“You shall fear the Lord your God.” This sentence (or something like it) is probably one that many people, both Christian and non-Christian alike, have heard before. To the non-Christian, it may sound like a typical Bible-y thing to say. Sentences like this may even be the reason that some people have no interest in Christianity. I mean, why would you choose to follow a religion where you have to fear God? Freedom to do what you want, when you want, and how you want sounds so much more appealing!
To the Christian, this sentence may make sense or it may be very confusing. Personally, I fall into the second category. This whole “fear of God” thing seems to contradict so many other things that I have read in the Bible. It seems to contradict the very nature of the God who I know and love! God doesn’t want me to be afraid of him— he loves me! So what exactly does it mean when people say that I should fear God? What exactly does the Bible have to say about it?
I decided to do a little research to find out. At first, it seemed as if the Bible really does contradict itself. I already knew that the Bible had a lot to say about how we are loved by God and how through Jesus, we are seen as blameless and innocent. But in Deuteronomy 6:2 it says “and you and your children and grandchildren must fear the Lord your God as long as you live. If you obey all his decrees and commands, you will enjoy a long life.” Fear God as long as I live? Obey all his decrees and commands? That sounds more like the relationship between a harsh king and his servant than the relationship between a loving father and his child. The last part about enjoying a long life almost seems more like a threat than a reward! It’s as if God is saying “if you obey me perfectly, then I’ll let you live.” Yikes!
In other verses, though, it doesn’t sound quite as harsh. 1 Samuel 12:24 says “But be sure to fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you.” In Deuteronomy 5:29, it says “If only they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and live by all My Laws always! Then it would go well with them and with their children forever.” Both of these verses seem to be more based on a loving relationship than punishment, but there is still the element of fear. And these are just a few of many (and I mean seriously a ton) of verses that tell us to fear the Lord.
Yet in other verses, we are told not to fear anything. In 1 John 4:17-18, the Bible says the following: “And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” Another verse, 2 Timothy 1:7, says that “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Both of those verses sound great! But how can we make sense of them in light of the many, many fear-related verses in the Bible?
In my research, I found two interesting articles on the subject. The first one focused on the idea that there are different types of fear. One type of fear is the fear of things or events. Many people fear things in this world, such as natural disasters, financial troubles, or spiders. Another type of fear is the fear of people. People fear what others might do to them or not do for them. What if my boyfriend cheats on me? What if my boss fires me? What if a random stranger breaks into my house and kills me? All of these are valid fears, of course, and a natural part of human emotion. A third type of fear is the fear of God, which actually comes in two varieties: the fear of punishment from God, and what some people call the “Holy Fear” of God.
The “Holy Fear” of God is what the Bible refers to when it tells us to fear the Lord. This type of fear does not involve being afraid of God in the same way that we are afraid of things that scare us. It is not a fear of punishment from God if we do not obey him. Instead, it is a fear based on love and reverence. The article describes it as “a fear born in love that dreads offending Abba, the Father they love and hold in awe.” In other words, we are to love God so much that we hate the idea of upsetting him. That, in turn, motivates us to live in a way that pleases him.
This kind of “fear” when it comes to God makes a lot more sense to me than the regular kind of fear. I could never be afraid of God, who I know loves me so much. But I definitely am afraid of offending him. It’s actually quite similar to the way I feel about my earthly father. When I was younger especially, I always tried to be on my best behavior because I loved my dad so much, and I was afraid of disappointing him. It’s not that I was afraid of getting punished! I just really didn’t want to let him down. Now that I’m all grown up, I don’t worry so much about this because I have come to know that my dad will always be proud of me. But even now, I still deeply desire his approval and support in the decisions that I make. In the same way, the Bible tells me that I should strive to please God, my Heavenly Father. This comes as a natural response to the love and admiration that I have for him! Deuteronomy 10:12 says it well: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the Lord your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul.” Our fear of God is simply a reflection of our love and our desire to serve him.
There is one small final detail to figure out, though. As the second article I read pointed out, God is not a permissive parent. The writer of the article claims that “A biblical fear of God… includes understanding how much God hates sin and fearing His judgment on sin—even in the life of a believer.” At first, I was hesitant to agree with this. The Bible makes it very clear that once a person accepts Jesus, we are seen as blameless and we receive no judgment for our sins. Jesus took all of our mistakes and bad choices on himself when He died on the cross, and because of that, we are cleared of all charges. Because of that, my fear of God should not include a fear of judgment.
However, in Hebrews 12:6, the Bible says “The Lord corrects the people he loves and disciplines those he calls his own.” What exactly does this mean? The writer of the second article explained: “As children, the fear of discipline from our parents no doubt prevented some evil actions. The same should be true in our relationship with God. We should fear His discipline, and therefore seek to live our lives in such a way that pleases Him.” The truth is, in a loving parent-child relationship, discipline is not only acceptable, it’s mandatory. A parent who loves his or her child wants what is best for her. A loving parent will discipline his child because if he doesn’t, then the child will not learn to do what is right and will not be able to live a good life.
There is an important distinction to be made between discipline and punishment, however. Discipline involves correction for the purpose of training. Punishment involves inflicting a penalty, whether the penalty actually encourages behavior improvement or not. Punishment helps the punisher feel better, but the goal of discipline is to guide the wrongdoer to make better choices. Even though some translations of the Bible verse that I quoted above say that God “punishes” his children, I believe that this translation better depicts God’s intention. He does not punish us with the spirit of paying us back for our sins. Jesus took responsibility for us so that God would not have to do that. Instead, God disciplines and corrects us when we make bad choices. He allows us to experience the natural consequences for our choices because that is how we will learn to live better lives.
Looking once again at 2 Timothy 1:7, things start to make sense. “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” God wants us to live in the best way that we can out of our love for him. He wants us to fear disappointing him because we love and admire him. And when we do make mistakes, he corrects and disciplines us because in doing so, we can learn to make better choices— we learn self-discipline. God is not commanding us to be afraid of him so that he can feel more big and powerful. He asks us to love him, to accept his discipline, and to learn and strive to live right. And in these things, we find that we have power over evil. We no longer have to fear the evil things in this world. That’s what the Bible means when it says that God’s perfect love casts out fear. And now, I can confidently say that I follow a God of love, not fear.