When People Are Big and God Is Small
Book Review, Edward Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small, 1997, Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing
by Eric Landstrom
Edward Welch has done something I didn't expect would happen--he got me interested in his book on biblical counseling. He begins the first chapter by explaining that people are often controlled by the opinions of others by assessing why people "need." He concludes that peoples needs are often not based on anything truly constructive, but biased through lenses of their own self-perception through the eyes of others. The buzzword used to describe this phenomenon is "codependency" and it occurs when "we replace God with people" (Edward Welch, p. 14).
Welch argues in the second chapter that the words "shame" and "self-esteem" are nearly interchangeable. It is in this chapter that my interest was captured and held throughout the remainder of the book. In a nutshell, Welch points out the obvious, stating that when we fear something, we assign it authority. Biblically, Christians should be the most fearless people on the face of the earth for the simple fact that they only fear the Lord God Almighty who holds all authority over the heavens and the earth. The Lord is our keeper and not the opinions of others.
From the onset of chapter two, Welch surveys the Bible as to why people may fear other people rather than God writing:
(1) We fear people because they can expose and humiliate us.
(2) We fear people because they can reject, ridicule, or despise us.
(3) We fear people because they can attack, oppress, or threaten us (Edward Welch, p. 23).
Welch then goes on to illustrate how everybody has fallen into the trap of fearing people over God through illustration and how we might biblically move forward to remove such sinful fears. Slowly he is building a case designed to convict the reader that sinful misplaced fear is the foundational problem that biblical counselors are likely to face.
The author's thesis that sinful fear is at the heart of most counseling situations reaches out past biblical counseling and finds application as to why Christians aren't shouting the gospel from the rooftops of our communities. As an illustration; while I was sitting in a doctor's office waiting for my mother I had an epiphany. I had been reading the third chapter of Welch's book which discusses the fear of other people because they may reject you. Welch, using the Pharisee's fear of public opinion in regards to Jesus as an illustration of the sinful fear people have of others drove the point home. On page 40 I set the book down and looked at the people sitting with me in the waiting room. I asked the person sitting across from me, a person I've never met and am not likely to meet again, who he thought Jesus was loud enough for everybody in the waiting room to hear my question. What followed was a discussion about Jesus and the gospel.
I had began reading Welch's book with the presumption that this book was going to be typical of "Christian" counseling books, writing in the margin at the end of chapter one that this book was all about "me" or "us" and not about God. By the time I'd read halfway through chapter three that notion was thoroughly dispelled. Now I was advocating this book to my deacon of evangelism because I felt it might also give him insight as to why our church has had difficulty gathering together a core group for evangelism within our local community. "Russia is easy; our own neighborhood is a constant challenge," the author insightfully writes (Edward Welch, p. 40).
In chapter four Welsh dives into another aspect of the sinful fear of others rather than God. From chapter three, Welch begins applying illustrations from the Bible as platforms from which to further impress upon the reader that the subject and object of people's fear is most often the source of their problems. To impress this idea upon the reader, he continues what he had started in chapter three by laying down more nuggets of pastoral theology along the way. Welch uses Abraham and Moses as illustration of men who at times feared other men but only were they truly blessed when the Almighty firmly the subject and object of both their fear and admiration. Welch's style has emerged as an informal homily and he offers a case study to draw application from.
In chapter five, Welch begins by pointing out that fearing is something that all people do naturally, that it is not learned behavior that is culturally derived as secular psychology may posit. Rather fear is common to all people in all places throughout all time. He does suggest, however, that we closely examine where our fears may have been intensified by the assumptions of the world. This thought begins the author's discussion of victimization and accountability of our own actions. Welch criticizes the idea of the world that we should think as individuals rather than as a community when we are truly communal creatures. He hammers against the idea of personal emotions, feelings, and experience as the authority which governs our motives and fears. Welch spends time dispelling the ideas that we are morally good if left to our own ends or that all peoples spirituality are equal and honorable.
The proceeding chapters have all served as a backdrop and a prelude to the primary argument of this book. It is in the fifth chapter that Welch reveals his primary thesis--that modern pop psychology is the caretaker of cultural assumptions that are contrary to Special Revelation and that these theories, which are all too often taught as fact, have greatly influenced Christian psychology for the worse.
Following the presentation of his central thesis, in the sixth chapter, Welsh begins dismantling the secular influences that have entered into modern Christian thought. Beginning in this endeavor, Welsh posits that with the spirit of the age, the biblical fear of the Lord has largely been lost to postmodern Christians. Suggesting that we, as a body, need more sermons that leave us trembling (p. 96), Welsh enters into a biblical description of what the "fear of the Lord" is. He lays this out by stating that God grabs our attention by first making His holy justice known to us. Making himself know as the object of godly fear and then through maturity, and growing in grace, we learn of God's holy love which casts aside all fears. Thus, in this way does God, who was once the object of our fear, become the object of our awe, reverence, devotion, trust, and worship.
Concluding this discussion, the author proceeds to lay down another thesis, which in summary, states that our depravity works against us so as to confuse our understanding and recognition of the great influence that our world and culture posses by working to suppress the holy fear of the Lord. In answer to this, Welch calls for learning the fear of the Lord. By example, he lays down a series of pastoral studies by applying Scripture to our cultural and human condition. In this series of studies, we are reminded that people and culture are to conform to God and it is not we who are to conform God to our culture.
Following the pastoral studies of chapter six, Welch leads into chapter seven by presenting the idea that growing in the fear of the Lord is no burden, but a joy in the Christian walk. He describes the beauty of the fear of the Lord, presenting that a biblical fear will bring both peace and purpose to the life of a believer because the person who fears nothing but the Lord, will have confidence and assurance even when faced with strife and temptation (p. 116). He argues that with greater appreciation of the fear of the Lord, the believer will grow in grace in honor of the Lord and will walk with greater confidence. This Welch does through a series of contrasts showing our reactions to God in fear, our need of God, the Lord's holiness and mercy, and his purpose for our lives. Throughout this chapter, Welch dovetails this pattern of growth into the categories he first described in chapter six.
Having concluded his contextualization of the stages of growth in the fear of the Lord, Welch turns his attention to the stigma of modern pop physiology by framing felt needs within the perspective of the kingdom of God. He acknowledges that all people have needs, but argues that these needs should be assessed by the measuring rod of God's purpose and not necessarily by selfish considerations.
Welch carefully segments needs into three distinct categories of biological, spiritual, and psychological aspects. He then briefly surveys the bad ideas which have not come from the Bible, but from purely secular viewpoints, and have intruded into Christian thought. Diving into the age old question of the tripartite view, that man is body, soul and spirit, Welch comes to reject this position favoring that man is body and soul and that "spirit" and "soul" are simply different emphasis' of the same substance. This conclusion is then used as a springboard for further discussions of how sin tries to fill our soul's yearning with worldly objects rather than with God himself. This evolves in subsequent chapters as a theme of the book as Welch weighs different aspects of how sin as affected our personal desires, our community, our relationship with God, and ultimately the objects that we fear.
Pragmatically, I found this book rather good. Throughout the effort, Edward Welch peppers in enough pastoral theology, practical advice, and experience to keep his readers interested in reading more. Welch shies away from ambiguous language and psychological jargon while displaying a fine balance between building conviction within the reader, which seeks application, and ways in which to apply these thoughts and ideas in our own lives and in our own Christian walk. In the final analysis, Welch calls for love of God and community to be set forth as the goal of every believer. He discussed the fulfillment, the sense of achievement and satisfaction, that performing the role God intended for us brings. He avoids deluding the precepts of the Bible with secular thought, and his work, while aimed dead center at Christian counseling, displays a surprising air of evangelicalism.
Return to the Protestant Apologetics and Theology page