The fear of God, or the fear of the Lord, is a concept with which Christians are intimately familiar. It is found throughout the pages of scripture, mostly (though not exclusively) in the Old Testament. I would say the majority of Christians have been taught to believe that it is a good and necessary thing to fear God. Of the many texts that can be marshalled in support of this view, perhaps the most frequently cited is Psalm 111:10:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.
Most discussions about the fear of God tend to revolve around semantics: does the word fear mean terror, or does it mean respect and reverent admiration? Well, I’m no Bible scholar, but even the most cursory research reveals that the Hebrew word that is here translated fear, yir’ā(h), does indeed carry the notion, among others, of terror or dread.
On the face of it, then, scripture seems to suggest that God is to be feared, that we are to be afraid of him, and that this is a Good Thing.
Consider the following scripture:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
(1 John 4:7-8)
So, when the author of 1 John wants to sum up as concisely as possible what God is like, here is what he says: God is love. So far, so uncontroversial.
But now, consider also this scripture, from a few verses later in the same book:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
(1 John 4:18)
What do we know from these two scriptures? Well, we know that God is love, and that there is no fear in love. It seems clear to me, therefore, that we must conclude that there is no fear in God. Or, to put it another way, fear has nothing to do with God. Wherever fear comes from, whatever fear is rooted in, it isn’t God.
With me so far? Good.
Now consider these words, reported as being said by Jesus to his disciples shortly before his betrayal and arrest:
“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
Don’t miss the significance of what’s happening here. Jesus is telling his disciples that they are his friends. If we believe that Jesus is God enfleshed, then what we have here is the Most High God telling broken, sinful, deeply flawed human beings that they are his friends.
Just let that percolate for a moment.
Now, if I were to ask you to think about your closest friend (or loved one) – the person with whom you can be most vulnerable and in whom you place the greatest trust – and describe the kind of relationship you have with them, I wonder whether the words fear or afraid would feature in your description? I think not.
When we think about human relationships, we intuitively know that fear has no part in a healthy relationship. In fact, if a relationship is based on or substantially infused with fear, we call it an abusive relationship. Healthy relationships are based on trust, and trust is corroded and destroyed by fear.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Let’s review. On the one hand, we have a list as long as your arm of Old Testament scriptures exhorting us to fear God. On the other hand, the writer of 1 John tells us that God is love and that there is no fear in love; and Jesus himself tells his disciples that his relationship with them is one of friendship – in other words, the kind of relationship that cannot develop and flourish where fear is present.
It’s also interesting to me that most of the times God speaks or appears to someone in scripture (often through an angel), his opening words are “Do not be afraid!”. I’ll just throw that in as an aside.
It seems to me, then, that we have a choice to make: will we believe the Old Testament exhortations that we should respond to God with fear, or will we trust in Jesus’ revelation of God as our friend and in the writer of 1 John’s teaching that fear does not come from God and is, in fact, contrary to his very nature?
The question that arises, of course, is what about all those Old Testament verses? Do we just ignore them or junk them? Should we tear those pages out of our Bibles? And if not, then what should we do with them?
Well… perhaps we should consider that those scriptures are there not to tell us what God is really like. Perhaps, instead, they are there precisely to show us that this is how we humans, in our fallen, damaged, fearful state, see God: we project our fears onto him and assume that he is angry and to be feared. And in believing that lie (yes, I do believe it is a lie), we actually keep ourselves locked into that fear-filled condition.
Thankfully, we know that God is not to be feared. How do we know this? We know it because Jesus told us and showed us that God is love, and that we are his friends. My prayer is that the light of this truth would penetrate deep into our frightened hearts until all fear is gone and we can genuinely begin to know what it is to live in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Let me conclude with this quote from Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book The Return of the Prodigal Son:
“[…] even my best theological and spiritual formation had not been able to completely free me from a Father God who remained somewhat threatening and somewhat fearsome. All I had learned about the Father’s love had not fully enabled me to let go of an authority above me who had power over me and would use it according to his will. Somehow, God’s love for me was limited by my fear of God’s power, and it seemed wise to keep a careful distance even though the desire for closeness was immense. I know that I share this experience with countless others. I have seen how the fear of becoming subject to God’s revenge and punishment has paralyzed the mental and emotional lives of many people, independently of their age, religion, or life-style. This paralyzing fear of God is one of the great human tragedies.”
[ Image: Alice Popkorn ]