When People are Big and God is Small

Review of Edward T. Welch, When People are Big and God is Small, Presbyterian and Reformed, New Jersey, 1997, 239pp.

I was immediately attracted by the title of this book.  It is subtitled “overcoming peer pressure, co-dependency and the Fear of Man” and deals with the problem that we all face of being held captive by the expectations and opinions of others.  If any of us think we are immune from this we need only take the author’s advice and think of one word: evangelism.  It is often our fear of the reactions of others or our desire for their approval that leads us to be quiet about our faith or take on more activities than is wise.

Welch divides his material into two halves.  Part one of the book deals with how and why we fear others, and posits that this is because they have the power to expose, humiliate, reject or attack us.  For many of us, these fears are reinforced by our experiences, and lead us to secretly worship others, craving their acceptance, commendation or love.  In short, they become our idols of choice.  And, like all idols, the thing that we worship ends up enslaving us and holding us in its power.

A series of helpful diagnostic questions drive this point home: we are people pleasers, the author suggests if we frequently tell lies to avoid exposure or are afraid of making mistakes that will make us look bad in other people’s eyes.

Part two deals with the solution to the problem, and as you might expect, deals with enlarging our vision of God.  Others will always be big where God is small.  However, rather than a one off vision of God’s greatness, the secret to overcoming the Fear of Man is a more steady diet of meditation on God’s character as revealed in the Bible.  A consistent strength of this book is that Welch takes us into unfamiliar as well as familiar territory to make his points.  His exposition of God’s love from Hosea is one example.

The rest of Welch’s proposed solution is more unexpected.  He says that we need to “need other people less and love them more” (p183) and proceeds with an examination of our cravings for the affirmation of others and where they come from.  For me, this was the new material in this book.  Is my desire to be loved or accepted by others something spiritual that is part of the way that I have been created?  Or might it rather be psychological and stem from a sinful desire to feel good about myself?  When struggling with the Fear of Man I may need to repent of my wrong desires that lead me to crave the praise of others in the first place.  Welch says that we will never be free from being dependent on others unless we first face up to our (self centred) need to have others make us feel good about ourselves.

This book is easy to read and the author helpfully exegetes both the Bible and modern culture, illustrating his points with a wide variety of examples ranging from Scripture to church history and his counselling experience.  The “For Further Thought” sections at the end of each chapter are more useful than in many books (especially the one on growing in the Fear of the Lord at the end of ch 7).  Some of the cultural analysis may be heavy going for some, but these sections could be skipped without losing the core message.  In short, if you want to be free from the control of others and experience the freedom that God desires for you, then this book is a Biblical and practical first step.  The worked examples and especially the author’s own experiences in the last chapter tie everything together and definitely merit a second reading.

John Percival