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
If we are going to keep our heart with all diligence, we must understand the affections which harbor there, and direct our affections for loving God and our neighbors. 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 and engaging these, we may become such as are controlled by cold indifference or mere sentiment.
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: “And now, Israel, what does the LORDyour God require of you, but to fear the LORDyour God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORDyour 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 or serve Him, unless we fear Him first. The Lord Jesus echoed this command in Matthew 10.28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Fear is one of the group of 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. Since all affections, including fear, have a valid role in the life of faith, we need to make sure this one is properly focused and intensified. And that can only be the case when we fear neither men nor circumstances, but God only.
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 on the basis 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. 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? Apart from the fact, as we have seen, that we are commanded to fear God, we should consider the very nature of the Deity. As Asaph points out in Psalm 76, God is powerful to overcome all our 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 (Heb. 12.7-11). If we do not fear the Lord and His discipline, then we will be more inclined to indulge those behaviors that provoke God’s discipline against us.
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 might do to discipline recalcitrant sinners such as we. But besides God commanding us to fear Him, as well as His worthiness to be feared, there are the many benefits that accrue to those who actually do 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.
To be sure, in fearing God we do not leave off loving Him. Rather, all the affections of our heart unite in fearing God, and come to healthy expression from that primary source (cf. Ps. 86.11). 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 Him if you fear Him first of all; for as we shall see, these two seemingly opposite affections create a healthy tension in our souls where 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: How do your Christian friends understand the fear of God? Ask a few of them and talk with them about their responses. How do they experience the fear of God? What effects does fearing God have in their lives? Invite them to join you in studying the articles in this series.
T. M. Moore
This is part 2 of a multi-part series on Keeping the Heart. To download this week’s study as a free PDF, click here.
The Lord uses your prayers and gifts to help us in this ministry. Add us to your regular prayer list, and seek the Lord concerning whether He would have you share with us. You can contribute to The Fellowship of Ailbe by using the contribute buttonat the website, or send your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 19 Tyler Drive, Essex Junction, VT 05452.
Where does the heart, and all the soul, fit in our Christian worldview? Our free online course, One in Twelve: Introduction to Christian Worldview, shows you how to understand the workings of your soul in relation to all other aspects of your life in Christ. For more information and to register, click here.
For a deeper study of the spiritual life, register for our course, Introduction to Spiritual Theology, and discover more of the presence, promise, and power of God’s Kingdom for your life, your church, and the times in which we live. The course is free, and you can learn more or register by clicking here.
Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.