On Overcoming the Sin of Human Respect through the Fear of the Lord

At one level “human respect” seems a good thing. After all we ought to respect, honor and appreciate one another. What then is meant by the “sin of human respect?” At its core, the sin of human respect is that sin wherein we fear man more than God; where we more concerned with what people think of us and what we do, than what God thinks. This is an unholy fear, a sinful fear which is at the root of a lot of sins we commit as well as of many sins of omission.

Consider some examples:

  1. A man goes up to a group of other men who are gossiping and also speaking inappropriately about certain women in the office. Perhaps he knows that their disparaging comments about the boss are unfair or even untrue. He knows too that speaking of the women in the office using crude sexual imagery and lustful references is wrong. But, because he has walked up to this group and wants to “fit in” he joins the conversation as contributes to what he knows is wrong. He laughs at off color jokes and makes no attempt to steer the conversation in more appropriate directions. He does this because he fears rejection and is more more anxious as to what his co-workers think of him than what God thinks. He fears man more than God. That God is displeased with his actions is less of a fear and grief than that any of these men should be displeased.
  2. A young woman knows that sex before marriage is wrong and that this displeases God. However, she has dated a number of men now and has slept with most of them. She does this partly because she fears rejection. Perhaps if she does not give way to the desires of the young men she dates they will reject her and she will be alone. She thinks that a woman “has to do this” in order to be popular and desirable. She fears man more than God. What human beings think is more important to her than what God thinks. She may well minimize the displeasure of God by saying. “Oh well, God understands” but at the same time she maximizes possible displeasure of weak and fallible human beings by thinking that displeasing them would lead to catastrophe. She respects, that is, fears man more than God.
  3. A pastor of a parish has a mandate from God and the Church to preach the whole counsel of God. But over the years he has struggled to preach the hard things. After all teaching on things like abortion, fornication, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, Capital Punishment, and so forth, causes some people to be upset. He fears this anger, he fears offending people, he fears being misunderstood. Once, when he spoke about abortion, (because the Bishop said he had to) three parishioners came up to him and told him he should not bring politics into the pulpit. Once, early in his priesthood, he had mentioned divorce since the gospel was about that. A woman came up to him after Mass and said that she was divorced and felt hurt and “excluded” by his mentioning that divorce was problematic. Experiences like these have led the priest to “play it safe.” He always finds joke to start the homily and people love it (him). He chooses to preach only in abstractions and generalities. It is enough to exhort people to be a little more kind, a little more generous, but specificity he avoids. He does this because he fears man more than God. That God might be displeased that his people are not hearing the truth on the important moral issues of the day, or receiving proper instruction in the disciplines of discipleship is a vague and distant fear to this priest. But one person raising an eyebrow at what he says is enough to ruin his whole week. Thus he goes silent as a prophet and becomes a people-pleaser instead. He respects, he fears man more than God. This is the sin of human respect.
  4. A parent knows somehow that she is to raise her children in the fear of the Lord and train them in godly ways. But Oh, the protests when she tells them to clean their room or to go to bed, or to do their homework. It is just such a hassle to endure their anger and disappointment. Then too she remembers how stern her parents were and how she had vowed she would be nicer to her children. So, little by little, she lets her authority erode and the kids more often get their way. Her husband too is not a strong disciplinarian and he too wants to be thought of as a “cool” dad by his kids and his kids’ friends. Thus, God’s insistence on prayer, discipline and respect for elders, gives way to what the kids want. The oldest, a teenager, doesn’t even want to go to Church any more. But after all, “You can’t force religion on kids” they think. Here too, the parents fear their children more than God. They have greater respect for their children than for God.

So here are some examples of the “Sin of Human Respect.” This sin runs very deep in our wounded nature and, as we have seen, causes many other sins. Many people are desperate for attention, respect, acceptance and approval from human beings. Many of these same individuals, even the religiously observant, struggle to be nearly as concerned with what God thinks, or if He approves.

God has a simple solution to this: that we should fear Him and thus not fear anyone else. There is an old saying, “If I kneel before God I can stand before any man.” It makes sense that it is a lot easier to fear (respect) one, than many. Hence, the more we learn to fear (respect) God, the less concerned we become with what others think. Now, to be sure this is not an invitation to become a sociopath who cares not one whit what others think. We are to remain polite, groom ourselves, and not intentionally pick fights. But in the end we are instructed by the Lord to be freed of all the fearful trepidation of what others think.

To say this is a simple solution is a bit of an intellectualism to be sure. It is not easy to extract ourselves from this very deep drive of human respect. In fact it takes a life time. But the first step to any healing is to admit we may have a problem and begin to see it for what it is, understand its moves, and let the Lord steadily free us.

Perhaps some scripture quotes that address various aspects of this problem will be a fitting conclusion to this reflection

  1. Through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil. (Prov 16:6)
  2. Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD. (Prov 23:17)
  3. Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. (Prov 15:16)
  4. The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Ex 20:20)
  5. You alone are to be feared O Lord (Psalm 76:7)
  6. God is more awesome than all who surround him. (Psalm 89:7)
  7. I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side. (Psalm 3:4-5)
  8. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. (Jer 32:39)
  9. The Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” (Mark 12:14)
  10. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets (Luke 6:26)
  11. If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
  12. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (Matt 10:28).
  13. If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you(Jn 15:18-19)
  14. It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. (1 Cor 4:3)
  15. From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body. (Gal 6:17)
  16. We know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience (2 Cor 5:11).

In this video Fr. Frank Pavonne exhorts us to risk all as prophets of God and not to fear any one or anything more than God.

16 Replies to “On Overcoming the Sin of Human Respect through the Fear of the Lord”

  1. Loving God above all. I think I finally understand the expression “fear of the Lord.” Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful meditation. You really cut to the heart of so much that is wrong in our lives and behaviour. We need to strengthen each other in prayer and also with direct encouragement. What you wrote about priests being spiritual cowards sometimes is spot on. Those laity who see things as you do need to exhort their pastors to be faithful to the gospel, and also, to support and offer gratitude when their priests DO challenge them and promote genuine holiness.

  3. What about pastors who are afraid to preach about social justice and against the people in their parishes who amass money and riches but don’t want to distribute that wealth through taxes that go to benefit the community? To talk about abortion is easy you just have to agree with the official church hierarchy’s position, it really is easy. But to talk about social justice, that is really hard because you might offend those who give the most money to the parish.

    1. Your topic doesn’t usually make the list of “forbidden topics” that priests avoid and most priests do not find talking about abortion easy. That said, it is incumbent on priests to preach the whole counsel of God. One of the practical difficulties that arises is the 7-10 minute homily format common in most parishes. In this brief period priests are expected by the faithful to cover everything and so the refrain often goes “Why don’t we ever hear our priests talk about “X?”” Part of it is, as we have discussed, fear of man, but part of it is just practical.

      As for your particular recipe of what the priest should say, some distinctions are in order. That priests should preach the social teachings of the Church is true, and that those with surplus wealth are obligated to help those in need is clear. However, whether our current tax policy is the best or only way to do that is a matter wherein reasonable Catholics will and may differ. In matters such as these the Church has established general principles, but does not, for the reasons stated, engage in policy debates of a particular nature.

      Finally, my own experience regarding those who “give the most money to the parish” (by this I suppose you mean the “rich”) is that they are no so easily labeled as offended in the area that you have raised. Of course I live in DC, but my experience is that a large percentage of “the rich” are politically liberal. My parish is adjacent to one of the wealthier neighborhoods in DC where houses begin near 1 million and I would say that 80% of the denizens of that area are liberal.

      As for those who “give the most to the parish” you might be surprised to learn that it is not often the wealthiest who do. In my rather middle class, African American Parish, the average offertory gift comes close to 10% of annual income and factors out each Sunday to approximately $30 per person. In many of the wealthier parishes the average gift is under 1% of weekly income and the average per person gift is just under $10. Race and economic class matter a lot in offertory, but often in paradoxical ways.

      In the end I think it is really more about personal popularity that priests struggle, than worries about the collection.

  4. Epistle 197
    My some ideas of “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope said that many people fear man more than God. This is called the sin of human respect.
    To overcome the sin, we should fear God and thus not fear anyone else.
    Basically, I agree with Msgr. Charles Pope on the homily.
    Secondly, now permit me to discuss further some problems hereafter:
    In Gospel of John 1:1, it was written: “In the beginning was Word, and Word was God”, and in Gospel of John 1:14, it also written: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”.
    Thus, “The Word became flesh” means “God became flesh and made God’s dwelling among us”. This means “God is with us”.
    On the other hand, majority of Vietnamese Catholics understood that everybody has had two parts: Soul and body. Soul is God, and body only is clay.
    Similarly, a Catholic Priest also has two conditions: Condition of man and condition of God.
    Therefore, a priest of a parish (his condition of man) has a mandate from God and the Church (his condition of God) to preach the whole counsel of God.
    As a result, when I obey my priest, this means I obey the priest’s condition of God, but is not to obey the priest’s condition of man.
    All Catholic Priests ought to preach Word of God or/and Word of the Church for us. They aren’t allowed to preach their own word for us.
    In yesterday’s my epistle, I wrote “God is with us”, that is, “God lives in our heart”. This means that God is our Soul (or Spirit)./.

  5. I am involved in youth ministry and the preparation for Confirmation. Every publication from church sources that I have seen now has eliminated “Fear of the Lord” as one of Gifts of the Holy Spirit and replaced it with the likes of “Wonder and Awe.”

    On another note:
    Father you write — “3. A pastor of a parish has a mandate from God and the Church to preach the whole counsel of God. But over the years he has struggled to preach the hard things. After all teaching on things like abortion, fornication, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, Capital Punishment, and so forth, causes some people to be upset.”

    Count me “upset” by including Capital Punishment in the above.

    Jesus and Scripture were very severe in the judgment of crimes far less terrible than murder. And the verdict was much more harsh, not just the loss of earthly life, but eternal life. Do none of these “teachings” matter in our “modern” age?

    Mt 18:6
    Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

    Mt 26:24
    … woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.

    Mt 25:41
    Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

    Saint Paul (Romans 13:4)
    “[The magistrate] does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer.”

    Pope Innocent I in the year 405
    “It must be remembered that power was granted by God, and to avenge crime the sword was permitted; he who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister. What motive have we for condemning a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority.”

    Saint Pope Pius V, in 1566 – The Roman Catechism of Trent On the Execution of Criminals:
    “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder.

    Pope Pius XII in 1952
    “Even when there is question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already dispossessed himself of his right to life.”

    Many in our “modern” Church will now say – “Yes, that used to be the teaching but … “. Has this emotional watering down of Church teachings not gotten us into the mess we now find ourselves.

    Our Catholic faith did not begin with the JPII Generation.

    1. OK Fine, but in your list your ought not exclude the Catechism of the Catholic Church, statements by the Three most recent Popes and consistent statements of the Bishop’s conferences of most of the world, all of which oppose the use of Capital Punishment on prudential grounds, not dogmatic. As Catholics we ought to be docile (i.e. teachable) on such matters and, while you are not absolutely bound to accept such teaching you ought not be so easily “upset” by it either. It is the wide consensus of the Pope’s Bishops and the Catechism that, while not intrinsically evil, we ought not have recourse to Capital Punishment in any but the rarest and most unusual circumstances. Some form of religious assent ought be given even non-infallible and consistent teachings of the Pope and Bishops…. Notice assent is not the same as obedience. A Catholic is not required to obey the current and widespread prudential judgment of the Popes and Bishops, and the Catechism, but to strive and understand the thinking and to thoughtfully consider it is the heart of assent (Latin a+sentire = to think along with). In such wise, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium has this to say:

      In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking [Lumen Gentium 25].

      Hence, assent seems a good strategy for Catholics troubled by Capital Punishment. There is an attitude today that is extremely dismissive of the Pope and bishops. Current leadership has its flaws, but at some level we ought to accept that we have the bishops and the popes that the Lord has given us and assent should be the starting point, even as we discuss aspects that trouble us. As a priest, but also as a Catholic, though historically inclined to be supportive of Capital Punishment, I have had to pause and reconsider my views based on the widespread and often repeated prudential judgment of popes and bishops throughout the world that recourse to capital punishment be minimal to non-existent.

  6. We are all called to execise charity toward our fellow man. God will judge us on how well we practiced this virtue. For you to give of what you have to help a person in need is a great act of love.It is charity – a virtue. You will be rewarded for your love toward your fellow man. For me, or anyone, to take even $1 of your money and give it to another (regardless of need) is theft, a sin against the Seventh Commandment. There is no charity involved. For government to do this with welfare of any type via taxation is legalized theft. It destroys the moral fabric of society. Individual charity is lessened because many people feel less inclined to personally give to those in need because they feel that they are already giving enough via the taxation that is taken from them.

    1. Well I am largely with you, especially when it comes to the Government having too much coercive power through tax policy. However, Catholic social teaching does emphasize that the poor do have some legitimate claims on those who have more than what they need. If you look at the Catechism’s actual exposition of the 7th commandment you will see this developed at some length. In effect the catechism teaches the principle of the universal destination of goods (i.e. God gave all the good of the earth to all the people of the earth). This principle states that when it is legitimately in my capacity to help the poor from my excess goods and I fail to do so, or refuse to do so, I am engaged in a form of theft since the poor DO have some legitimate claim my excess. This principle, as the Catechism states, is to be balanced with the principle of private ownership which is also to be respected. But the point is, both principles are meant to balance each other. As stewards (not owners) of God’s creation we are required to use our goods in accord with the true will of the actual owner (God) who expects us to care for the legitimately poor.

      So I am uncomfortable with simply saying, as many do today, that delineating a requirement to care for the poor is theft, plain and simple. There are legitimate debates about the government’s role in coercing such care, but theft is not perhaps the best word since the poor do have legitimate claims in justice, not merely in charity.

      I have written more on this here: http://blog.adw.org/2009/11/the-forgotten-principal-of-social-justice/

  7. Excellent post! I have had no problem as a parent insisting on standards with my children. We have never allowed objectionable movies, tv shows, etc. to be present in our home. I have been known to break a Rap CD that had terribly offensive lyrics and toss it in the garbage. Now I find myself asking is it my obligation to do what I did as a parent now that my children are independent married adults? If my son, who is newly married to a lovely Catholic woman who wants to have a big family, attends Mass every Sunday and is just a real sweetheart, wears on occasion a too revealing top, am I as her new mother-in-law obligated to correct her? I mentioned gently to my son ONCE in regard to this when they were dating and he very politely defended her and closed the issue. I simply can’t correct her to her face. I believe it would seriously harm a relatiomship that is just beginning. I pray every day about this situation, offer sacrifices for this concern to the Lord and always wear stylish outfits but modest to set an example. Comments? Advice?

  8. Finally, this has been printed. I never heard of the term “the sin of human respect’ before though but it needs to be said over and over again. We do need to refresh ourselves on certain coined expressions only to be able to counsel others (and remind ourselves) when like Kerry Kennedy people are unwittingly influenced even by parents into an ersatz understanding of the Church.

    “By any standards, my mother was a devout Catholic, but she laced her unwavering faith with a healthy dose of skepticism directed squarely at the institution of the Church.She loved the pope and the parish priest but had little time for anyone in the hierarchy between. She consistently questioned the priorities of cardinals and bishops who, in her view, too often chose the institution of the Church over the sufferings of the poor. She was highly critical of those who failed to take a forthright stance on the issues of the day–from the war in Vietnam, to Watergate, to nuclear disarmament, to military spending in Central America, to the housing, education, and health issues in the poorest pockets of our own country. She was outraged by any priest who failed to include a prayer for those in the headlines of the latest disaster. She was offended by pomposity, and she demonstrated her impatience with long-winded sermons (anything over ten minutes) by walking out of Mass, followed by her children like so many ducks in a row. My mother was also suspicious of clergy until they passed the poverty test. If they spoke on behalf of, or worked among, the poor, they were invited into the fold. So, from a young age, I LEARNED from her to DISTINGUISH between my faith and the INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH.’
    Kennedy, Kerry: Being Catholic Now, Crown Publishing 2008

    Well that was a very poor lesson indeed. This was the wife of the current Governor of New York who pushed (not permitted) pushed for the ‘gay-marriage’ law, Governor Cuomo. This is the kind of household’s the so-called ‘cradle Catholics’ emerge. There is a concupiscences of a familiar nature that allows some Catholics to love themselves and those around them but hold the ‘Institutional Church’ in as much disdain as a Protestant or atheist. Rather than learn what the Church is all about from the Catechism, they learn human precepts and prejudices from first their parents and galvanize these precepts with like minded Catholic friends. The faith is one thing but the bishops and cardinals, the institutional Church, another. That is very unfair to those bishops who have laid down their life as Christians and served faithful day in and day out, including everyone from St. Irenus to Bishop Padevesci decapitated in Turkey, not to mention those like Bishop Gaziz’s who suffer with the layity in southern Sudan through the inception of their new nation.

    I know what I am writing is a little off topic but we as laity really need to take up our cross and follow Jesus and the clergy, all of them, and sacrifice the ‘group think’ that crops up even at families and communities of friends, even if they are also ‘Catholic’. “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.” Matthew 10:37 As State Senator Grisanti said when he voted for the ‘gay-marriage’ bill, going 180 degrees against what his intial conservative stance on ‘gay-marriages’ was as a politician and a Catholic. “A man can get wiser in six months.’ let us remember, ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Psalm 110:10

  9. Thank you for your enlightening explanation.
    I was particularly touched by the bible verses and the section on parenting and the young woman sacrificing her. Virginity.
    Your words are very helpful.

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