I’ve never liked the phrase – fear of the Lord. And maybe that’s the best translatable word to use. Still, I’ve always felt that the use of that phrase connotates a negative inference as to the nature and character of God. If anything, love and fear appear to be completely opposite constructs.
According to my trusty Webster’s dictionary, the word ‘fear’ has various meanings including:
- To be afraid or apprehensive
- An unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger
- Anxious concern
- Profound reverence and awe
So, per a standard dictionary, a profound reverence and awe only ranks fourth and maybe this helps explain my own difficulties with the word fear being that it’s mostly related to being afraid or apprehensive.
According to my trusty NIV Topical Bible, fear of the Lord indicates a reverence for God:
- We as humans must stand in awe before him and revere him because of who he is. Such awe should preclude any disobedience of his loving will for us and should energize us to serve him in holiness.
Yet, as I look through the Bible, there are a lot of uses and inferences as to the fear of the Lord:
- The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline (Prov 1:7).
- By his own actions and admissions, God admits to being a jealous God (Ex 34:14).
- God punishes the children of the parents who reject him to the third and fourth generations (Deut 5:9).
- As the author of the letter to the Hebrews says, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31).
- God is portrayed as sometimes being angry and vengeful employing various calamities such man-eating fissures, impenetrable darkness, floods of blood, leaping frogs, mouth-filling flies, pillaging locusts, mad cows and sudden afflictions of leprosy.
- Paul advises his followers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
- The author of Hebrews says we should offer God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for indeed our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29).
- Peter says, “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile” (1 Pet 1:17).
- The book Revelation relates to doom and destruction wrought by the wrath of God, judging the living and the dead and casting his enemies into the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:14).
Many will take the above verses and put them into a context of salvation. And rightly so. But it’s interesting to note Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God which speaks volumes as to how (I believe) Christians actually perceive God:
- There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.
- 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.
- The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and it’s nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back.
- If God should withdraw his hand by which [hungry lions] are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls.
- The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present increasing more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose.
- The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire
- God looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.
- You are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.
- Your punishment will indeed be infinite. Oh, who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is!
Of significant note – Edwards was a Calvinist. And there are certainly Calvinistic overtones within his sermon. Nevertheless, I think there’s a ‘normalcy’ within the Christian perception of God and how God is more feared than loved. Two things come to mind:
- The motivation for one to come to God is not out of his love for us love but is because of the literal fear that we have of him.
- Because of the doctrines of grace, Edwards, along with every Calvinist aware of their doctrines of grace, knows that there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to propel their own salvation. Rather, unconditional election stipulates that it is God who does the choosing. And God obviously doesn’t choose everyone. In fact, the number of ‘elect’ people throughout the world appears to be rather small.
So, what should be made of all this. All told, fear of the Lord is a mixed bag. Normally, when I think of ‘fear’, what comes to my mind are things such as guilt, getting caught or exposed, consequences and subsequent punishment or even being afraid of failure. And suddenly I’m supposed to make a quick turn and realize that fear of the Lord is a good thing. If anything, fear motivates me to prevent me from potentially doing things which might harm me. And in a like manner, fear of the Lord seems oriented toward God destroying that which he has created. I’ll certainly admit that context is everything when it comes to translating and understanding the teaching of the Bible. But it does seem odd that there are more people afraid of God, who is, after all, love. It’s a conundrum. And sadly, I see this manifested within Calvinistic doctrines – i.e. total depravity and unconditional election. I fully understand the Calvinist perspective as to how man is fallen and unable to seek God on his own and how it is God and God alone who “chooses” whom to save. But that God only chooses a small percentage of people to save only confirms a bias that people generally are afraid of God … and not, as it were, to revere and serve him out of love.