The Fear of God (2)
The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear Him,
In those who hope in His mercy. Psalm 147.11
Nothing to fear?
Strong souls begin in well-kept hearts, where the affections God has placed there are rightly developed and employed together with the mind and the conscience to animate and guide us for Kingdom living.
First among the affections to be attended to is the fear of God. All wisdom, which is faith in practice, begins here. We fear God because He requires it, Jesus commanded it, and Paul wrote that it is the proper ground for increasing in holiness.
We do not need to fear fearing God. In the fear of God, all our affections are properly united to strengthen our soul for serving the Lord (Ps. 86.11). Fear is an altogether appropriate and useful affection. We could argue, in fact, that fear is the most fundamental of all affections, for when all the affections of our hearts are united in fearing God, then we will love, obey, serve, and increase in Him as He intends (Deut. 10.12, 13).
Fear is a powerful affection, and when it is inappropriately focused, it can rob us of the joy of following Jesus. If we fear the wrong things – people, what others might think, suffering, loss, etc. – we will lose sight of Jesus Who has overcome everything that might threaten us (Jn. 16.33). There is no reason, Jesus insisted, for any of His followers to fear anything here on earth.
At the same time, as we have seen, Jesus clearly and unequivocally commanded His disciples to fear God. What Jesus understood is what the psalmist also knew, that God “takes pleasure” in His people who fear Him as they should; and, as we have seen, that fear is based on God’s awesome holiness, justice, power, and might. The Hebrew in our text says, literally, that God pleasures those who fear Him, suggesting clearly that God is in the midst of those who fear Him as they should, and brings them into the pleasure of His Presence (Ps. 16.11). The pleasure of God is always wholesome, edifying, infectious, and joyful; and this is where God wants us to live.
So if you want to know the pleasure of the Lord, as He pleasures in your midst, fear Him, as Jesus commanded.
Fear and love in tension
The psalmist clearly declares that, where God is concerned, fear and love (mercy, NKJV) are two sides of the same coin; however, it leaves us wondering: How can this be so? Why should it please God for us to fear Him? Wouldn’t God much prefer that we be motivated toward Him out of love, rather than fear?
But this would be to make a typical, foolish human mistake, rather like Eve, contemplating the forbidden fruit and thinking, “Surely God would not withhold this beautiful fruit from us?” – though He had plainly warned them against eating that fruit. Just so, even in the face of God’s express command to love Him, we think to ourselves, “God would want me to love Him, not fear Him. Fear bad; love good.”
In our minds, we struggle to hold fear and love in tension as opposing but harmonizing affections. We think it’s got to be one or the other, and, since none of us likes to live in fear, because we consider fear to be a negative affection, we opt to relate to God by love only, and leave fear out of the equation.
But that just shows our finitude and folly. God knows that, for us to relate to Him properly, that is, so that we may know full and abundant life, and the pleasure He has prepared for us, we must both fear and love Him. Never mind if we can’t figure that out, or if it doesn’t seem reasonable. God knows what He’s doing, and He does what brings us into His pleasure. What does God require of us? First, that we should fear Him.
But note also how the “fear of God” is defined in our psalm.
The psalmist uses a form of parallelism here, in which he states something once, then restates it in a different form to further clarify his meaning. In this case, the first declaration concerns those who fear God; the second, those who hope in His steadfast love. They fear the Lord who hope in His mercy, or, His steadfast love Hebrew: חַסְדּֽו, chasdu, “His steadfast love”). We fear God as we ought when all our hope in life is focused on the love of God that we long to know more fully in the future than ever we have known it in the past. Apart from God’s love for us, we cannot so much as even exist! It is by His steadfast and faithful love that God gives us all good things, including life, salvation, and the many and diverse blessings which constitute and sustain our daily lives. As we long to know more of that love, we are fearing God as He intends.
Many people live in fear of having the good things of their lives taken away. The reason they fear losing their comforts, health, safety, and so forth is because they do not fear God – do not hold Him in reverent awe and dread, united with love – and they have allowed the things they love to become idols in place of God. If they truly understood that every good and perfect gift – every single one – comes to us from our loving God and heavenly Father (Jms. 1.17), they would hope that His steadfast love would continue, and fear Him Who, should He choose to act only in justice toward us, rather than with mercy and grace, would not only withhold all future blessings, but all life and existence as well.
In this we can see the close connection between fear and love. To fear God is to hope in His love; to know His love is to enter His pleasure where our love for Him increases. To fear and love God, and thus to abide in His pleasure, inclines us to walk in all His holy and righteous and good ways. If we do not fear the Lord, it is certain that we will not be able to sustain sufficient love for Him to obey Him.
If we do not fear the Lord, we may take His future blessings for granted. How does it make you feel when someone takes your goodness and kindness for granted? Does it make you want to extend even more of those good things to them?
But if we both fear and love God, then we will rejoice in the anticipation of His future blessings, we will walk with spiritual power and blessings in the path of righteousness – and we will know the pleasure of our Father Who is in heaven, and Who makes His Presence known among us.
1. What is the pleasure of the Lord? How do you experience the Lord’s pleasure? Is this a good thing?
2. Do you understand that we deserve nothing from God except justice, condemnation, and wrath? Do you hope that, in His mercy, God will spare you from this? Why should He? Should knowing that He will not condemn you keep you from hoping for His mercy? Explain.
3. If fearing God is a way of expressing our hope for His ongoing mercy, as well as of bringing us into His pleasure, would learning to fear God be a good idea, and an important key to keeping your heart with all diligence? Explain.
Next steps – Transformation: Spend some time meditating on all the ways God shows His steadfast love and faithfulness to you throughout the day. What would your life be like without all these benefits? We do not deserve any of the good things that come our way. They are ours by the grace and mercy of God alone. We fear God when we hope in the continuation of His steadfast and faithful love. Express your fear and love for God in a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
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.