To Fear or Not to Fear
How do you harmonize the wonderful “fear nots” in the Bible (Gen. 15:1; Is. 41:10; Heb. 13:6) with the repeated admonition to “fear the Lord” (Deut. 6:3; Acts 9:31; Col. 3:22)? Did you ever think about that? How can we fear God while He drives out our fear?
The answer is found in a proper understanding of the fear of the Lord.
The English word “fear” is rarely seen as something positive. We are afraid of heights, spiders and cancer. But fearing God is something very constructive. It keeps us from giving in to our sinful nature. And it propels our trust in God instead of being afraid of life’s curveballs.
In his book “The Joy of Fearing God”, author Jerry Bridges defines the fear of the Lord as “reverential awe”, a rich and diverse mixture of emotions and attitudes. It does includes fear, but it is not the dominant element. It is a combination of deep respect and profound joy, awe, devotion and reverence for who God is and what He has done (Mk. 4:40,41).
A Christian should not exclusively think of terror when he thinks of the fear of the Lord. Such fear wants to get away from God. But the biblical fear of the Lord drives us to God. It’s found in a heart that is in tune with both the severity and the kindness of God (Rom. 11:22).
Martin Luther’s thinking on this subject is helpful. He made the distinction between servile and filial fear. Servile fear is the kind of fear that a slave would feel towards a merciless master (Mat. 25:24-26). It is forced upon him and often the seedbed of hatred. Filial fear on the other hand is the kind of fear a child has towards of his father (1 Joh. 4:18). It is embedded in a relationship and the fruit of love.
It is the second kind of fear that is in view here. The fear of the Lord incorporates holy respect and passionate love. When the fear of the Lord rules our heart, we take pains not to displease our Lord but to follow and obey Him in all things, just as a son instinctively wants to delight his good father.
Or as Ed Welch put it in “When People Are Big and God Is Small”: “This fear of the Lord means reverent submission that leads to obedience, and it is interchangeable with ‘worship’, ‘rely on’, ‘trust’, and ‘hope in’. Like terror, it includes a knowledge of our sinfulness and God’s moral purity… But this worship-fear also knows God’s great forgiveness, mercy, and love… It knows that, in our relationship with God, he always says ‘I love you first’. This knowledge draws us closer to God rather than causing us to flee. It causes us to submit gladly to his lordship and delight in obedience”.
How do we increase our fear of the Lord? By making generous use of the ordinary means of grace: meditation on the Word of God, prayer, confession of sin, true fellowship with other believers. As we do so, the Spirit will work in us. Ultimately, it is Him who transforms the slave’s fear into the son’s fear.