The day of the guest service has arrived: the culmination of weeks of planning, prayers, and many nervous “Hey, our church is holding a guest service this Sunday, and I was wondering…” type of conversations. To your joy and terror, a number of your friends said yes.
So now, as you enter the building with your guests, you find yourself experiencing a peculiarly elevated sense of awareness of everything that is going on at church that day. Your nose picks up the smell of the carpet, your eyes are drawn to the small wad of breakfast cereal tenaciously clinging to the welcomer’s chin, and then of course as you sit there’s the slightly tacky texture of pews (you hope that it is just deteriorating lacquer and not the accumulated sweat of a thousand parishioners). Still, everything has gone well so far. The congregation have been friendly, the leading has been tight, the music great. But then the preacher gets up, and says this:
The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God.
As each subordinate clause bludgeons itself against the congregation’s ears your heart beats faster, your anxiety builds, and no amount of air conditioning can prevent the break out of perspiration as you frantically think through how you might smooth things over with your guests over lunch: “He was a guest preacher! It’s not normally like this!” And then you wake up and realize to your great relief it was all a dream. You’d never hear a sermon like that today.
That quote was from Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’, preached in 1741 in Connecticut.1 Under Edward’s preaching thousands turned to Christ. Thousands wised up and rushed to the gracious arms of the Saviour whose atoning death on that old rugged cross bore the wrath that was, by rights, theirs to face. Jonathan Edwards had no problem putting ‘the fear of God’ into his listeners. But it is different now: you really wouldn’t hear a sermon like that today. We don’t do ‘fear’ so much. We would rather win people to heaven than scare them from hell. We would much prefer that people’s hearts were stirred by love for God and not the fear of him. Of course, helping people come to see the love of God is a praiseworthy thing. However, in the process of stressing what we see as ‘the positive’, we have neglected a way of understanding God that the Bible would go so far as to describe as “the beginning of wisdom”.
The fear of God turns up more than 200 times in the Bible—and that is just the phrase itself, the concept is actually on display far more frequently. Yet despite the fear of God being such a prominent theme in the Bible, how often does fearing God come up in Christian conversation? How often does it feature in advice we give one another on how to live for Jesus? Even though it is revealed by our God to be the foundation of wisdom, there is hardly a book written on the subject. In preaching, we rarely hear it spoken about apart from the occasional passing reference while going through a book of the Old Testament. Even then, what we often hear is some brief remark along the lines of “Now of course the fear of God doesn’t mean being scared of God, it’s more about reverence and respect”. Are we sure about that? Does the fear of God mean anything except what you and I would actually call fear?
Afraid of the negative
Why don’t we talk about fearing God more than we do? I suggest it is because we are afraid of fear. We might like the odd horror movie or scary thriller, but that kind of fear is safe. It is fear with no implications for us or those we love. You walk out of the cinema afterwards and safe normality returns. What Jonathan Edwards preached? That’s not safe.
But there is an even bigger reason why we don’t talk about it, and that is because we see fear as an inferior or bad motive for doing things. Fear is viewed as a negative, life-sapping force rather than something that is positive and affirming, which tends to be our preferred mode of Christian operation. Playing on people’s fears is a powerful form of manipulation. It’s what we despise about current affairs programs and the radio shock jocks. What’s more, we have seen fear used for evil far too many times throughout history. It conjures up images of dictators like Hitler and Stalin, who kept people compliant and subservient by maintaining an environment of fear. If you keep people looking over their shoulders you can keep them under control. Fear is opposed to freedom. Fear is anti-life. It is this understanding of fear that leads noted thinkers such as Burmese democracy champion and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to reportedly say “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear”.
So what place can fear have in Christianity? Christians would rather work in the opposite direction. We see it as our Christian duty to help liberate people from fear, and often for very good reasons. For some people, their life is all about fear, a fear that takes away their security and sense of assurance. For some Christians there is this strange mixture of fear and gratitude: we are grateful for what God has done for us, but then sit there sweating over when his patience with us will eventually run out. It’s as if we are living our lives waiting for the axe to fall when at last God finally realizes how truly hopeless we are. Some Christians, especially those with a sensitive conscience, live in anticipation of some calamity being visited upon them as judgement for past sins, some retribution for not making more progress when it comes to living a holy life. The result of this is often that people are driven away from God instead of being driven towards him. We want to affirm the truth of which John spoke:
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (1 John 4:17-18)
However we also know that the world is looking on. You get that cynical view of Christianity that sees it as being all about guilt, and fear, and timidity. This view finds expression in this comment that I read once: “Politicians promise, the police protect, but preachers scare”. So we are especially keen to say “No, it’s not like that!” We want to liberate people from fear, not encourage it.
Yet, once more, God says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10).
So is it possible that we have misunderstood what the Bible is speaking about when it speaks of the fear of God? If the result is a lack of Christian assurance then surely this enslaving fear can’t be what the Bible is promoting. The Bible is clear that the Christian life is to be one of love, and joy and hope and peace, and yet at the same time one lived in fear of God. A proper fear of God should be able to be held right beside an overwhelming sense of the love of God, and a joy in knowing him. So destructive fear that attacks our assurance of God’s love cannot be what the Bible is encouraging. If we are afraid of the fear of God, then we have not understood it.
The purpose of this series of articles is to help us to re-examine the fear of God—and more than that, to actually delight in it. The first step in doing that is to dispel the illusion that fear in general is a bad thing. One of the problems of our society is that it has adopted a simplistic and foolish approach to life, a view of life that assesses things and actions according to the happiness they produce. Perhaps we could call it the ‘whatever makes you happy’ ethic, where something is morally good if it brings happiness. If it doesn’t bring happiness, then it is not morally good.
I married a couple a number of years ago, and less than six months after saying “I do” the husband walked out on his wife. The advice he got from many of his friends was “That’s a shame, but I guess you’ve got to do what makes you happy”. In a choice between faithlessness or unhappiness, unhappiness was seen to be the greater ill. According to the ‘whatever makes you happy ethic’, fear is therefore a bad thing—because fear doesn’t make you happy, does it? Fearlessness, on the other hand, is something to be praised. Fearlessness is strong. Fearlessness is taking life by the horns and making it work for you.
This is of course utter garbage. Someone who is fearless is either a fool or a corpse, or a fool who is about to become a corpse. Every year, the famous Darwin Awards are full of tragic and darkly humorous examples of people whose failure to show appropriate fear has lead to their deaths. Fearlessness and foolishness go together.
Fearlessness springs from either ignorance or arrogance: ignorance, because you don’t appreciate the risk you are taking; or arrogance, because even though you are aware of the dangers you think you are invulnerable to them. Fear, on the other hand, in many instances is simply common sense. A deer running from a tiger displays smart fear, a fear that is life enhancing. If you are afraid of being bitten by a spider, you will wear gloves when cleaning up that old pile of bricks and piping in the backyard. If you are afraid of being hit by a car, you will cross the road at the lights, or at least look both ways before you cross. You don’t muck around with electricity, you don’t leave your children unattended near a pool… all this kind of stuff is smart fear.
However, it’s not just fear of dangerous situations that is smart fear. There’s fear that stops you from being lazy and spurs you on to achieve. You fear repeating a year of study, so you work hard, make sacrifices, and pass. You fear not making the team, so you practice and get selected. You fear falling into poverty, so you get up every morning and go to work. There’s also smart fear in relationships, fears that protect us from complacency. You fear the loss of a friendship, so you apologize to the friend when you wrong them. You fear the disapproval of someone you respect, so you try to please them. You fear hurting someone, so you make sure you remember their birthday. All this is good fear. Wise fear protects you physically, preserves your relationships, and keeps you from making a mess of your life. You experience security, assurance, and peace because you keep making the right responses to well-founded fears. When you fear what you should fear and act accordingly, then you are being wise. You show understanding, and your life is better and freer for it.
Good fear is tied in with true knowledge of reality. This is the fear that the Bible is speaking of when it comes to our perspective on God. God is the ultimate reality. There is nothing that impacts your life and eternity more than God does. There is no greater being, no greater force, and no more relevant truth to your existence than God’s own existence. This is the “beginning of wisdom”. If you fear snakes but don’t fear God, you are a fool. If you fear failure in exams but don’t fear facing God’s judgement unprepared, you are a fool. If you fear the disapproval of your parents or your peers but don’t fear the disapproval of God, you are a fool. But if you do fear, and act accordingly, then you enjoy peace with God, freedom from condemnation, and the certainty of his eternal love. That’s the kind of fear that brings assurance and comfort. It is the kind of fear worth having.
Fear that brings comfort
This healthy, life-affirming fear of God is scattered throughout the book of Proverbs:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones. (Prov 3:5-8)
In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence,
and his children will have a refuge.
The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
that one may turn away from the snares of death. (Prov 14:26-27)
The fear of the Lord leads to life,
and whoever has it rests satisfied;
he will not be visited by harm.
The fear of man lays a snare,
but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. (Prov 29:25)
Nourishment, health, safety, life, contentment, freedom from trouble, understanding: all these good and wonderful (and, dare I say it, happy) things are the result of fearing God. The writer of Ecclesiastes surveys all the things people pursue to find meaning and satisfaction and declares:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccl 12:13)
Fearing God is the key to getting life right.
Interestingly, the fear of God is also tightly bound with the love of God. Whatever the fear of God is, it is not about walking around scared of a God who is looking for some excuse to zap you. Psalm 103 is one of the most encouraging passages in the whole of Scripture. To those of us who are more than aware of our sins and failures, it is a wonderful affirmation of God’s loving and gracious disposition towards his people. And yet notice what is also seeded throughout this ‘happy’ Psalm:
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of
for the wind passes over it, and
it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is
from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all. (Ps 103:8-19)
Far from being a barrier to assurance, the fear of God is a catalyst for it. When you fear God you are loved by God, you enjoy his fatherly compassion, and this love and compassion are with you from everlasting to everlasting. This is good fear, isn’t it? Fearing him is actually one of the gifts that God gives us to lead us to life. It is part of what it means to relate to God truthfully, as he really is, and yet it is in no way opposed to simultaneously loving him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Surely the greatest proof of this is that a healthy and joyous fear of God would be characteristic of God’s promised Messiah:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. (Isa 11:1-3)
If the one who would prove to be God’s own beloved Son could delight in fearing him, so can we.
In future articles we will dig more deeply into the Scriptures and consider what specific things we are to fear about God—Father, Son and Spirit—and what are the right responses to this fear. We’ll also explore what the fear of God should feel like, when Christians should be awestruck by the fearsome wonder of God, and when it’s right to be downright scared before him.
Don’t neglect fear
Lastly, I want to reflect on the importance of understanding and teaching fear rightly and not neglecting it. As we have seen, there is healthy fear and unhealthy fear—constructive and destructive. In Deuteronomy 5:29, our God views the fear of him as very much of the constructive variety: “Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!” But have we become so afraid of the destructive kind that we have failed to teach adequately this healthy kind?
Perhaps the fear of God is the most neglected doctrine of western Christianity. Personal and corporate piety has been under attack from a combination of the prevailing assumption we inherit from our culture—the sovereignty of the individual—and a sentimentalizing domestication of the Lord God Almighty. This has given us an unhealthy complacency that makes us disturbingly slow to humble ourselves before God and to act as he wants us to act.
What makes a Christian slow to obey God’s word? What might cause a person to question or challenge God’s ways? What might make us reluctant to differentiate ourselves from the ungodly behaviour and values of our culture and peers? What might contribute to our speed in judging others and our tardiness in forgiving them?
Conversely, why do we find church discipline and rebuking one another so hard? Why is there a growing habit amongst Christians of misusing the Lord’s name (think how often you hear or read ‘OMG’)? How about a lack of urgency in evangelism, a lack of discipline in prayer and Bible reading, a lack of respect or reverence for the authorities God has placed over us in family, church and government? What attitude could be missing? When a brother or sister is hardening their heart towards God in continual sin, why do we continually rely upon the carrot to win them back? When is it time to show them what is a very real stick? How ready are we to sit down with them to plead with them and warn them as the Scriptures do—that should they continue down that path, they would be insulting the Spirit of Grace and treating as an unholy thing the blood that sanctifies them, and all that would await them is the fearful expectation of judgement and raging fire that will consume the enemies of God (Heb 10:26)? Such people are foolishly putting themselves in a truly terrifying position, yet so often we appeal to them with intellectual arguments or, worse still, just watch sadly from the safety of the riverbank as they drift towards destruction. I guess what I am suggesting is this: should we be surprised that there is a growth of foolishness amongst Christians when we neglect to nurture one another in the most foundational aspect of being wise—the fear of God?
Because of sin, we will always struggle in many of these areas, but in each of them, the struggle is lessened when our fear of God is a healthy one. If Adam had feared God as he should he would not have eaten the fruit. I am not saying we should go back to speaking of arrows of judgement being “made drunk with” people’s blood. Moses said, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Exod 20:20). When we fail to call on one another to fear God we fail to represent God as he truly is, and we remove from our pastoral kit bags one of the tools that he has given us for training one another to be more like Jesus.