Fear is not a feeling that most of us enjoy. We avoid the uncertainty, vulnerability, and powerlessness that often make up that emotion. Fear of an opponent can become a mental barrier that keeps us from winning, and fear of failure can keep us from reaching our potential and pursuing our dreams. Fear can get in our way and leave us with regret.
The Bible has a lot to say about fear, and some of what it says lines up with our typical way of thinking. Remember David and Goliath? When grown men and trained soldiers are too scared to face down a dangerous enemy alone, David takes down the giant with one stone from a sling-shot. David grows up to be a triumphant warrior king—a hero in his own time and in ours. Yet the hero held in his heart a different kind of fear, one that he wrote about in psalms. This fear is “the fear of the Lord.”
Over and over again in the Psalms, we read from David and other writers about this fear: “Oh, fear the Lord, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him” (Psalm 34:9, NKJV); “Make vows to the Lord your God, and pay them; Let all who are around Him bring presents to Him who ought to be feared” (Psalm 76:11, NKJV). God doesn’t reprimand David or the other writers for fearing him. Indeed Scripture confirms that the kind of fear David had is something God approves of.
What is this “fear of the Lord” and how can we make sense of it today? Because the Bible places such an emphasis on the fear of the Lord, and because the idea of fearing a God who is supposed to be all loving might seem like a contradiction, it’s worth taking time to think through these questions in light of Scripture.
THE MEANINGS OF “FEAR”
The Hebrew phrase “yirah,” which is translated most often as “fear,” holds a range of meanings, and not all of them are negative. This word can mean terror or dread, but also “awe” or “reverence” and “respect” (En Gedi Research Center) “Yirat Adonai,” the phrase translated “the fear of the Lord,” is used repeatedly in the Old and New Testaments, and nearly every time, it refers to this “reverence,” “awe,” and “respect.” Oftentimes the “fear of the Lord” means “a holy way of life” because reverence for God leads one to follow God’s directions for right living.
In the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites were just beginning to learn about God’s character and power, so the call to fear is fairly direct. In Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses tells the Israelites: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (NKJV). This scripture and many others point to the fact that our Creator is the most powerful being in the universe, and, as the source of all truth and all goodness, God is worthy of our reverence. God is not just another being and not comparable to the “gods” that pagan cultures worshipped.
One way to think of this fear is to compare it to the feeling you might get from standing in front of a vast ocean. You’re awed by the size and the power, and, at the same time, you sense how small you are in comparison. If contemplating the ocean can make us feel that way, then thinking about the God who created the oceans should fill us with even more wonder and respect.
In the New Testament, where scripture writers focus on Jesus as the highest representation of God’s love for human beings, we still receive similar instructions to fear God. 1 Peter 2:17 tells us quite directly to “honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (NKJV). Acts 9:31 states that Jesus’ followers were “walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (NKJV).
Even as God demonstrated love by sending Jesus to die on the cross to take punishment for our sins, God reminded people of the importance of fearing him. God is not only our savior, comforter, and friend who promises to be with us always (Hebrews 13:5; Matthew 28:20), but also the most powerful being in the universe. There is a place for the right kind of fear—the reverential awe and respect—in our lives.
This healthy fear keeps us mindful of three important aspects of God’s character and being. The first is God’s power. Genesis 1-3 tells us that God created the universe out of nothing, just by speaking it into being. Job 42 tells us that God “can do all things” and none of God’s purposes “can be thwarted” (NIV). God has power over every aspect of creation, including us. That’s not to say that everything that happens because God planned it that way. He has given us choices and freedoms. Ultimately, however, God can intervene at any moment. Part of fearing God is understanding that all power belongs to him.
Closely related to this power is God’s authority. He has the first and final word about what is true and good in the world. God speaks of this authority directly: “I am the Lord, and there is no other….I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:18 & 19 NIV). Earlier in the same chapter, he declares, “there is no God besides Me” (Isaiah 45:5 NKJV).
Clearly, not everyone respects that authority. (In fact, one way to define sin is to call it rebellion against God’s authority.) But our refusal to acknowledge God’s authority does not make it invalid. The Bible tells us that eventually all people will be held accountable for their responses to God’s authority (Hebrews 9:27). Isaiah 45:23 and Romans 14:11 tell us plainly that “every knee shall bow” before God and every tongue will verbally acknowledge God’s authority. Another part of walking in “the fear of the Lord,” then, is allowing our Lord’s authority to determine our attitudes and actions. In a real sense, Christians should see themselves as people who live under a higher authority.
The same Bible that calls us to fear the Lord repeatedly tells us of God’s great love for humanity. The most succinct declaration of that love came from Jesus Christ, who tells us in John 3:16 that that love covers the whole world. That love is as great as God’s power. In fact, 1 John 4 tells us that “God is love.”
The same Bible that calls us to fear the Lord repeatedly tells us of God’s great love for humanity.
If we separate any of these truths about God’s power, authority, and love from the others, then we distort God’s character and nature. Power and authority without love would make God dangerous and threatening—a giant ogre rather than a loving creator. Love without power and authority would make God just a nice guy in the sky who makes us feel good, but one who can’t tell us what’s right, and can’t do anything about the evil in the world. Love and power without authority would mean influences other than God would have the right to tell us what’s true and right. When we fear God, we appreciate these three aspects of God’s character together and get a more accurate understanding of who God is in our lives.
Having this kind of awe or respect for God makes experiencing his love that much more incredible. Think about it: the most powerful being in the universe knows and notices each and every one of his creations and wants them to learn about and experience his love. That’s the most incredible truth in the universe, a truth that should give us hope and drive out our fears.
FEARING GOD DELIVERS US FROM FEAR
Recognizing God as our loving creator and ultimate authority frees us from an inappropriate fear of other people or circumstances. In Luke 12, Jesus offers us clear and direct teaching on how the fear of God paradoxically gives us boldness to deal with dangers here on earth:
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell…Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? …Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (NKJV)
Jesus brings together fear and love in this passage. He comforts his followers by telling them whom they should fear: God alone. He teaches us that God’s power and love are inseparable. This all-powerful God pays attention to the tiniest detail about us and values all his creation. When we trust him, we have nothing else to fear.
Proverbs 29:25 aligns with Jesus’ teaching and reminds us that when we fear other people, we get ourselves into trouble because we put them in the place of God in our lives. God wants us to reject that fear and have the courage that comes from trusting him and doing what he wants us to do no matter what other people think or say.
ULTIMATELY, WE CAN BE FEARLESS IN CHRIST.
Proverbs 28:1 says “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (NKJV). The righteous—those who have accepted Jesus Christ as savior and seek to follow God’s direction—can live fearless, courageous lives, experiencing blessing as they dare to do what he calls them to do in all areas of their lives. That’s what God wants for us. Our powerful, loving creator, the source of all truth and good in the universe, didn’t create us to be terrified cowards. When we have the right kind of fear of our Lord—a reverential awe based on an understanding of his power, authority, and love—we can move forward in our lives in confidence, trusting him to do great things in and through us.