The Fear of God (1)
You, Yourself, are to be feared;
And who may stand in Your presence
When once You are angry? Psalm 76.7
Teach me Your way, O LORD;
I will walk in Your truth;
Unite my heart to fear Your name. Psalm 86.11
“But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” Luke 12.5
A strong soul requires a heart diligently kept for loving God and neighbor. To keep our heart with all diligence, we must understand the affections which are generated there, and direct our affections toward becoming more like Jesus. Affections are those dispositions of the heart that incline us either toward or away from something. They include our feelings, aspirations, and desires; and unless we are diligent in understanding, nurturing, and engaging these, we may become controlled by cold indifference, mere sentiment, or affections which have gone awry.
In understanding the affections, we must begin where Scripture does; and Scripture begins its teaching about the heart and its affections by calling us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22.37). This is the first and greatest commandment. Every Christian knows this, and effective discipleship involves cultivating that frame of mind and disposition of heart which lead to loving obedience to God through Jesus Christ.
But the same God Who commands our love also commands us to fear Him, indeed, to fear Him first of all, even before we love Him: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul…” (Deut. 10.12). The order of this instruction is important, and implies that we can neither follow the Lord, nor love and serve Him, unless we fear Him first.
Fear is one of the affections that inclines us to turn away from someone or something. So strong is the affection of fear that we may be inclined to flee or hide or otherwise conceal ourselves from that which we fear. In fearing God, we turn away from His radiant and glorious face, like John on Patmos (Rev. 1.12-17). We seek to avoid the threats and chastening He can bring upon us when we stray from Him (Heb. 12.3-11). Fearing God leads us to hate sin, flee to Jesus, and rest in the judgment He has accomplished for us. Thus the fear of God keeps us nestled right where He intends. We fear Him rightly; but we are not afraid that He will condemn us, because we rest in Jesus and His salvation (Rev. 1.17, 18; Rom. 8.1).
Since all affections, including fear, have a valid role in the life of faith, we need to make sure our fear is properly focused and intensified. And that can only be the case when we fear neither men nor circumstances, but God only (Lk. 12.4).
We don’t hear much about fearing the Lord these days. In fact, about the last thing many pastors seem to want to tell their people is that they should in any way relate to God out of fear. God is our Father, Jesus is our Friend and Brother, and the Holy Spirit is our Comforter. What’s to fear there?
As a result, most believers do not fear the Lord, and, frankly, their lifestyles demonstrate as much. If we feared the Lord, we would be mindful of offending or disappointing Him, or in any way provoking Him to exercise discipline against us (cf. Ps. 76.7). When the only affection we nurture toward God is love, we aren’t likely to obey Him as we should or serve Him as well as we might (Jn. 14.15). And when we fail in obeying and serving God, we miss out on the full and abundant life He wants us to enjoy.
But why should believers fear God? We will examine this question more fully a bit later in this series. For now, as we have seen, we are commanded to fear Him; but we should also consider the very nature of the Deity. As Asaph points out in Psalm 76, God is powerful to overcome all adversaries (v. 3); majestic beyond all description (v. 4); wrathful toward those who oppose Him (vv. 5, 6; cf. Rom. 1.18-20); and able to subdue and punish those who arouse His anger (vv. 7-9). As our loving heavenly Father, it pleases God to discipline His children from time to time, and, since no discipline is ever pleasant, we should regard the very prospect of discipline with a certain amount of fear.
If we do not fear the Lord and His discipline, then we will be less inclined to hate those behaviors that provoke God’s discipline against us. We won’t hate sin as we should, nor love God or our neighbors as we are commanded.
More than awe
This fear is more than simple awe, although it includes that. The fear of God is a healthy dread of what so powerful, majestic, and holy a God can do to discipline recalcitrant sinners such as we. But besides God commanding us to fear Him, and in addition to His worthiness to be feared, there are the many benefits that accrue to those who nurture and sustain a healthy fear of God. Nurturing the fear of the Lord opens wide doors of opportunity to enjoy full and abundant life in ways that, apart from the fear of the Lord, we can never fully know. For example, we are commanded to live like wise people and not fools (Eph. 5.15-17), and the beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord (Ps. 111.10).
To be sure, in fearing God we do not leave off loving Him. By some mystery of grace and the power of the indwelling Spirit, these two affections – fear and love – serve to keep our heart in balance and hold it on an even keel. All the affections of the heart unite with transforming power in the fear of God. In the fear of God, our affections are shaped, focused, improved, and engaged as God intends; and they come to healthy expression from that primary source (cf. Ps. 86.11). The fear of God is the only proper ground for increasing in holiness, as Paul reminds us (2 Cor. 7.1). Our love for God can only grow as we nurture fear of Him, because the enormity of His everyday grace becomes even more starkly evident against the backdrop of our own unworthiness, and of what we deserve at the hands of our holy and just God.
You will only truly love God if you fear Him first; for as we shall see, these two seemingly opposite affections create a healthy tension in the soul to strengthen and focus it, so that righteousness and abundant life can flourish.
1. What feelings do you experience when you think of fear? Can you see how such feelings are appropriate toward God?
2. We fear God, but we do not fear His condemnation. Why not (Rom. 8.1)? Why is this not a contradiction?
3. If we only love God, but do not fear Him, our obedience and service to Him will be neither consistent nor complete. Explain.
Next steps – Preparation: Review this article in prayer. Do you fear the Lord? How might the fear of God begin to be a more constant and fruitful affection in your heart?
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.