“In the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence, And His children will have a place of refuge.” – Proverbs 14:26
There have been a lot of misconceptions about the fear of God. Some would go to the extreme of saying that we ought not fear God at all, because ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ Others paint God in an overly vindictive light, overshadowing the fact that He ‘delights in mercy.’ But an examination of the scriptures reveal both of these extremes as incorrect. The Bible clearly, in both Old and New Testaments, instruct us to fear God; it is also clear, in both Old and New Testaments, that God is indeed merciful and gracious.
I survey the landscape of the church in American, I see both of these extremes in play. However, the former extreme is much more prevalent than the latter. The latter extreme is relegated to small fringe groups. These fringe groups are often magnified by the media and thus imprinted upon the mind of the world (Westboro Baptist, anyone?), but they do not reflect the vast majority of those who call themselves by Christ’s name. Most Christians, as far as I can tell, err on the side of the former extreme. That is, they greatly understate the importance of the fear of God. They either misunderstand the fear of God, or else they dismiss it to avoid associations with fringe groups that they perceive to be a stench to Christianity (which indeed they are). It is to this large chunk of Christianity that I address this essay.
In my text, the biblical author states that the fear of the Lord brings strong confidence. I start with this text because it can be misunderstood as to what the fear of God ought to do in a man. The fear of God will not relegate man to a quivering mess of insecurity and constant fear of being punished. Not at all! Instead, it will produce a ‘strong confidence’ that can catapult a man to the highest place of living. We know this because the scripture declares that Jesus delighted in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-3). It was Jesus’ embrace of godly fear that shaped Him into the Man that He was. And if we desire to be like Him, we should follow His pattern.
What is the Fear of God?
Before we go any further, definitions need to be established. What do we mean by the fear of God? What does it look like to fear the Lord?
The simplest way to understand the fear of God is this: caring about what God thinks over anyone else. There is more to it than this, which we will explain, but this is the backbone of what it means to fear God.
A good example of this is found in the person of Nehemiah. As Nehemiah governed in the city of Jerusalem, he conducted himself markedly different than the others who had ruled over the people before him. The others took from the people that they might enjoy the luxurious lifestyle of a privileged class while the people suffered. Nehemiah could have done this, too. There was no barrier outside of religion that kept him from doing so. And it was very likely that no-one would have blamed him for doing what rulers and governors have always done. But he did not do it. Why? He says ‘because of the fear of God.’ (Nehemiah 5:15)
Notice that Nehemiah’s reason for conducting himself this way was not because he cared for the people, although he did. Nor did he say he did it simply because it was the right thing to do, although it was. His reason was ‘because of the fear of God.’ In other words, he cared about what God thought first.
As believers in Christ, we ought to do the same. In all that we do, we should seek to understand what God thinks. Our movements ought to be prayerful, with a firm grasp on scripture. This is what it means to conduct ourselves in the fear of God (1 Peter 1:17).
A Consuming Fire
Like I mentioned, the fear of God carries more meaning than just caring about what God thinks, although I think that is a good starting point. The fear of God also carries a sense of terror over the great power of His person and fierceness of His judgments. Moses was beloved of God and talked with Him like a man talks to his friend; however, in God’s presence He said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling” (Hebrews 12:21). Paul conducted himself in ‘fear and trembling,’ admonishing others to do the same (1 Corinthians 2:3, Philippians 2:12). His knowledge of the ‘terror of the Lord’ is what moved him to ‘persuade men’ (2 Corinthians 5:11). And I’m sure the author of Hebrews trembled when he wrote these sober words: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Don’t be deceived into thinking that a New Testament God is all love and grace. The Bible warns of greater judgments upon those who refuse to hear Him who speaks from heaven. It is because of this that the apostle admonishes us to ‘serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:25,28-29).
We know that we are saved by the grace of God and have great reason to rejoice. And we don’t fear judgment as we walk in His love. But we are to fear. We fear as observers of God’s judgments, not partakers of them.
Imagine that you saw smoke billowing up in your neighborhood and you rushed to the scene to see a house on fire. Then suddenly you notice a man beating on an upstairs window, trying to break it to escape from the blaze. But before he can make his escape, the fire flames up into the room, enveloping him before your eyes. The man screams in terror until, at last, he expires. How would you feel at that moment? Would you walk on and say, “Praise the Lord! Thank God that isn’t me!” I’d hope not! No, you would tremble. You would be struck with the horror of the moment. You’d be overwhelmed by the destructive power of the fire.
It is in this same vein that we ought to fear God. Jesus said that we ought to ‘fear Him, whom after He has killed, has the power to cast into hell’ (Luke 12:4-5).
It should be noted that Jesus didn’t say that poor, helpless people die and go to hell. He says that God kills them and casts them into hell. How can we not tremble when we think upon these things?
Now I know this goes against a lot of what is taught in the churches today. The idea we get from many preachers is that the world is filled with poor, helpless souls that need a touch from God; and if we could just show them love then they might come to Christ and be saved. The reality is much different. The reality is that mankind has rebelled against God even though they know better. The Bible says that the ‘wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men… because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful‘ (Romans 1:18). The truth is that our sin is worse than we realize and that hell is a just and fitting punishment. When we think about the idea of God justly punishing mankind forever in hell, we should tremble. If we tremble at a man being burnt in a temporal fire, how much more should we tremble before our God, who is a consuming fire?
The problem with the world is that there is ‘no fear of God before their eyes’ (Romans 3:18). They don’t care what God thinks, nor do they fear His judgments. They live as if there is no God or else with the idea that God is somehow like them.
“These things you have done, and I kept silent; You thought that I was altogether like you; But I will rebuke you, And set them in order before your eyes. Now consider this, you who forget God, Lest I tear you in pieces, And there be none to deliver…” – Psalm 50:21-22
Fear is a Good Thing
Fear is often condemned as a human defect. And some Christians promote the idea that if we could just be ‘made perfect in love’ then all fear would be dispelled, because ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ But what some fail to understand is that there are different types of fear. There is good fear and bad fear. There is rational fear and irrational fear. It is a rational fear to not to want to walk through a bad neighborhood at night. It’s a good fear for a child not to want to run into a road after a ball. It is wise for a workman to conduct himself in fear when working with heavy and dangerous equipment. Someone might say to him, “Why are you wearing protective gear? What are you so afraid of?” But this kind of fear isn’t the kind of paralyzing fear that prevents a person from acting sensibly; but it’s fear in the sense of a very health respect of the dangers that are truly present. A workman prepares himself because of fear. And in that fear he can have strong confidence (Proverbs 14:26).
Of course, there are plenty of irrational fears. It is irrational to fear judgment from God when our sins are forgiven. This is what John speaks of in 1 John 4:18. It is also irrational for us to fear man. Why should we fear them that can only kill the body and after that have no more that they can do? Shouldn’t we fear the One who can cast into hell? Nor should we fear Satan, for he can by no means hurt us (Luke 10:19). Nor should we fear the circumstances of life, for God is with us.
But there are things that we should most definitely fear, for the Bible specifically tells us to fear:
Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. – 1 Peter 2:17
It couldn’t be more clear than that. But if you want more, do a simple search in your Bible software to find many references in both Old and New Testaments that teach us to fear God.
Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. – 1 Timothy 5:20
John Wesley famously said, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth.”
We ought to fear sin.
Why? Because we are all susceptible to its deceptive charm. None of us will ever grow out of temptation. Ever. Just as the worker careful puts on his protective equipment everyday before he goes in the factory, and just as the soldier carefully dresses himself with every defensive measure that is reasonable, so we must take up the armor of God that we might resist the fiery darts of the wicked one. Satan’s greatest tool to bring down the mighty is temptation. It has worked for centuries and still works today.
Watch yourself carefully! Don’t put yourself in tempting situations! Run from any you find yourself in! Treat sin like the plague and temptations as mortal traps. ‘Be sober, vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).
I know this one isn’t popular, but ‘he who has ears to hear, let him hear.’
The Bible is FILLED with warnings to the saints about apostasy. Instead of thinking soberly on this topic, many Christians are ‘high-minded’ on this subject, thinking that they could never fall. But the Bible specifically tells us to fear regarding this subject:
“Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.” – Romans 11:20-22
It breaks my heart that the devil has done such a good job at deceiving the church over this matter. The Bible states that the last days will be marked by men departing from the faith (1 Tim 4:1), yet the church in the last days calls it impossible. God help us.
A healthy, godly fear is desperately needed in the church today. Many Christians are careless regarding sin and spend their time flirting with the world. Instead of ‘perfecting holiness in the fear of god,’ they are ‘allowing that woman Jezebel to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.’ They have a name that they are alive, but they don’t realize that they are dead (Rev 3:1). They have the world’s goods and are enjoying the treasures of Egypt, but they do not realize that they are ‘wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.’ The solution is to ‘repent and do the first works.’ If we don’t, we will find ourselves cast out, blotted out, and our place taken away. We will be like the those who knock at the doors of the kingdom say, “Lord, let us in! We prophesied and did mighty wonders in your name.” But He will say, “Depart from Me, for I never knew you, you workers of iniquity.”