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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 refers more to its description than its execution. 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.
Let us also be clear, the Fear of the Lord is not a cowering and servile fear. The fear of the Lord is to hold God in awe. To have a reverence for Him born in deep love and gratitude. And out of this love and gratitude we fear to offend him more than any other.
Perhaps some scripture quotes that address various aspects of the problem of Human respect and the remedy of Holy Fear will be a fitting conclusion to this reflection:
- Through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil. (Prov 16:6)
- Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD. (Prov 23:17)
- Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. (Prov 15:16)
- The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Ex 20:20)
- You alone are to be feared O Lord (Psalm 76:7)
- God is more awesome than all who surround him. (Psalm 89:7)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets (Luke 6:26)
- 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)
- 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).
- 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)
- 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)
- From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body. (Gal 6:17)
- 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).