you suddenly has less power” (p. 119). The truth is that if we fear God as the Scripture teaches there is nothing else to fear. After all, when you fear the Creator of the universe there is nothing greater to fear.

Chapters six and seven advance the thesis of the book. Perhaps the greatest strength of this section is the connection with the Gospels and the ministry of Jesus. God has chosen to reveal Himself to us through the person of Jesus. Therefore, we should never be satisfied with our present knowledge of Him (p. 133). Having a fear of the Lord means that we continue to learn and grow in the wisdom and knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, His Son.

Chapter eight begins to pull together all of the elements contained in the thesis of the book. Welch states that “Liberation from the fear of man has three components: we must have a biblically informed knowledge of God, other people, and ourselves” (p. 135). The premise of chapter eight is examining our own needs and determining how we view ourselves. The fundamental question that lies at the heart of this examination process is, “What would you say that you really need?” (p. 137). Welch devotes much time to narrowing down a definition of the word need. This word basically involves three categories: biological needs, spiritual needs, and psychological needs. Biological needs include that which is necessary to sustain human life (i.e. food, water, etc.). Spiritual needs include the Gospel and the need for a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As discussed earlier, Jesus supplies all of our needs. Finally, there are needs for love, acceptance, and respect. Welch rightfully states that it is more difficult to define and put parameters around these needs (p. 139).

Welch discusses the fact that man is created in the image of God. This is significant when it comes to discussing the needs of man. The thesis of the book is to examine and respond to the fear of man biblically. Therefore, according to the Bible what is man’s greatest need? If it was to have fellowship with God before the Fall then is it the same for today? Yes! God created man in His image to be worshippers of Him and to reflect His glory. Sin entered the world marring this image and distorting man’s mission. “But, God being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ.”[9] How does being an image-bearer of God and having our needs met intersect? Welch says, “We either act independently of God and look to fill ourselves with other objects or people, or we look to Christ and find relationship needs met in Him” (p. 145). Our greatest need is having our relationship with God restored. Jesus is the only way this can happen.[10] The truth that Welch is driving at is that when we are satisfied in Christ we won’t be looking for other people or things to satisfy us.

Psychological needs are not bad. We are created with the capacity to love and be loved, and the capacity to show respect and be respected. These needs can be referred to as longings and “Longings have much in common with lust. They start out good (a desire to be loved) and end up enslaving us” (p. 149). This writer agrees with Welch in that we often place greater emphasis on having our needs met than we do our needs-meeter – Jesus (pp. 138, 151).[11]

Chapter nine addresses the question of who we are in light of who God is? Since man is created in the image of God, it is relevant to address this topic. God’s greatest need is His own glory. Welch quotes John Piper as saying, “God’s greatest pleasure is himself.”[12] Welch discussed earlier that worship-fear is grounded in the holiness of God. He continues this line of reasoning by suggesting that glory, honor, beauty, and so forth are terms that identify His greatness. God’s holiness is comprised of all of these attributes (p. 154). Welch connects the Imago Dei with God’s glory; “People are most similar to God when he is the object of their affection” (p. 156). When God is the sole affection of a person’s heart they are living out the image of the One they were created in. We are called to be holy because He is holy.[13] We are called to serve because God is a servant.[14] This underlines Welch’s thesis that we must worship God alone, fear God alone, and glorify God alone. To reiterate an earlier point, when we fear God we will fear nothing else.

Chapter ten emphasizes the truth that we must be controlled by the truth of God’s Word not by feelings or emotions. God fills us not to meet our psychological needs but to give us Himself (p. 171). Welch clarifies that we are indeed empty cups, but not needy people in search of being filled by the world. We are empty cups in need of one thing – God’s forgiveness (p. 171). This truth can revolutionize a person’s life. Our greatest need is not biological or psychological even though they are legitimate in their own right. Our greatest need is spiritual. This need is met solely by God’s love. Welch uses the story of Hosea to illustrate the height, depth, and width of God’s love. While this story is a picture of God’s great love for his covenant people Israel who had committed adultery against Him, the demonstration of God’s love for man created in His image is unmistakable. Even in the midst of a rebellious people who had repeatedly turned their backs on Him, God continued to pursue them with His love.[15]

The primary argument is that God’s love trumps all feelings and emotions and is the medium through which our greatest spiritual need is met.

Chapters eleven and twelve teach us about the need for others. This section brings the thesis development to a close. The fundamental truth is that “we need people less, love people more” (p. 183). People often become idols to us; “We worship them, hoping they will take care of us, hoping they will give us what we feel we need” (p. 182). The following phrase places a period at the end of the thesis development; “What we really need are biblical shapes and identities for other people” (p. 182). Welch began by saying that we needed a biblical response to the fear of man and now he says that a biblical response means that we view others through the truth of God’s Word. Fearing God includes a right view of God, a right view of ourselves, and finally, a right view of others. We must view people through the pages of Scripture.

Welch discusses the importance of loving all people for the sake of God’s glory. This means that we love friends and foes, neighbors and enemies, brothers and sisters.[16] We are called by God to love all people; “Everyone, Jesus indicated, is our neighbor” (p. 195). This is possible because of the Holy Spirit living within us and the love of God that has filled us. The idea of being filled with God’s love and the dismissal of feelings and emotions may seem overly simple. Yet, it’s the simplicity of the Gospel that is often overlooked. “Remember what God says about other people: we are to need them less and love them more” (p. 193).

Chapter twelve continues to build on this idea by discussing the body of Christ. There is unity and fellowship within the body that cannot be found elsewhere. Welch argues that there needs to be less individualism and more congregationalism in the body of Christ (the church). “There is always a lot of discussion and instruction about knowing God’s personal will for our lives, but do you ever hear people talking about God’s will for the church or even for their family” (p. 197). Welch discusses the concept of the corporate image of God. One can understand what Welch is trying to say by stating it this way, but this writer feels the need to tread cautiously in this area. While all mankind is created in the image of God it is clear that not all of mankind will be gathered around the throne of God in worship. We do not subscribe to universalism. Welch is not suggesting this, but nonetheless, this writer prefers language of God’s glory being corporately reflected by His Bride.

Chapter thirteen concludes the book with a message on obedience. Welch echoes the words of King Solomon from Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 when he says that when all is said and done, life comes down to the life-giver – God. He has called His people to fear Him and keep His commandments (obey Him). All of the knowledge of the world is meaningless if it is not applied (obeyed). This chapter provided a good summarization of the book’s content.

Welch’s book is a sound treatment of the subject of fear and how it influences people’s lives. Either we fear God or we fear man. Welch began his discussion in broad terms then narrowed significantly to a personal discussion. A major strength of the book is that Welch grounded his thesis in Scripture. This writer has read book after book where an author floods pages with commentary or personal opinion. Welch does share personal insights and opinions, but he then connects it with biblical teaching. To this end, the thesis was successfully established and defended through careful thesis development. A weakness of the book, generally speaking, is that Welch spends too little time discussing the blessings of fearing God. While this is couched in his discussion on obedience to God it just needs to be fleshed out a little more. As with a good sermon, a good book needs to keep a basic question in the foreground; why should a person want to listen to this sermon or read this book? How is the book calling the reader to respond?

This writer would recommend this book to anyone serving in ministry or who may deal with someone in a counseling situation. Others desiring a deeper understanding of man’s greatest spiritual need and how Jesus meets that need, would also benefit from reading this book. It was insightful to discover the various ways in which fear is manifested in people’s lives. Great book!

[1] See Genesis 3:7 – “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.”
[2] See Romans 5:7.
[3] See Romans 1:25.
[4] See Exodus 32 and the golden calf constructed for worship at Mount Sinai. This is often the most popular story referenced when discussing a biblical view of idolatry. Welch makes the connection that what we do today is no different than what the Israelites did with the golden calf; “Idolatry is the age-old strategy of the human heart. The objects of worship may change over time, but the heart stays the same. They thought idols would give them what they wanted or felt they needed” (p. 45).
[5] Chapter twelve teaches that we should love our brothers and sisters in Christ.
[6] See Hebrews 4:13.
[7] “First importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the twelve” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-5), p. 77.
[8] See Matthew 1:23 – “…AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL, which translated means, GOD WITH US” (NASB). See Psalm 19:1-14 – “The heavens are telling of the glory of God…” (NASB).
[9] See Ephesians 2:4-5 (NASB).
[10] See John 14:6.
[11] See 2 Peter 1:3.
[12] John Piper. The Pleasures of God (p. 153).
[13] See 1 Peter 1:16; 2:9-10.
[14] See Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 20:28 – “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (NIV).
[15] See Hosea 11:8-9.
[16] See Romans 5:5 – “…because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us…” (NASB).

The following is a review of When People Are Big and God is Small, by Edward T. Welch. (New Jersey: P&R Publishing) 1997. 239 pages. This review was submitted by Brett. W. Marlowe for the Summer Term, 2009 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Divinity degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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