Fear is a terrible thing.
As children, our fears involve imaginary monsters or villains creeping with the nighttime flickers and shadows. Though the threats are imaginary, the fears are very real.
As we grow older we overcome such fears, but inherit a new set of prospective antagonists of which we are afraid: rejection by peers, financial loss, health challenges, job insecurity and more.
It can sometimes be puzzling then to ponder why the Bible should use the term “fear” in a positive sense. The Psalmist practically oozes with exuberance in his poem (Psalm 34:8-11):
“Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints!
“There is no want to those who fear him.
“The young lions lack and suffer hunger;
“But those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing.
“Come, you children, listen to me;
“I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
This psalm and many passages like it actually place the fear of the Lord in a positive light. Here is a sampling from the book of Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, To turn one away from the snares of death.” “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, Than great treasure with trouble.” “The fear of the Lord leads to life, And he who has it will abide in satisfaction; He will not be visited with evil.” “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life.” (Proverbs 14:27; 15:16; 19:23; 22:4)
It is abundantly clear that David and Solomon saw the fear of the Lord as something positive and not pejorative. But why? Perhaps we should explore further what the fear of God actually is and what it is not.
First of all we must agree that whatever the “fear of the Lord” is, it cannot be equated with the terror that we feel when dreading the uncertain or certain future. The apostle John tells us, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Since the Bible does not disagree with itself, there must be two different kinds of fear!
Many have suggested that the “fear of the Lord” implies more of a sense of respect than a sense of terror, and I am inclined to agree. But I think it’s more. Respect can be fairly intellectual and impractical, but I believe that the fear of the Lord is something that is practical, impactful and permeates throughout our daily lives.
Let’s illustrate it this way. In the gospel according to John we find that there were many of the people who believed in Jesus, but “no one spoke openly of him for fear of the Jews.” (John 7:13, see also John 9:22; 19:38; 20:19) In other words, the fear of man inhibited the expression of belief in the Savior. They were afraid of what others would say and do. They were afraid of being outcasts in their own society. What others thought of them was important in their decision-making processes.
Like it or not, the desire for human approval is deeply ingrained in our thinking. If we are honestly introspective we can probably see that many of the decisions we make in life, both big and small, are based on our desire to be liked, accepted and affirmed by others — and even by the majority.
The problem is that we live in a fallen world, where thinking is skewed and the majority rarely appreciates what God appreciates. “For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15) This places us on a collision course between the demands of man and the will of God. When these conflict, which will we choose?
It seems to me that the Bible is teaching the fear of the Lord in contrast to the fear of man. The fear of man leads me to make decisions based upon what my peers will think and say. The fear of God leads me to be more concerned about his approval than the approval of those around me. When the fear of the Lord is in my heart, I’m not afraid to make unpopular decisions in order to follow Jesus, because I desire his approval even more than that of the dearest on Earth to me.
But how can this actually be our experience, when our hearts and habits are so ingrained with the fear of man? This is my favorite part of the story! God promises to perform this miracle in my heart. “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from me.” (Jeremiah 32:40) What I need is a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). A new heart with new ways of thinking and new priorities and motives. A new heart that is so in love with my Savior that I want to please him first and foremost.
This is a fear I want to have.
Chester Clark III is pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dalton. His column runs on the third Saturday of the month.