We have watched in horror and sadness the unfolding of what happened in the small town of Steubenville, Ohio. Just in case you’ve not been watching the news, two high school football players were found guilty this past week of sexually assaulting a young woman who was too intoxicated to know what was happening to her or give her consent for sexual contact. While this was happening to her, countless other teenagers watched, tweeted and photographed the debauchery.
We’d like to blame what happened on teenage foolishness, adolescent recklessness, the inability of teenagers to understand the consequences of their behavior and the problem of absentee parents. But I wonder how different the evening might have turned out for both the two convicted young men as well as the victim if just one of their friends would have had the courage to speak up and say, “Stop?”
How might the young woman have felt the next morning if she woke up at one of her friend’s homes instead of naked in a stranger’s house? If her friend said “You were too drunk last night to make good decisions for yourself, and I wouldn’t let you get into the car with those two boys. How might those two football players felt the next morning when they realized that they were a hairs breath away from committing a serious crime except for their good friend who stopped them?
Why were these adolescents so willing to turn a blind eye to the evil right before them? Were all of these teens too drunk to know right from wrong? Or was there something more universal at work?
I don’t think their reluctance stemmed from drunkenness, but rather from the fear of man. They were too afraid to stand up against what was happening because they feared the disapproval and censure of the group if they did.
Lest we judge these teens too harshly, I find we aren’t much different even as adults. Let me share two examples in my own life where I have bowed to the fear of man with deep regrets.
Early in my marriage, I attended a women’s retreat where the speaker spoke on submission. To illustrate her point, she shared a story of a pregnant woman whose husband wanted her to have an abortion. Despite the woman’s misgivings, she submitted to her husband. The speaker happily reported that on the way to the procedure, the woman had a spontaneous miscarriage. “See”, the speaker said, “God was faithful.” I wanted to stand up and shout, “Don’t believe such simplistic teaching about submission” but I stayed glued to my seat. Why? I feared the censure of the group. I feared the other women would think I was a feminist, a liberal Christian.
In another example, my husband and I went to dinner with a couple we enjoyed socially. Since the restaurant was about an hour away, the man said he’d drive. However, during dinner, the man consumed at least three cocktails. My husband and I looked at one another and whispered, what are we going to do? We don’t want to offend our friends, but we didn’t want to risk orphaning our two children who were back home with a babysitter. But neither one of us said a word as we sat stone faced and terrified in the back seat while he drove home. Thankfully we arrived safely, but what if we hadn’t? What if someone had gotten hurt or killed because we were more worried about what our friend would think than everyone’s safety.
In each of these incidents, I lacked the courage to speak up and do what was right and I wasn’t drunk or an adolescent.
The Bible warns us that the fear of man lays a snare (Proverbs 29:25). When we are controlled by fear, we can’t love well. Therefore, let me share with you three things you can do to begin to conquer your fear of man. I want you to live for God’s approval rather than man’s and, perhaps in the process, save a friend from having to live with life-long negative consequences.
- Anchor yourself in God’s love first rather than people’s love. The Bible tells us that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). When we bend into other people, we are controlled by their opinions and their approval rather than God’s. This not only hurts us, it may very well hurt them. When we are confident of God’s love for us, it empowers us to love others well without being held captive by our fear of their disapproval.
- Learn to tolerate another person’s disapproval, disagreement, and differences. If we are unable to tolerate these emotions, we will always go along with the group. In addition, we won’t grow into the person God has created us to be. No one likes people to be upset or angry with him or her, but there are times where we need to do what God tells us rather than cave to the approval or pressure of the group.
- Ask God for the courage to do the right thing, to stand apart from the group when necessary. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel fearful. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, rather it’s the power to be present to your fear and still say and do the right thing.
Let us learn a lesson from Steubenville. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a young Lutheran pastor who was martyred during Hitler’s regime said, “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
I hope you will stand with me and determine you are unwilling to be a silent bystander when you see someone potentially hurting themselves or hurting someone else even if it means disapproval from the group.