Fear the Lord

Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17)

Is fearing God different than being afraid of God?

In the scriptures we are exhorted to fear God.  Does this mean we are to be afraid of God?  Consider these words of Jesus:

I say to you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the one who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5 NASB)

OK — time out!  We need to define some terms.  What do we mean by the words afraid and fear?  What's the difference between the two?  

afraid - typically we understand this to mean: to feel anxiety or apprehension about our health, safety, or security

fear - typically we understand this to mean, when used with God: to show reverence and awe

The problem is, in the original language (Greek) of this verse, the same word is translated both to fear, and to be afraid.  That is, when Jesus spoke these words to his friends, he used the same word both for what his hearers shouldn't fear as well as for what they should fear.

So we aren't, it seems, any closer to understanding exactly what it means to fear God.  We are no closer, unless, of course, we can say that whenever fear is used with God, it always means to show reverence and awe.  Since we know that meaning is always determined by context, perhaps this is true, but we need more evidence.  This may simply be reading into the meaning of scripture that with which we are most comfortable.

On the other hand, consider the reaction of the Jerusalem church to the summary and startling judgment of God on Ananias and Sapphira: Great fear came over the whole church.1  Were the members of the church fearing God, or were they afraid of God...or is there a difference?

Isn't fear just a feeling?

Isn't fear an emotive response to a particular circumstance, person, or thing?  How then can God, or anyone, tell us to not be afraid?  Perhaps God is talking about something other than an emotion we feel.  Perhaps he's referring to an attitude — a manner of thinking — with which we should approach a person, a thing, or a circumstance.

Now this is beginning to make more sense.  In other parts of the scripture we are instructed to think a particular way.  We are told to "have this attitude", "set our minds on", and "think on" certain things.2  So then, if this is the case, how do we change our thinking regarding that which we ought to fear or that which we ought to not fear.

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I was a young, associate pastor on a church staff with two other veteran pastors.  Both of these men had experienced the death of a child at birth.  I thought that this might indeed be the path God wanted my wife and me to walk as well.

So I began to pray this way: "Lord, if you give us a child for one day, I will be thankful for that one day of being a parent.  If you give us a child for two days, I will be thankful for two days of having such a blessing. If you give us a child for even more days, I will be thankful for each day we are granted to be parents of that child."  

Well, that child did not die at birth; nor did our other two die at birth.  We have been blessed to be parents of three wonderful children for over 31 years.  But praying that way for several months leading up to the arrival of our firstborn, was a way of developing an attitude of "not fearing" that which God did not want me to fear. 

How can I both fear God and love God?

Let's consider another conundrum.  In the scriptures we are exhorted to fear God.  But we are also exhorted to love God.  How can we fear him and love him at the same time?

I once had a Christian School Kindergarten teacher tell me that she didn't like the teaching about fearing God.  She felt that loving God was what we should do, not fear him.

And yet, in one single exhortation, God's word tells us to both fear him and love him.  What are we to do with this?

Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways and love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 10:12)

Now in the apostle John's first letter he declares these somewhat enigmatic words:

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. (1 John 4:18)

In the context, John is saying this: if we, as children of God, demonstrate love for those around us, God is working through us, and developing his love within us.  As this continues to occur in our lives, our love for both God and man is perfected, and we develop a confidence as we approach the judgment seat of Christ.  Therefore we have no fear as we consider our fate on that judgment day, since our love for God has become so deep.

So, is it possible that fear of God is a basal attitude that every person needs to have before God, but that as we humbly and obediently follow him and his instructions, we develop a progressively deeper love for him, which finally casts out fear?

Ask yourself this question: What do I feel when I hear these words?

We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

Do I feel only love for my Lord as I anticipate seeing him and hearing his evaluation of the life I've lived?  Or is there a tinge of fear, because I know I could've lived more obediently and faithfully, and I am apprehensive about what Jesus will say to me?3

It seems that the apostle Paul, as he was facing the conclusion of his life on earth, was full of love for Christ and felt no fear as he anticipated his meeting with Jesus.  Can you feel his excitement?

The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

To fear God is to obey God

In Psalm 34, King David gives us a clear explanation of what is generally involved in fearing God.

Come, you children, listen to me; 

I will teach you the fear of the Lord. 

Who is the man who desires life 

And loves length of days that he may see good? 

Keep your tongue from evil 

And your lips from speaking deceit. 

Depart from evil and do good; 

Seek peace and pursue it. (Psalm 34:11-14)

Men of wisdom have always understood that to fear God is to hate evil as God hates it.  King Solomon said:

The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; 

Pride and arrogance and the evil way 

And the perverted mouth, I hate. (Proverbs 8:13)

And Jethro, priest of Midian, counseling his son-in-law Moses concerning how to delegate his authority, said:

You shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. (Exodus 18:21)

So then, fearing the Lord simply involves living as God has instructed us.  We need to be careful about what we say and do.  We need to speak and practice the truth, avoid dishonest and evil speech and deeds, and pursue the things that are good and promote peace among others.

We need to take seriously the commands of God.  As someone has quipped: God gave ten commandments, not ten suggestions.  But God has revealed himself to be a God of great mercy, which means that he doesn't always exact punishment for disobedience.  Here he declares his self-description to Moses:

The Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations." (Exodus 34:6-7)

Mercy can be described as God not giving us that which we deserve.  The scriptures and history have shown that God extends mercy more frequently than he exacts judgment.  Therefore most people, Christians included, allow themselves to reason that God really won't exercise the judgment that he has promised.

This is exactly the lie that Adam and Eve believed in the garden.  Eve knew the judgment that God had promised for disobedience; she even quoted it to Satan.  But the devil refuted God's clear declaration: “You surely will not die!"4 he boldly asserted.   

Did Adam and Eve fear God?  It seems that they did not.  But what did they have to fear?  The promise of punishment?  But how could they know the significance of God's promised judgment?  They had never seen death; they had never felt the significant pain of separation that death brings.  Eve ate the fruit and didn't die, so she brought it to her husband, and he joined in her disobedience.  But they didn't die!

Adam didn't die till he was 930 years old.  Such is the magnanimity of the mercy of God.  But the greatness of God's mercy is the occasion of a problem for us humans.  We become accustomed to the mercy of God, and then are surprised or offended at his promised judgment, when it is meted out.  And worse yet, we allow ourselves to become lulled into believing the lie of the evil one: God won't really execute his promised judgment upon sin.

On September 11, 2001, it appeared that God executed his judgment upon the United States of America in general, and upon New York City and the US military specifically.  How can I say this?!  Simply because it is not dissimilar to the revealed exercise of his judgment upon nations, cities, and armies recorded for us in the scriptures.

If you are offended by this assertion, it is because you are so accustomed to God's mercy that you cannot bring yourself to admit that, as a nation, we have sinned against God, and are deserving of his judgment.  Read the prayer of the godly prophet Daniel, recorded in the ninth chapter of his prophecy.  Here he humbly acknowledges the righteousness of God in judging the people of Israel.  You can be sure that there were, among the people of Israel, those who adamantly declared that their seventy year captivity in Babylon was not God's judgment, but rather the result of evil people who invaded their land.

The reason I bring this up, however, is not to discuss the judgment upon sin that occurred that day, but to reflect upon the attitude toward God that resulted from it.  All across the nation people drew closer to God.  They showed more love for their neighbor.  They were more careful to say and do what was right and to avoid what was wrong.  It is correct to say that the fear of God came over the United States of America as a result of his judgment upon our sin.

Pain in work is God's judgment upon sin. Pain in child bearing and delivery is God's judgment upon sin.  Every occurrence of adversity and calamity is God's judgment upon sin.  Just today, we heard about a family that had a very large tree branch fall on their car as they were on their way to celebrate Christmas with relatives.  The nine-year-old daughter was killed and the father sustained serious neck injuries.  Was this God's judgment upon sin?  Of course.  

Were these people, or any who experience similar tragedies worse sinners than the vast majority of people who didn't experience such calamitous devastation on Christmas day?  No.  When tragedies like these occur, most people — even those who don't typically think about God — say, "How could God allow such a terrible thing to happen?"  

Jesus addressed himself to these very kinds of occurrences.  When an evil leader maliciously killed some people, and when a tower fell and killed some others, Jesus gave us God's insight on such catastrophic circumstances.  He said:

Do you suppose that these [people] were greater sinners than all other [people] because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.5

Suffering and death are the result of sin, and are the lot of every human being.  Some suffer less than others; some live longer than others.  But the wages of sin is death6 for everybody.  Do you want to live longer and suffer less?  Fear God.  

As we read earlier, David asked the question: "Who is the man who desires life and loves length of days that he may see good?"  Do you want to have a long and full life?  Then do the things that are characteristic of those who fear God.  Speak and practice the truth, avoid dishonest and evil speech and deeds, and pursue the things that are good and promote peace among others.  Take seriously the commands of God.

Earlier I quoted God's declaration of his nature to Moses.  In it we learn that God is a God of great mercy.  But we also learn that he is a God who does not take lightly the sins we commit.  Consider again these sobering words of God:

[I] will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.7

God does not wink at sin; if God is to be righteous, sin must be punished.  That's why he sent his Son to pay the penalty for our sins.  He decided to take upon himself that which his holiness required: the penalty for sin must be paid.  But even though he paid the penalty of sin for every person, he loves us too much to allow us to continue to wallow in our sins.

So, he brings trouble into the lives of every human being; coming as:

1) the natural consequences of our own foolish choices and actions,

2) permission for Satan to inflict us with trouble, or

3) remedial punishment for disobedience or rebellion.

God has a purpose for allowing adversity into our lives: that we might draw closer to him; that we might think and act more like him; that we might accurately represent him to the rest of humankind; that we might enjoy fellowship and service with him throughout eternity.  We cannot get closer to God unless we first learn how to fear him.  

You see, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge.8  Unless we first learn to practice the fear of God, we will never gain the wisdom and knowledge that come from developing a close relationship with him.  

How can we learn to fear the Lord?  

The Bible says that the foolish man does not even acknowledge the existence of God.9  How then can a person with a severely limited spiritual perspective ever learn to fear God, and then to know God?  The man who is acknowledged to be the wisest human to walk upon the earth spoke these inspired words:

If you cry for discernment, 

Lift your voice for understanding; 

If you seek her as silver 

And search for her as for hidden treasures; 

Then you will discern the fear of the Lord 

And discover the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:3-5)

So then, to even understand what it means to fear God, requires that you and I cry out to God and search the scriptures for understanding.  This explains why people will temporarily fear God when calamity strikes, but will not continue to fear God.  They have not been granted the spiritual understanding of God that is the possession of those that have been asking and seeking for it.

It seems like I say it all the time, but the beginning point for all spiritual understanding, including knowing how to fear God, is humility.  The proud person simply will not cry out for discernment and lift his voice for understanding.  Neither will he passionately seek and search for wisdom and understanding.  Why not?  Because he thinks he already has the answers.  

Only when we humble ourselves, are we willing to admit our inadequacies, failings, and flaws.  But this is good news for those who truly long for knowledge, wisdom, and understanding: you don't need connections, money, or education to gain wisdom and the knowledge of God.  You only need to acknowledge your need of that which only God can give you, and earnestly ask God for it and fervently seek it in his written revelation.

Do you fear God?

Are you convinced that fearing the Lord is important for you?  Are you humbly calling out to him for direction and empowerment to know what and how to live each day?  Is knowing him the passionate pursuit of your hours and days?  Are you growing more deeply in love with your God and Savior as each day passes?

1 Acts 5:11

2 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5)

Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:2)

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)

3 There is good reason for a believer in Christ Jesus to feel not only apprehensive, but fearful, as he or she faces the judgment seat of Christ.  The scriptures indicate that some — if not many — Christians will feel a sense of great loss, sorrow, and shame as they stand before their Savior with nothing to show for the life they were given. See Matthew 25:26-30; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 1 John 2:28.

4 Genesis 3:4

5 Luke 13:1-5

6 Romans 6:23

7 Exodus 34:7 - Just to be clear, God never punishes children for the sins of their parents, or vice versa (Ezekiel 18:20).  The point of this statement about sins of the parents passing on to the children and grandchildren, is that succeeding generations will naturally follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.  Each person, however, has the opportunity to humble himself, repent, and reverse the pattern of sin and ungodliness passed down to him from his parents and grandparents.

8 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10)

9 The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." (Psalm 14:1)

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