A friend of mine did time in the ’80s. He was awaiting his transfer from a county jail to prison when an older man he admired said to him, “You’re about to go to prison. If you want to survive, you’re going to have to earn respect. Here’s how you earn it: be honest, work hard, and never complain. If you do that, you can earn respect.”
While he was incarcerated, my friend did exactly what the man said. Before long, he was earning respect from others. But he still had insecurities.
In fact, the more my friend worked at being respected, the more he worried about what everyone thought of him. Would he make a mistake that ruined the respect others had for him? Would he become a target? Worrying about these things filled his days with anxiety.
Respect is often based on fear. If you’re a fan of a professional football team that isn’t the Patriots, you respect Tom Brady when your team is down by three, there are only two minutes left, and the Patriots have the ball. Even if you don’t like the Patriots, you respect their ability to dominate on the field.
More seriously, there may be people on your unit that no one messes with, not because they are well-liked, but because they know how to intimidate—or worse.
But is that the only way to do time? Watching your back and earning or showing respect based out of fear?
Respecting God—a Healthy Fear
The Bible tells us there’s a better way. Matthew 10:28 says, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
So, are you just supposed to cower before God instead, hoping a lightning bolt isn’t headed your way?
No. The Bible talks about different kinds of fear. There’s the kind you usually think of—the fear you experience when a threatening person or situation confronts you. It’s fear that makes you comply with someone’s demands to avoid getting hurt. The Bible says that God’s perfect love, demonstrated through His Son Jesus, casts out that kind of terror.
But there’s another kind of fear—the loving, respectful fear that a child has for a good, loving, and committed parent. A child who loves and respects his parent wants to do everything he can to please him or her. He fears the consequences of disobeying his parent—not because he fears the punishment, but because he doesn’t want to disappoint or hurt the most important person in his world.
When the Bible talks about fearing God, it’s referring to this loving type of fear—fear rooted in respect and love for God the Father. So, a man with a healthy fear of God is not terrified of Him. He understands that while God can destroy the body and soul, He doesn’t want to. In fact, God “wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
Respect is Earned, Grace is Given
The truth is that God is full of grace. He loves you so much that He sent His Son, Jesus, who willingly sacrificed Himself and died for everything you’ve ever done wrong. All He asks in return is that you put your faith in Him.
In our world, gaining someone’s respect can come at a cost, and often takes effort. But God’s grace does not need to be earned—it’s free and available to all who believe in Jesus.
My friend spent eight years behind bars worried about what others thought of him. And his stress didn’t end with his sentence. After several years struggling to earn the respect of people on the outside, he found himself back in prison for four more years.
But during his second sentence, my friend decided to fear God instead of people. He decided to accept God’s gift of grace, and let that relationship determine his values and actions. He spent those four years at peace with himself and his fellow prisoners.
What if you did the same? What if, instead of fearing other people and their opinion of you, you were unconditionally loved and accepted by an all-powerful God?
Being respected and respecting others is important, but as my friend learned through his anxieties, you will never find peace by focusing only on the respect of others. True peace comes from the Lord.
If you fearfully respect God and accept the never-ending grace He freely offers, you’ll find what you’ve been searching for all along.
This article originally appeared on Prison Fellowship’s blog.