Undone by Indecision
How the Fear of Man Paralyzes Us
Article by Marshall Segal
Staff writer, desiringGod.org
Often we struggle to make difficult decisions because they’re difficult. Sometimes, however, we struggle to make difficult decisions because we’re sinful. Fear, especially the fear of man, can make us unnecessarily indecisive. We want to please people, and decisions often disappoint someone. So we hesitate, wrestle, waver, and stall — and sometimes sin.
Not all indecision, of course, is sinful. That’s what makes the spiritual dangers subtle. Sometimes we need time to decide for good reason. Wisdom rarely comes quickly or impulsively. Many decisions are unavoidably perplexing and time-consuming. Jesus himself grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52), which surely included his ability to make better, swifter judgments in difficult situations. But we all know that indecisiveness can be a sign that we fear man.
“The love of approval,” Lou Priolo writes, “tempts the people-pleaser to be indecisive” (Pleasing People, 76). We are indecisive, because we’re more concerned with what others think than what God thinks. Indecisive, because we often try to micromanage how others respond to our decisions, and because we’re petrified of making a mistake. Patient and prayerful deliberation is godly; fearful, man-centered indecision is not.
But does the Bible say anything about this indecisiveness? Do we ever see the fear of man manifest in sin? We do, and not just anywhere in Scripture, but at its darkest and most pivotal moment.
When the mob dragged Jesus before Pilate, the governor had the power and authority, humanly speaking, to let him go and prevent the thorns, the nails, the spear, the grave. The decision was his. And while he did (and only did) whatever God’s hand and plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27–28), he also utterly failed in his judgment. Jesus, it could be said, died at the hands of indecision — Pilate’s unwillingness to do what he knew he needed to do when it needed to be done.
Pilate is such a clear and horrifying example because he knew what needed to be done. “He knew,” Matthew 27:18 tells us, “that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.” At least twice he declares, “I find no guilt in him” (John 18:38; 19:4). And yet Pilate delayed, wavered, hid, pointed fingers, and then eventually still killed him anyway.
The root of Pilate’s indecision is the root of most sinful indecision: “Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd . . . delivered him to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). The fear of man left Pilate bowing to the mob. The fear of man made Pilate waver and delay when he knew what was right. Then, the fear of man led Pilate to try to find someone else (Herod) to decide (Luke 23:6–12), and it blinded him to the counsel of his own wife (Matthew 27:19). And even after he made the decision, and had Jesus crucified, the fear of man convinced Pilate to still refuse responsibility (Matthew 27:24).
Because the fear of man controlled Pilate, the voices of the crowd prevailed (Luke 23:23). Fear made him vulnerable to manipulation, which first impeded him, then paralyzed him, and finally undid him.
The four Gospel accounts of Pilate’s indecision each warn us about the temptation to fearful indecisiveness. In particular, they show how the fear of man opens us to the manipulation of others. If we, like Pilate, care most about what others think of us or how they might respond to us, then we will make decisions (or not) based mainly on our perceptions of others. It’s no wonder, then, that we feel so paralyzed — both the feelings of others and our perception of those feelings perpetually change. Pleasing all people at all times is, quite literally, impossible.
Looking specifically at the failures of Pilate, then, consider four ways the fear of man opened him to manipulation of various kinds — all still common to man today.
The fear of man makes us more susceptible to lies. When the mob brought Jesus to Pilate, he asked, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you” (John 18:29–30). Notice their duplicity. They couldn’t even answer his simple question. They try to impose their will, instead, by telling Pilate to take their word for it. And he sees through them initially: “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law” (John 18:31; see Matthew 27:18). The matter should have been settled here, but it wasn’t.
When they finally did come forth with accusations, they shouted, “We found this man misleading our nation” — false — “and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar” — false (Mark 12:17) — “and saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2) — deeply and eternally true. The first two charges were the ones that would have held the most weight with Pilate (he was most concerned for peace and order) — and they were blatant lies. But because he was more beholden to people than to the truth, he let their deception grow unchecked. Lies that should have been refuted and thrown out slowly took hold.
If we fear men more than God, lies sound all the more compelling, especially in the mouths of those we fear. Because we want to please them, we may overlook or explain away their errors just to keep them happy with us. Lies increasingly fall on deaf ears, however, if our hearts are planted more and more firmly in heaven — if we delight in the law of the Lord, and meditate on it day and night (Psalm 1:2).
The fear of man can also leave us at the mercy of the masses. As we saw before, “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). If the crowd wanted otherwise, Pilate would have chosen otherwise. Despite all the power and authority that had been given to him, he did not do what he pleased, but he did what pleased the most people. How often might this be said of us?
And with the emergence of the internet and social media, how much greater is this temptation for us today? How much more likely are we to be controlled by what others like and hate, commend and criticize, follow and cancel? As Douglas Murray writes, we have been ordered to “engage in new battles, ever fiercer campaigns, and ever more niche demands. To find meaning by waging a constant war against anybody who seems to be on the wrong side of a question which may itself have been just reframed and the answer to which has only just been altered” (The Madness of Crowds, 2). The consequences, he says, “are deranged as well as dementing.”
As compelling as the crowd can feel, the masses will seem smaller and smaller if we remember who ultimately judges the world and how massive his army is. When Pilate threatens him, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). Twelve legions of angels waited for the word (Matthew 26:53). That made the few hundred rioters in front of him, however hostile, seem as but a kindergarten class by comparison.
How might a mindset like his change how we respond to the crowds around us today, online or otherwise?
Pilate was not only manipulated by numbers, though, but also by tone. The fear of man often subjects us to the feelings of others, especially the intense feelings of others. The Jews declared that Jesus was a threat and they demanded that Pilate treat him as such.
Pilate asked them what they wanted him to do, and they shouted, “Let him be crucified!” To which he rightly asks, “Why? What evil has he done?” Notice how this kind of manipulation works: “But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’” (Matthew 27:23).
If you don’t get what you want, demand what you want. If you still don’t get it, demand even louder. People-pleasers are especially vulnerable to the urgency of others. Their passion can cloud our judgment. We cannot contend with shouting — with insisting, with angry outbursts, with relentless persistence, with ultimatums. We get worn down more easily than others, and are more tempted to just give in.
Aggressiveness and intimidation, however, lose their edge and force when it is held up to the light of spiritual reality and eternity. In the moment, the anger or urgency of others can feel immense, overwhelming, even ultimate. But if we can step back and assess their urgency through the wider lens of God’s purposes and plans, even into eternity, that perspective will likely expose misplaced or manipulative emotions. We’ll better see if their felt sense of urgency really corresponds with reality under God.
Lastly (at least from Pilate’s story), the fear of man seduces us into pursuing the false god of human approval.
As Pilate sought to release Jesus, the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). You can hear Satan’s whispering voice in their argument. Imagine all you will lose by doing right.
How does Pilate respond? “So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and . . . delivered him over to them to be crucified” (John 19:13, 16). What would Caeser think? Pilate couldn’t stand the thought of his displeasure. And so he ended his horrible indecision and handed an innocent man over to be tortured and murdered — all so that a small, finite, fallen man would think well of him.
We all have those we are tempted to make into Caesers, those whose approval threatens to become everything to us. It may be a spouse or parent or even a child. It might be a boss or pastor. It might be a best friend. Who do you have the hardest time upsetting — even when love demands you do so? This relationship, whichever relationship it is, is likely the greatest, most reliable test for our fear of man.
When we feel and embrace the approval of God in Christ — if we really believe that God is fully and forever for us, not against us — the approval of others loses its luster. Being approved by God doesn’t make us indifferent to what others think. It does keep us from being controlled by what others think.
At one point in their dialogue, Pilate begins to fear that Jesus might be more than he seems at first (John 19:7–8). “He ought to die,” the crowds had shouted, “because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7). The Son of God? “When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid” (John 19:8). What have I done? He rushes to see Jesus, demanding to know who he really is: “Where are you from?” (John 19:9). Silence.
“You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (John 19:10). That question (and how Jesus responds) may be more revealing than anything about ungodly indecision. How much of our own fear and hesitation in difficult decisions comes from an overestimation of our significance and our authority — from an inflated pride and self-reliance?
As the pride of Pilate pours out, Jesus breaks his silence, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). You are who you are, and have what you have, and make whatever decisions you do, only because God has said so. Nothing before you is ultimately up to you. You are never the most powerful or important person in the room.
That kind of perspective withers our fears of man and severs the roots of sinful indecision. If we remember who God is, what he has done for us in Christ, and what he requires of us in his word, we will build the wisdom and courage to do what we need to when we need to.Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have two children and live in Minneapolis