“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10
Very often, I hear people asking how God is supposed to be so loving and caring and yet we’re supposed to fear Him. The next thing I hear people conclude is that God must, therefore, be angry and mean, looking to punish us whenever He likes. That maybe He’s not a nice guy after all.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Believers know and understand that God is indeed loving, caring, and amazingly generous. But we can’t deny that the Bible tells us over 300 times to fear God. Why should we fear a God who loves us so much? Is He an angry Father as some think?
It’s so important for us to properly understand what God means when He tells us to fear Him. He has a purpose to it. To do this, it’s helpful to begin by looking at the definition.
What is fear exactly?
According to Dictionary.com, fear is:
- A distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.
- To be afraid of something.
- To feel apprehensive and uneasy.
Judging by this definition, we are definitely supposed to be afraid of God. We should feel apprehensive and uneasy because of the danger He poses.
Now, let’s look at how a Bible dictionary defines fear. I like to use Vine’s Expository Dictionary.
In the Greek language, fear has many different translations. Phobos, which is where “phobia” comes from, means dread or terror. But the translation eulabeia means caution, reverence, apprehension but “especially holy fear.” A slightly different version of eulabeia is eulabeomai, which means “to beware” and act with reverence produced by holy fear, which we see in Hebrews 11:7.
“By faith, Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household.”
The translation phobeo also means “reverential fear” as we see in Mark 6:20 and Ephesians 5:33. Notice the difference between phobos and phobeo. One word means terror, and the other means reverential fear. The change of two little letters is a great example of why we should invest in a good Bible dictionary.
For new believers and perhaps small children, we can introduce the idea of fearing God by explaining it’s a kind of respect. We should respect God’s power and authority, not because He’s angry with us, but because we desire to please Him. This is called reverential fear.
The best analogy I know is how parents react to their children. They love each other very much, but if the child misbehaves, the parent will get angry. If he or she is a good parent, then the child is appropriately disciplined. If the child has learned his lesson, he will try harder not to make the same mistake again because of his respect — his reverential fear — for his parents. This is how our relationship with God is.
Let’s look at another word and define it: punishment. What is punishment and how is it different than discipline? Let’s look again at both Dictionary.com and Vine’s Expository Dictionary. Dictionary.com defines it as…
- A penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.
- A severe handling or treatment.
According to this definition, punishment inflicts pain on someone else and has an authoritative attitude that never benefits anyone, especially the one being punished. In this type of punishment, there is no evidence of love. There is only control. This isn’t God’s heart or nature.
In Vine’s Expository Dictionary, punishment is defined as kolasis, which refers to eternal punishment, but there’s a difference here.
The difference between the regular dictionary and Vine’s is that kolasis involves a kind of fear that’s expelled by God’s perfect love and where God is being perfected in us. When we allow God to perfect His love in our lives, we develop a healthy, reverential fear of Him.
There is No Condemnation
It’s important to know that God never punishes His children. If we are in Christ, if we follow Him and walk the path of righteousness with intention, He will not eternally punish us because of what Jesus did on the cross for us. There is no condemnation.
“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:1–2
So instead of punishing us, He disciplines us like a good father, which usually involves consequences.
God will allow consequences for our sin. There are always consequences for our actions because, quite simply, God abhors sin, and the consequences will help to mold us into better reflections of Jesus.
Walking in the Fear of God
If we put phobos (terror) together with phobeo (reverential fear) and kolasis (fear displaced by perfect love), we soon learn that fear is more accurately a wholesome dread of displeasing God. We also see that terror flees in the presence of God as we change our hearts and trust God in our circumstances. The Bible calls this walking in the fear of the Lord. An example of this behavior is found in Acts 9:31.
“Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.”
God also tells us to fear His power and respect it because He has the power to give life and take it away. Jesus reminds us of this fact in Matthew 10:28.
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
That scripture alone fills me with both fear and dread of displeasing God. But knowing how much He loves me — how He died on a cross for me — makes me feel at ease. And I’m even in awe of Him. I feel His grace and comfort in His presence, yet I know I need to continue to have a reverential fear of Him.
If you have children, you probably agree they should have a healthy fear of their parents. If they misbehave or disobey, they should have a little bit of fear of how you will react and the judgment you will give them.
In the same way, we should have a healthy fear of God’s judgment. Like a good parent, He will discipline us. The apostle Paul reminds us of what God’s discipline is all about in Hebrews 12.
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves, He chastens and scourges every son whom He receives. If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons…. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?…Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:5–7,9,11
God’s way of disciplining us isn’t fun. In fact, He says it’s painful! But it’s all in the course of yielding the good fruit of righteousness in us. It’s through this “tough love” that He disciplines us, disciples and teaches us, and perfects His love in us as we gradually grow in our faith and recognize He deserves a holier, a reverential type of respect.
So now, based on our understanding of God’s love for us and the consequential respect that grows for Him, we can agree with the apostle John when he said in 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love expels all fear.”
Have No Fear
We should not ever feel afraid of God, not when we know how much He loves us. Remember, He said that nothing can ever separate us from Him (Romans 8:38–39) and that He’ll never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5–6). Instead, we should have such respect and awe that we reflect Him in the way we live our lives.
Out of our immense respect for Him, we should fear displeasing Him. It’s that kind of fear that ought to drive us toward greater obedience and worship as we respond to His discipline in love.