“Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”- Ecclesiastes 12:13
Modern spiritualities emphasize all kinds of things: love, peace, silence, environmental concern, social justice, self-esteem. But one thing you’ll be hard-pressed to find encouraged and praised by these new age practices is fear.
But the Bible quite often describes relating to God as “fearing the Lord.”
And in fact, I’d argue that it’s one of the most special elements of Christian spirituality. Far from being an artifact of an antiquated religion, the “fear of the Lord” is an invitation from a loving, personal God. God promises that when we fear him, we actually reap benefits beyond what we might imagine.
What is the “fear of the Lord?”
Christians throughout the centuries have thought it helpful to distinguish between two kinds of fear in the Bible: servile and filial fear. Servile fear is probably how most of us think of fear: a trembling expectation of punishment or condemnation from God. But we aren’t called to servile fear: that kind of fear is defeated for us by Jesus’ death (Romans 8:1), and is cast out by God’s love (1 John 4:18).
On the other hand, filial fear has in view
“a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them. He has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves, not because he’s afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he’s afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child’s world, the source of security and love.” (R.C. Sproul)
This kind of fear is what we want. As God’s children, we want to behold our Father in his magnificent holiness, be humbled by his mercy and grace given to us in the gospel, and seek to please him all our days in reverent obedience to his will (Eph. 5:10). For though we are eternally secure in Christ, God will still bring each of our deeds “into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecc. 12:14).
Why cultivate the “fear of the Lord?”
We tend to think of fear as just the negative emotion of response to a threat. But in the Bible, “fear” can mean to experience awe, revel in greatness, or revere power. God gave us that capacity to fear, and it is a good thing.
Before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve feared God with a perfect fear. They knew that all of the opulence of Eden - the splendor of its beasts, the vast treasure of vegetation, the glories of its rivers - was only a glimmer of the majesty of its Creator. Their reverence and awe were wholly directed to the Lord.
But Satan drew our parents’ fear away from God and onto a fruit. Satan dazzled Eve with the allure of its mystery, convincing her that eating this fruit would be more awe-inspiring and wonderful than her Creator-Father, who had prohibited it. As Eve’s teeth sank into the forbidden fruit, her fear of the Lord vanished, and death sank its teeth into the world. Her misdirected fear led not only to her ruin, but also to the cursing of the world.
This early moment in man’s history epitomizes the consequences of not fearing the Lord. If we neglect to fear him and direct the fear that he deserves upon worldly things, we will be deprived of life itself: the fear of the Lord leads to life (Proverbs. 19:23).
Filial fear of God is indispensable to Christian spirituality. For a few examples:
- It’s foundational to wisdom and knowledge (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10).
- It’s a fountain of life (Proverbs 14:27) and a treasure (Isaiah 33:6).
- It’s a blessing (Ps. 128:4) and delightful to our souls (Isaiah 11:3).
- It keeps us near to God (Jeremiah 32:49)
- It purifies our body and spirit (Proverbs 19:9)
- It’s the force behind the holy life (1 Peter 1:16; 2 Corinthians 7:1).
Needless to say, the Bible praises the benefits and blessings of “the fear of the Lord” and condemns those who lack it (Romans 3:18; Psalm 36:1). It is good and we should want it!
How can we learn the “fear of the Lord?”
The Bible’s consistent command that we “fear the Lord” implies that our hearts are “naturally disaffected towards God [and have] no relish for his service, nor delight in his ways” (William Nicholson). Sin makes fearing God a struggle: it renders our hearts affectionless, and it compels us to follow our own wisdom instead of God’s.
How can we fight against this? How can we grow to understand the depth, the gravity, and the weight of God's glory? How can we understand the fear of the Lord and pursue a life of holiness? In Proverbs 2:1-5, King Solomon shows us three things we must do, that I’ve summed up this way: Prize, Pray, Pursue.
My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
In order for us to understand “the fear of the Lord,” first, we must prize the Bible.
Prize the Bible for what it is: God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16). Receive God’s words as true (John 17:17). Treasure up his commandments in your heart. God's character is revealed in his word: his love, his wrath, his justice, his mercy, his goodness. Through God’s commandments, our sinful hearts are exposed: we see our greed, our pride, our lust, and our anger. The Bible adorns our Creator with “splendor and majesty... strength and beauty” (Psalm 96:6). We see a Father, rich in mercy and love, offer his only Son to be crushed and sacrificed for our iniquities (John 3:16; Isaiah 53:10). As we receive and treasure up God’s word, our hearts will acknowledge God’s holiness. We'll know him as he is, and love and fear him. The Bible directs our souls to a genuine reverence and awe of our awesome God (Deut 10:17).
Second, as we learn to prize the Bible, we are still in need of truer knowledge: deeper understanding of what the Bible says that only God himself can give (Proverbs 2:3). So we must pray for it. We need to pray earnest prayers like David: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” (Psalm 86:11)
We can have confidence that when we raise our voices to God for understanding, he will hear us. Let us not neglect the sweetness of prayer, nor neglect to see our need for it. Prayer itself is an act of humility and reverence. And if we desire to understand more deeply the Scriptures we prize, we must ask for insight (Matthew 7:7). Only God’s Spirit can make us understand how much grace we've been given in Jesus (Lk 24:45); that understanding will make our sin become bitter and distasteful to us. Pray that the Lord makes your heart prize his word and want to walk in his truth.
The final thing crucial to “understanding the fear of the Lord” is a disciplined and eager pursuit of him (Proverbs 2:4). God's infinite greatness means we can always know more about him and come to love him more: there's always more to be experienced (Ephesians 3:18-19). There is always more of God’s word to be consumed and more understanding to be sought in prayer. Until the day we die, there will be sin clinging to our hearts (Hebrews 12:1) and greater obedience to achieved. Pursuing the fear of God constantly will challenge us continually to love what God loves and hate what he hates.
My prayer for us is that our souls would be stirred up to see the graciousness of God’s call for us to fear him. That all we do as Christ’s church - in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, missional communities - would be conducted with this fear (1 Peter 1:17). And that together we would be full of an awe-filled, reverent desire to please our God in heaven.
Image: Rembrandt, "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee." Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.