Several years ago I was invited to speak at a Christian event on a college campus. The team brought me in to talk about the fear of God to their students.
I admired their willingness to cover a subject that is hardly discussed in the Church. But I have to admit, I suspect they brought me in because no one on their team was eager to address the topic themselves! I don’t blame them. This topic is difficult to understand, and raises legitimate questions about how God has chosen to relate Himself to us.
Christians say that God is good. They say that God is our friend. That we can draw near to Him because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. So why, then, we are supposed to fear God? Let’s discuss!
Christians Can’t Ignore This
I would bet you’d be more likely to hear about the “fear of God” at an atheist convention than at a church. Churches today tend to focus on God’s love so attendees don’t feel “uncomfortable.” But the fear of God doesn’t take long to stumble across in the Bible. It is literally throughout God’s Word, from Genesis to Revelation — in at least 274 verses!1This is the count I came up with when I set out to study every verse that addresses this topic.
Here are just a few examples:
- Deuteronomy 6:13: “Fear the LORD your God, serve Him only and take your oaths in His name.”
- Psalm 2:11: “Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate His rule with trembling.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:11: “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.”
- 1 Peter 2:17: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”
Some say that to “fear God” is simply to have a sense of awe, wonder, reverence, and respect for Him. But if that’s the case, why doesn’t the Bible simply tell us to “revere” or “respect” God, rather than “fear” Him? Evidently, the word “fear” is still most fitting to describe this biblical concept in most contexts. It’s not a perfect translation, but it’s close. This can feel troubling for many people, particularly those who fear their own father.
So… Is God Using Fear Tactics?
Western culture tends to view fear as bad, especially when used to manipulate others into submission. But the biblical concept of fear has a wider concept. It captures more than just the negative perception we may have of it.2See Stuart D. Sacks, “Fear,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 781.
In the verses above, I hope you can see that the concept of fearing God is connected to our obedience.
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes considered fearing God to be the most meaningful thing we could do with our life (Ecclesiastes 5:7, 12:13). The prophet Nehemiah even called Israel to fear their God so that they wouldn’t be taunted by their enemies (Nehemiah 5:9).
In our modern culture, however, we’re so removed from this thinking that “fearing God” is a difficult concept for us to appreciate.
But would the Jewish authors of the Bible really want us to believe that God is a tyrannical bully who manipulates us, His children, with fear tactics? No way! No devout author of Scripture would ever mean to communicate this. No devout Jewish community would have considered including such a crazy notion in their religious writings.
The concept of “fearing God,” then, must have a meaning different from our modern understanding.
Fear Can Be Good For Us (And We Know it)
Today, we talk about “healthy fear” being a useful tool for our making wise choices. For instance, we buckle our seat belts because we fear what might happen to our body in a car accident. And young men protect their girlfriends while out on dates, because they fear how the fathers might react if they don’t return their daughters home safely. I’m sure you can think of other actions you take on a daily basis because of a perceived negative outcome.
Similarly, God wants to instill a sense of healthy fear in our hearts to keep us from making poor decisions contrary to His commandments. Because we believe His guidelines are for our good, our posture of submission and gratitude compels us to obey His voice.
Our response has nothing to do with a damaged or unhealthy relationship between us and God. Any argument to the contrary ignores the moments of Scripture that clearly imply otherwise. Just a few examples:
- Psalm 25:14 reminds us, “The Lord is a friend to those who fear Him.”
- Psalm 103:17 says, “But the love of the Lord remains forever with those who fear Him.”
By the path opened to us through the blood of Christ, we can be close to God. Does this involve an element of fear? You bet! But at the same time, we affirm that it is good. Because God is good, and He loves us, we can trust Him.
Simply put: God’s power over the universe is so extraordinary that it’s scary. I would suggest that any person in his or her right mind would respond accordingly. Our response should one of reverence; our awe, obedience, and showing Him due honor and respect.
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