What Is "The Fear of God"?

Aug 29, 2018 5:00 PM

What is the Fear of God?

Easton’s Bible Dictionary records a fairly standard definition of the fear of God, or more specifically “the fear of the Lord,” as follows:

  1. is in the Old Testament used as a designation of true piety (Proverbs 1:7 ; Job 28:28; Psalms 19:9). It is a fear conjoined with love and hope, and is therefore not a slavish dread, but rather filial reverence. (Compare Deuteronomy 32:6; Hosea 11:1; Isaiah 1:2; 63:16; 64:8.) God is called "the Fear of Isaac" (Genesis 31:42 Genesis 31:53), i.e., the God whom Isaac feared.
  2. A holy fear is enjoined also in the New Testament as a preventive of carelessness in religion, and as an incentive to penitence ( Matthew 10:28 ; 2 Co 5:11 ; 7:1 ; Phil 2:12 ; Ephesians 5:21 ; Hebrews 12:28 Hebrews 12:29).

The distinction between “slavish” fear and “filial” fear is typical, as is the recommendation of the word “reverence” as a preferred synonym.  Many contemporary Bible translations use “reverence” or some other euphemism in place of the phrase.

One thing that Easton omitted is the clearest statement regarding the fear of God in the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 5:11, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men." (The KJV says “terror” but I don’t know why; it’s the usual Greek word for fear, phobos from which we get the word “phobia.") Paul uses this term in the context of being accountable to the Lord for all our deeds and the activity of our lives (2 Cor 5:10).

All of this is good and necessary information for a starting point.

The only problem is that it all seems to me to miss the point somewhat.

First of all, almost every contemporary treatment of the term “fear of God” or “fear of the Lord” begins basically with an apology for the word “fear.” (Preachers and teachers of former generations, such as Easton, don’t have this problem so much.)

The Bible, however, never apologizes or mitigates the use of the word or tries to differentiate good fear and bad fear — not that those are false categories, but sometimes I get tired of trying to protect people from the Bible (y’know what I mean?).

Besides that, it’s like the explanation of a good joke: the joke can be terribly funny, but if you have to explain it, the person you’re telling it to will never get laugh.  I’ve never really understood the fear of God by explanation, only by the experience.

The synonym “reverence” is good, except no one in our age seems to know what it means.  People in my generation grew up equating reverence with being quiet in church.  People in our childrens’ generation have grown up being told that irreverence is actually a virtue.

The term “fear of God” is best understood by analogy — indeed, it’s almost a metaphor.  (Almost!) Physical fear is a primal, animal emotion, related to survival instinct.  Animals experience it, and so do humans, when put into a life-threatening situation.  Fear is also a soulish, or psychological emotion, experienced by humans (and to some extent even in intelligent, social animals), sometimes in extremely complex and complicated forms, when we feel our personal identity and relational security is somehow threatened.  But spiritual fear, like spiritual love, has its source in the image of God in us, particularly as it is made alive through Christ.  (For an understanding of the spiritual source of our lives, see Ephesians 3:16-19, “the inner man.”)

In some ways fear is the flip side of love.  Love is assertive, while fear is responsive.  Fear “shows up” in the presence of The Awesome — if The Awesome is perceived and known for what it is. (Despite the fact that this word “awesome” has been cheapened i through overuse and misuse, I use it in its literal sense because there is no better one.)  

Fear is the essential emotion of worship, as you discovered in reading through the Psalms.  We always want to say that joy must be the essential emotion of worship, but there is such a thing as worship even in sorrow.  But there is no true worship without the fear of God.  Without the fear of God, our weeping becomes maudlin and our joy turns into silliness.  The fear of God is the gravity that keeps us from becoming completely self-centered in our worship; and when you see self-centered, self-indulgent worship, you know that the worshippers have no sense of the real presence of the holy God.  To borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, the living God is good, but He is not safe.  In his presence there is comfort for the humble, but extreme danger for the proud—yet ironically the proud do not fear God, but the humble do.  The fear of God is the antithesis of human pride.

What then is the fear of God?  It is first of all an experience, not a doctrine.  The reason it is called the beginning of wisdom and knowledge is because it is the ultimate reality check that, having been experienced, has enduring consequences on behavior. Yet like any experience, it can be forgotten if it is not nourished and often brought to mind.  It is, then, the emotionally experienced realization and expression of the truth that God is God and we are not.