Connections Between Psychology and My Divine Love Theory

A Review of Edward T. Welch’s Book When People Are Big and God is Small

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

Background Information about Edward T. Welch

Edward T. Welch earned an M.Div. degree at Biblical Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology (neuropsychology) from the University of Utah. He serves as the director of counseling and as an academic dean at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) and professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His work has led to several of his own books, contributions to many others, and numerous articles for both theological and secular journals. All citations below are taken from his book When People Are Big and God is Small, published by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company in 1997.

The Primary Thesis

In When People Are Big and God is Small, Welch’s main challenge for his readers is well summarized by a simple phrase that’s repeated throughout the book—need others less, love them more. He writes, “regarding other people, our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God). The task God sets for us is to need them less and love them more” (p. 19). He contends that this ideal is hindered because we fear what other people think about us more than what God thinks about us. Welch himself struggled with this until he realized “that I didn’t have to measure up to the standards of others’ opinions because God’s opinion of me was rooted in the finished work of Jesus. In other words, even though I was a sinner, God loved me and made me righteous in his sight, so who cared what other people thought?!” (p. 12). This is a simple yet profound truth that, when truly acknowledged, can spark a transformation in a Christian’s thinking and help lead to a changed life. Like many truths though, acknowledging it is not enough; it must be lived out. That crucial next step makes up the remainder of the book.

Our improper need for others involves relying on them for affirmation, love, respect, encouragement, and approval in order to feel good about ourselves. Welch describes someone in this condition as a walking love tank, a person who is empty inside and looking for others to fill them. Since we can never be filled up completely by the opinions of others, we end up being a love tank with a leak. As a result, we are in bondage by others because what you think you need will end up controlling you (p. 13). When we’re receiving affirmation and love from others, it can be difficult to evaluate whether we’re depending on them or not. Our need for others is most demonstrated in how we react when we’re not receiving them; it’s at this time our true colors shine through.

Our secular culture recognizes this problem correctly but offers the wrong solution. It recommends breaking free from your dependency on others by learning to love yourself more, in other words, to become more independent. Many churches have bought into this line of thinking, but is this biblical? Some have recognized how blatantly this contradicts what Scripture teaches, so instead they emphasize how highly God thinks of us, turning God into our psychic errand boy whom we can call on to inflate our self-esteem. Welch encourages his readers with the correct biblical approach, which is not to ask “How can I feel better about myself and not be controlled by what people think?” but instead ask “Why am I so concerned with my self-esteem?” (p. 19).

Review of Part One: How and Why We Fear Others

Welch shows us how the fear of man is a major theme throughout the Bible (1 Sam. 15:24, Matt. 22:16, John 5:44, John 12:42-43). “The fear of man is a snare, but the one who trusts in the Lord is protected” (Prov. 29:25). The fear of others began in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve when “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Gen 3:7). In our modern Western culture, we have many names for this, including shyness, peer pressure, people pleasing, self consciousness, and social anxiety, but in Biblical terms it is simply called the fear of man. The most popular way that the fear of others is expressed in the United States is our concern over self-esteem. This sense of being exposed that we carry around is an expression of the fear of man (p. 15). Even positive self-esteem is a form of the fear of man because you are still living at the mercy of what other people think of you. We prefer to think in terms of low self-image rather than nakedness before our Creator because we often want to avoid the holiness of God. “If we feel exposed by people, we will feel devastated before God” (p. 33).

Welch shows from Scripture that God often uses nakedness to describe our shame as a symbol of our “deeper, spiritual nakedness and shame that needed covering” (p. 25). This nakedness before God is virtually synonymous in the Bible with the term “shame,” either the shame from your own sin or the shame of how others have sinned against you. “This victimization-shame feels identical to the shame we feel from our own sin, even though the cause is very different” (p. 26). In the Bible it is called being made naked by another’s sin (Lev. 20:11, Lev. 20:17, Lev. 20:19-21).

Welch develops his case by explaining that “the massive interest in self-esteem and self-worth exists because it is trying to help us with a real problem. The problem is that we really are not okay. There is no reason why we should feel great about ourselves. We truly are deficient. The meager props of self-esteem teaching will eventually collapse as people realize that their problem is much deeper. The problem is, in part, our nakedness before God” (p. 29). Christians become deceived by the secular self-esteem literature because it does correctly explain a real problem in their lives. They see that it describes their feelings perfectly and then incorrectly assume that the solution it offers will work, but boosting our self-esteem is not the biblical remedy, and hence it can’t solve the real spiritual problem. Instead of puffing ourselves up, we need to embrace the gospel, which is simply “the story of God covering his naked enemies, bringing them to the wedding feast, and then marrying them rather than crushing them (Isa. 54:4-5)” (p. 34).

Pride and low self-esteem may seem like polar opposites at first, but Welch develops his thesis further by exposing the insidious pride at the root of low self-esteem. He says it “usually means that I think too highly of myself. I’m too self-involved, I feel I deserve better than what I have. The reason I feel bad about myself is that I aspire to something more.… When you are in the grips of low self-esteem, it’s painful, and it certainly doesn’t feel like pride. But I believe that this is the dark, quieter side of pride – thwarted pride” (p. 32).

Rejection fear is also a large part of the fear of man. It comes about because we worship others “as ones who have God-like exposing gazes (shame-fear) or God-like ability to ‘fill’ us with esteem, love, admiration, acceptance, respect, and other psychological desires (rejection-fear)” (p. 45). A common result of this particular fear is the sin God describes as partiality, that is, treating powerful people with more respect because you care about what they think of you more than others whose rejection does not hurt as much. Welch correctly points out that “what we fear shows our allegiance. It shows where we put our trust. It shows who is big in our lives” (p. 47).

Just like any sin, some of us struggle with the fear of man more than others. Welch explains that “if your history made you more vulnerable to the fear of others, you were probably affected by a steady stream of discouraging words. In other words, day in and day out you heard something critical, demeaning, or unkind” (p. 53). It is expected that in this situation, the fear of man would have a tighter grip on your life. Welch makes a good point when he says that the fear of danger or pain is normal, but the “fear of man is the sinful exaggeration of a normal experience” (p. 59). Sinful thinking happens when our own interpretation of our past takes “precedence over God’s interpretation. But it is also thinking that can be changed with a clear biblical structure” (p. 66). In these situations it’s helpful to remember that Jesus understands shame well because He “was sentenced to death in the most shameful manner possible – naked and on a cross. He felt shame but he was innocent. He suffered the shame of others that was placed on him” (p. 66).

Felt needs and relationship theology is very popular in today’s pulpits. Almost all of the self-esteem books “say that one of the best ways to raise your self-esteem is to achieve some successes (which are then compared to what others do) or to surround yourself with people who affirm you (which leaves you dependent on their opinion)” (p. 74). Welch makes the point that desiring good relationships with people isn’t wrong, but it can become wrong when these “desires are elevated to demands that there are detectable people-idols in our lives. It is when desire becomes demand that we are more concerned about our desire than the glory of God” (p. 69). While our relationship intentions may sound good, “we never expect that using people to meet our desires leaves us enslaved to them” (p. 46).

Welch develops his thesis by explaining the historical background of this cultural movement towards focusing on self. The emphasis that we see in the church today “on emotion may be more dependent on cultural traditions than on Scripture” (p. 82). Even many conservative Christians “are nonchalant about forgiveness of sin yet zealous about personal needs” (p. 79). In the past shame was “viewed as the result of a problem between God and ourselves. Now it is reduced to whatever prevents us from feeling good about ourselves” (p. 83). He shows how these ideas came to have such a strong grip on our culture:

New radical thoughts about one’s life and identify – and the possibilities that had previously gone unexplored – arose when the middle class flexed its muscles in the French Revolution (1789). This event was a political marker for something much deeper that was taking place. With the blurring of distinctions between father and son, peasant and nobleman, and without clear biblical thinking shaping the new social structure, a new worldview arose that placed much more value on individual growth, personal identity, and the immense possibilities of the person without linking it to a submission to divine authority. It was the rise of Western culture as we know it today, and it has rightly been called the rise of the cult of the self (p. 76).

“Self-love comes out of a culture that prizes the individual over the community and then reads that basic principle into the pages of Scripture. The Bible, however, rightly understood, asks the question, “Why are you so concerned about yourself?” and “indicates that our culture’s proposed cure – increased self-love – is actually the disease” (p. 81). Especially in America, it’s often taught that “emotions are the tools that allow us to be fully aware of our needs” which explains why “the suppression of emotions is one of the cardinal sins of our culture, and only increased acceptance of feelings will promote our well-being” (p. 82). Welch understands this twisted thinking spot-on when he says, “[E]motions point to needs, and to deny your needs is to deny something God-given and God-like” (p. 87).

This has brought us to the point where modern-day psychologists define people as psychologically needy. “The true popularizer of the concept of psychological needs was Abraham Maslow” (p. 86). These types of theories “can thrive only in a context where the emphasis is on the individual rather than the community and where consumption is a way of life” (p. 87). This is how our modern culture actually encourages the fear of man. What our culture is saying is that without the respect of others we will “be spiritually handicapped, unable to give love to others” (p. 87). Psychologists “have accurately noted that people with low self-esteem put too much hope in others and fear people, but their therapy does not liberate. Notice what they offer: therapeutic acceptance, unconditional love, and constant affirmation. In other words, “Don’t believe what other people have said about you, and don’t even believe your own negative self-reports; instead, believe what I say” (p. 88).

It’s true that there are “certain God-given needs, but it will take a little more biblical investigation to sort them out…. [A] discussion about needs is more complex than it first appears. It’s possible that our present-day discussion about needs might be framed more by secular psychological theories than by Scripture.… Jesus does not intend to meet our needs, but he intends to change our needs” (p. 89). Even some in the “popular press have criticized need theories as the theoretical justification for the rampant selfism and chronic victimhood of our culture” (p. 89). The blame, in part, according to psychologist Cushman, lies with the “psychological profession and the advertising industry. Both attempt to create a sense of need in order to sell products” (p. 90). Welch warns Christians that “these assumptions might not agree with your official theology, but they might be revealed in the way you live” (p. 91). The road to freedom from selfish thinking is one of the divine paradoxes of life: the path of service and putting others before yourself (p. 19). In the next section Welch explains the key ingredient to this solution.

Review of Part Two: Overcoming the Fear of Others

The antidote to the fear of man is to replace it with the fear of God. “The problem is clear: People are too big in our lives and God is too small. The answer is straightforward: We must learn to know that our God is more loving and more powerful than we ever imagined” (p. 113). If you have a healthy, biblical fear of God, then you will fear nothing else (Prov. 19:23). He defines the fear of the Lord as “reverent submission that leads to obedience” (p. 97). On the flipside, “anything that erodes our fear of God will intensify the fear of man” (p. 79).

One strategy that we use to escape this powerful truth is to “downgrade obedience – the concrete expression of the fear of the Lord – into concern about appearances. We concentrate on actions and overlook attitudes” (p. 100). The good news is that the fear of the Lord can be learned. Deuteronomy 4:10 says, “Assemble the people before Me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere (fear) me as long as they live in the land” (p. 102). (See also Ps. 34:9-11, Deut. 17:18-19, and Deut. 31:13.) God desires to bless us with this knowledge. Our responsibility is to establish a daily tradition of growing in the knowledge of God (p. 113). “Since the fear of the Lord is the great treasure of life, Proverbs tries to woo us to it. It tries to make the fear of the Lord as attractive as possible” (p. 114). One of the great blessings of the fear of the Lord is that “we think less often about ourselves. When a heart is being filled with the greatness of God, there is less room for the question, ‘What are people going to think of me?’” (p. 119). Welch constantly reminds the reader that the goal in all of this is not self-improvement but glorifying God and developing a deeper relationship with Him.

The alternate view, which is more popular today because it tickles our ears, is that our “psychological needs must be filled in order for us to feel good about ourselves” (p. 140). Of course we all agree that “love is a universal human desire, but how do we justify elevating desire to God-given need?” (p. 139). This empty-cup theory of humanity poses tremendous confusion to our theology and our lives because “when psychological needs, rather than sin, are seen as our primary problem, not only is our self-understanding affected, but the gospel itself is changed. A needs theory suggests that the gospel is, most deeply, intended to meet psychological needs. In other words, the gospel is aimed at our self-esteem problem” (p. 146). This view sees our relational needs stemming from our innate nature as image bearers of God, but Welch argues against this idea:

There is not clear evidence that psychological needs are a distinct part of our God-given nature, yet they are real…. Instead of looking for this concept at the time of creation, when we were created in the image of God, perhaps we should look at the time after Adam’s sin. After the fall into sin, people remained image-bearers, but Adam’s disobedience brought fundamental changes to our ability to reflect God’s image. The direction of the human heart became oriented not toward God but toward self. In the garden, man began repeating a mantra that will persist until Jesus returns. Adam said, “I want glory for myself rather than giving all glory to God.” …Wasn’t it with Adam that the momentum of human life started moving inward toward the desires of the self, rather than outward, toward a desire to know and do the will of God? (p. 148).

Certainly the Bible teaches that bearing God’s image includes loving Him and loving others. But Welch explains that “we are called to love not because other people are empty and need love (to feel better about themselves) but because love is the way in which we imitate Christ and bring glory to God” (p. 147). We are not commanded to love others “because people have psychological deficits; we love because God first loved us” (p. 163).

Welch explains that the problem is not “that we desire love, the problem is how much we desire it or for what purpose we desire it. Do we desire it so much that it overshadows our desire to be imitators of God? Do we desire it for our own pleasure or for God’s glory?” (p. 149). Much of Christian preaching today is about appealing to our lusts rather than offering deliverance and forgiveness from them. Welch uses his own spiritual journey to elaborate:

I came to understand what held me in the fear of man, even though I knew the gospel well. Not only did I need to grow in the fear of the Lord; I also needed to repent. My felt needs, desire, or lusts were big. They were so big that I looked to everybody to fill them, both God and other people. I feared other people because people were big, my desires were even bigger, and God was small. The main reason why there is an epidemic of emptiness is that we have created and multiplied our needs, not God (p. 151).

In the needs-based view of bearing God’s image, “the natural reason to praise God is for what He has done for me. This is okay but it doesn’t go far enough. From the Bible’s perspective, God deserves praise simply because He is God” (p. 154). We truly are empty cups, but our ultimate need is spiritual, not psychological. In Ephesians 3 Paul even uses the analogy of an empty cup, but “it is not the cup of psychological needs. It is a cup of spiritual needs” (p. 166). Our self-serving psychological needs “are not meant to be satisfied; they are meant to be put to death” (p. 162). Another divine paradox is that “the cup of our own desire is never able to catch the flood of God’s love and blessing. Rather, it makes God’s redeeming love less accessible to us” (p. 171). Welch pulls back a little bit here as he explains that:

Lust or selfish desire is not the only explanation for our desire for love…. Sometimes the desire for love is the tainted remains of our knowledge of God…. We think it safer and more effective to look to other people to relieve our emptiness. In some cases, when love is sweet, we might even feel that we have found it. Sadly, this feeling misleads us. It reinforces our sinful idea that people might be the answer to our need, so we pursue them with an obsession. The love that we desire, however, can only be found in the living God (p. 172).

To truly “image God means to imitate and represent God…” (p. 199). This image-bearing love “develops strategies, it asks for prayer from others in order to grow, it thinks big – not big in terms of spectacular but big in terms of something beyond human expectations…. [I]t is not a showy love that draws attention to itself, but it should have grandiose intentions. We want it to be witnessed by every living creature [so that] all people and all spiritual authorities and powers know that we are disciples of the living God by our love (John 13:35)” (p. 210).

“One task in counseling is to begin to separate the real hurt from the pain that is amplified by our own lusts and longings” (p. 231). The major problem is that we care so much more for the praise of men than we do the praise of God. We need to keep from worshipping others for our own purposes and realize that the answer is not to turn to Christ to meet our felt needs because that turns Jesus into our own personal idol. Instead, we must put to death our selfish desires and learn to fear God alone. As a result, our questions will change from “Where can I find my worth?”; “Why am I so concerned about myself?”; and “How can God fill my needs?” to “How can I see Christ as so glorious that I forget about my perceived needs?” (p. 233).


Welch has done a wonderful job explaining how the fear of man impacts our lives. Starting off with common psychological terms ingrained in our vocabulary by our secular culture like “self-esteem” and “codependency,” he then goes on to explain what the Bible says is their true cause. This biblical diagnosis is so rare in the current literature; it’s refreshing to see the true heart issues dealt with. We must understand our negative emotions in terms of what the Bible says is the root of all our problems—sin. Only then can we move from covering our sickness with band-aids (self-esteem) to actually finding and applying the true cure (Jesus Christ). The goal in all of this, as Welch reminds his readers regularly, is not self-improvement but loving and honoring God.

Many people ignore the Biblical counseling movement because they see the promoters of it as uninformed pastors jealous over seeing their congregations flock to psychologists as the new soul experts. But Welch’s work carries more credibility because he has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from a secular university. This shows that he understands the secular model from the inside, its core problems, and why its solution can never solve our deepest need.

One small criticism I have about this book is that it would have benefited from a few more real-world examples. The goal of needing others less and loving them more is a bit abstract, so to have more practical examples of this would assist the reader in living it out. With that said, this book is a gem for anyone struggling with the fear of man and a useful tool for everyone in counseling others. Welch achieved his stated purpose by showing us the pitfalls of the modern self-esteem movement and how the biblical solution of needing others less and loving them more is the path we should pursue because, in glorifying God this way, we will be living out our true purpose we were created for—to imitate the Trinity by loving God and loving others. I highly recommend it.

Convincing Proof