by Christopher C. Thompson | 22 June 2023 |
I’ve been reflecting a lot on fear lately. I have written about what it means to be fearless, but I have been thinking about fear a lot more recently. I believe that fear is the fruit of a deceptive seed sown by the enemy of our souls. I also believe that fear of rejection, failure, or anything of the sort that ends in inaction is a self-constructed prison cell, designed to destroy your divine purpose. Here are the facts. Bad things are going to happen to you. People are bound to dislike you. Often that happens because you stand up for what’s right.
What I really want to focus on here is the way in which people initiate a sense of fear within us. I want us to reflect on fear as a result of the influence of dissenting voices.
The first story that comes to mind is Joseph and his brothers when he first had his big dream. Joseph woke up and nearly bounced out of bed. He was inspired by the dream that he had the night before. He jumped up and ran to tell his brothers the “good news.” He said to them, “Please listen to this dream which I have had; for behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf rose up and also stood erect; and behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf” (Gen. 37:6-7 NASB).
The problem here is this: No one in the group is excited about this dream except Joseph. Now, my personal opinion is that Joseph was not even aware of how his behavior was affecting his brothers. The text suggests that Joseph was actually completely oblivious to the underlying anger here. His brothers replied saying, “Are you actually going to reign over us? Or are you really going to rule over us?” (Gen. 37:8 NASB).
Now, let me add a disclaimer here. Some people will hate you because you’re you. So I want to be clear about this one thing: You can’t and won’t ever please everybody. But many of us are addicted to approval. This is one of the things that makes social media a virtual minefield. In a world of approval addicts, we have the drug of choice poured on us in copious and limitless doses. But in the real world, “likes” aren’t always easy to come by. Sometimes people don’t like you for any good reason at all, and sometimes their dislike is based on their own insecurity and self-hatred. Others will hate you because they see you as a barrier to their own advancement.
The obsession with being liked
However, I’m afraid that we live in a time when people are so consumed with being liked that they won’t commit to doing what’s right; or at least they won’t commit to doing things that are unpopular.
Some years ago, I was teaching middle school language arts and I asked my students in each class whether it’s “worse to have no enemies or no friends?” Out of roughly eighty students, only three students said they’d rather have no friends. Ironically, the three students who responded saying it’s worse to have no enemies were three of the strongest leaders; coincidentally, one on each grade level.
The rest of my students all seemed to agree that it’s unbearable to be disliked or not accepted. I suppose that for pre-teens, their entire world is wrapped up in who their friends are, who they like, who they don’t like, who likes them, and who doesn’t like them. It means so much to them. But I’m afraid it means too much to them. I’m not sure that we do the best job of teaching our children to be principled and integrated enough to stand alone if they do what they truly like, what they believe is right, or what they think is best. And that’s the challenge. Teenagers and pre-teens are often too quick to sacrifice what they know to be right for the sake of fitting in with the crowd and their peers. But this can’t be the path of principled and purposeful thinkers, dreamers, and leaders.
If you’re standing up for what’s right, you will face some opposition. If you’re doing something you love, someone will show up to tell you that they dislike it. When you’re pursuing your dreams, you will face obstacles in the form of everyday people who will (in one way or another) make things difficult for you. These people will test your mettle, and force you to clarify your beliefs, sharpen your skills, and adjust your focus. And it bears repeating that over the course of the journey on the way to your dream, you will encounter those who oppose you for no real good reason. You must learn how to deal with all of these kinds of people. Nevertheless, at this particular moment, I’m much more concerned about how we respond to those who try to detract from our dreams with the things they say.
Harsh critics vs. healthy counselors
Here’s an additional disclaimer. Every dreamer—every visionary—needs good counsel. There is strength in good counsel. Proverbs says in the multitude of counselors there is safety. However, one needs to learn how to recognize the difference between counsel and criticism. Counsel is delivered with care, and offers insight into possible strategies and solutions to real challenges that one is bound to face. Criticism has a negative focus and is delivered with the intent to injure and diminish its target. We are often tempted to absorb criticism, and sometimes we even do so unwittingly. As a pastor and leader in this denomination for a solid twenty years now, I have been privileged enough to have a double portion of both: great counsel and vitriolic criticism. I want to give you three quick keys to guard against negative criticism and help you stay focused on your dream.
First, reassess. Did your dream come from God, or is it a creative or convoluted manifestation of your over-inflated ego? One of the ways you can tell that your dream is from God is by asking yourself, “Is this about me, or is it about others?” If the dream is designed to benefit you first and best, then it’s probably about you. If your dream is centered on bettering the lives of other people, then you might just have a God-sized dream. Second, reconsider. Was there anything that they said that was legitimate, meaningful, or useful? If so, take the good and discard the bad. Third, recalibrate. Ask God to show you what is possible with divine guidance and providence. And remember, if God is for you, who can be against you?
With all of that said, I want to us to look closer at this matter using a couple of questions. The first question is why are people so heavily inclined to speak negatively about another person’s path? The second question is why are we so inclined to believe a negative response? For the first question, we should turn back to the life of Joseph and his brothers. Here’s one thing that I have often thought about. When Joseph approached his brothers on an errand from his father, their initial response to seeing him was significant.
“They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.’” (Gen. 37:18-20 ESV).
“Behold the dreamer cometh….” I have often marveled at the simple profundity of that statement. It’s practically teeming with significance and meaning. It’s an insult that’s extra sinister in that it seeks to cast a negative shadow on something that is actually a positive. They used the term “dreamer” as a pejorative. They tried to poke fun at him for having a vision. It’s a virtue to turn a negative into a positive, but what is it when you try to turn a positive into a negative?
I never found out who said it, but I actually didn’t want to know. Early on in my ministry, some church leaders remarked about my writing ministry saying, “We don’t pay him to write books.”
I was taken aback. I reasoned within myself, Don’t they know that every book I write has a direct benefit to the local church? Well, actually, there were several direct benefits. I made a commitment years prior that wherever I pastored when one of my books came out, the members of the church I was pastoring at the time would all receive a free copy of the book. But beyond that, the book itself was intended to serve as a resource to help members grow spiritually and to support the ministries of the church. Nevertheless, the leaders remarked, albeit never to my face, that I wasn’t being paid to write.
The irony is that pastors actually are paid to write (at least, in some regard). Pastors write Bible studies, wedding homilies, baby dedications, and sermons every week. It only makes sense to compile some of what we have written, knowing that people forget most of the things we say anyway. But their intimation was not a logical one. Those leaders were trying to disparage a good thing. Joseph’s brothers did the same. They were trying to disparage the gift, promise, and purpose of God in his life.
Why not focus on their own gifts and strengths? Nevertheless, because they haven’t, they will disparage you for doing what they know they should’ve done a long time ago. Now they resent you for doing what they know they could’ve done, or what they’re jealous that they can’t do.
Hearing the critics
Then there’s the question: Why are we so inclined to believe a negative response? For the answer to this question, we have to fast forward about five hundred years past Joseph and his brothers and zoom in on the children of Israel after the Exodus. As they were getting ready to cross into the promised land, Moses deputized spies that were tasked with surveying the land and bringing back reconnaissance. When they returned, they brought the evidence of the land’s bounty and proof that it was indeed a land flowing with milk and honey. However, curiously enough, they also brought with them a very pessimistic report. Their self-deprecating report is found in Numbers 13:32-33. It reads:
“And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, ‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.’”
It’s such a defeated perspective.
I’ve recently realized that what other people think of me is none of my business. But in order to refocus myself on what’s important in the midst of criticism I must have a steady center and strong sense of clarity of purpose for myself. However, if I am unclear, or lacking conviction, then it’s quite simple for me to be receptive to a negative estimation of my efforts or ideas. However, the case in question here is much worse. The 10 spies harbored a self-assessment that was defeatist and limiting. They had not actually received an official assessment of their size from the giants. They decided for themselves what they looked like to the giants.
Here’s what I have learned: what we believe is what we become. Proverbs says, “For as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” And it may be a simplistic reading of the text, but at its core, the concept is profound and true. I have seen this on so many occasions that it’s ingrained in my mind. The things that to some might seem totally out of reach, in due time become a living, breathing reality.
It may seem impossible, but Jesus said, “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” We must believe that whatever it is, if the vision came from God, there is nothing on earth that can stop it. It’s going to happen. God’s going to see to it. I love the perspective from an old song by Fred Hammond. It’s based on this story, and particularly the conflicting argument of Joshua and Caleb as they made their statement of faith and confidence:
They said I don’t agree with those who say
In our own eyes we are small
For we serve a true and living God
And He is the Lord of all
And if He said the land is ours then we
Should move ahead with no delay
I have reached a place in my life where I am slowly but surely becoming unafraid. It’s not because I am ignorant of the risks and challenges. On the contrary, they clamor for attention and respect, for sure. It’s definitely not because I’m egotistical, egomaniacal, or suffering from some other twisted self-assessment. I’m simply not that self-assured. Rather, it’s simply because I believe God is more than able (and willing) to do exceeding, abundantly above all that we can ask or think. It’s literally a waste of time and energy to be fearful of what will happen. I already know what will happen. God will do again what God has done countless times before. This is my inheritance. I’m simply embracing it now.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of Choose to Dream. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.