Several years ago I began a Bible class with the question, “It it possible to scare someone into the kingdom?” I fully expected a negative reply, but a thoughtful woman responded, “Sometimes.” I have been mulling over her answer ever since. Most of us are uncomfortable with “the fear of the Lord.” Scaring a person into the kingdom—or a believer into taking God seriously—these were the mistakes of our Puritan predecessors. Imagine putting Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on a church marquee: that would certainly not be a wise move from a marketing standpoint.
The simple fact, though, is that we get doctrine from the Bible, not from our neighbors. And Scripture’s teaching on the fear of the Lord opposes the temper of our times. Despite much-touted theories of pluralism, Americans of all stripes unite in a Ptolemaic view of the self: the universe revolves around me. Christians seem as eager as anyone to secure a central place for the ego. We place truth in orbit around self-esteem. Since teachings about the fear of the Lord require a Copernican recognition that I am not the center, they appear utterly senseless.
Yet the Bible teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pss. 111:10, et al.). We confuse the issue when we interpret fear to mean respect or reverence. The Bible connects fear with the majesty of God at least 300 times. The fact that contemporary translators so frequently use the English word “fear” would suggest that “fear” really means fear, and not merely respect or reverence. Perhaps there is something here that we would rather not hear.
The issue is even more complicated. Scripture teaches that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). We fear God in our separation from him. In Jesus Christ, this separation has been overcome. In him, God shows us his love, cancels our debts, and invites us to shoulder a cross that is in fact an easy yoke. All this puts us in a position to approach the throne of grace with confidence. But these truths leave us unsure as to why we still ought to fear God. We are genuinely at a loss as to how to integrate verses about fear with clearer passages about love.
Martin Luther had an interesting solution to this problem. He spoke of loving and fearing God—and left it at that. No embarrassment. No explanation. This approach has the advantage of being true to Scripture. Yet it leaves us wondering: How can I love what I fear? Thus, it is important to see how fear fits together with love. To do this, we need to see where fear comes from and what purposes it serves.
The Beginning Of Wisdom
As we have noted, Scripture itself states that fear is to make men and women wise: fear is the “beginning of wisdom.” Yet how does the fear of the Lord make one wise? Doesn’t it prompt us to run away? At the beginning, Adam and Eve ran and hid (Gen. 3:8). At the end, the kings of the earth will say to the mountains, “Fall on us and hide us” (Rev. 6:16). First to last, fear sends people away from God. Where is the wisdom in that?
Look at it this way: Each of us is an original, with experiences that are unique. However, instead of living our uniqueness, we live our social roles. We have been conditioned not to feel life as it comes but rather to fit in. This training process is so extensive that many of us believe we are our roles. Why are we such willing accomplices in the quashing of our true selves? It is because life in the raw is too threatening. The avalanche of sharp, intrusive, and terrifying details is concealed under the pale properties of conventional experience. We accept conventionalization because it feels safer, but the process leaves us out of touch with reality.
The point is, God is the central figure in our original experience. He commands our shock, dread, and shivering awe. At this fundamental level, we all know God. In fact, it is our unfiltered awareness of him that makes life in the raw so threatening. The Bible is now clear. Genesis and Revelation reveal men and women in touch with their original experience. Between the beginning and the end, however, human life is characterized by its chief sin: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18). There is fear of God, but it is not before our eyes. We keep our truest feelings out of sight, denying God and ourselves in the same act.
This situation affords a trade-off. I get to live in a dream world in which I am Lord. Yet, I am cursed with the vague sense that my life is now false, superficial, and meaningless. On my own, I am not able to forsake meaninglessness for the terror of an unfiltered encounter with What Is Really Out There.
The Bible is hopeful on two counts. First, it shows us that life was not meaningless at the beginning, nor will it be at the end. Second, we see that throughout history, God has taken the initiative with those he has chosen, piercing their darkness and shaking their foundations. This was the initiative that forced Isaiah to cry out, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). It led Peter to say, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Prior to these moments, each man had resisted God unawares. Now they know.
Such knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. No one advances in wisdom who has not started here. Why not? Because wisdom requires a personal admission of God’s majesty and my unworthiness. This is something that conventional religion cannot grant. It is something that many of us would not choose. But the Bible teaches that if you want to be wise, ask God to take off your blinders and surprise you.
Unite My Heart
Fear comes from such surprises. What purposes does it serve? The first has to do with meaning, the second with morality. The fear of God makes life meaningful.
How so? Meaning requires that I bring my inner concerns into an integrated whole without disintegrating my outer world. When I was a younger Christian, I adopted a vision that integrated my environment—but it left my inner self a puzzle. Before long, I turned in frustration to a search for inner peace, which did the opposite. My psyche felt better, but I lost the big picture. Today, I’m convinced that meaning requires both.
Long ago, David connected the search for meaning with fear when he prayed, “Unite my heart to fear your name” (Ps. 86:11). Only a personal encounter with God can unite my heart; and only fear expresses this encounter. It furnishes the right starting point for a pilgrimage that aligns my outer and inner concerns into a coherent whole.
But isn’t love a better term? Actually, love is the pilgrimage in its final phase. But faith is a journey that begins in trepidation. We see it in Moses’ fear before the burning bush, the shepherds’ alarm at the song of the angels, and Paul’s anguish on the road to Damascus.
To reject fear is to want the pilgrimage of faith to begin from some other point than the one in Scripture. This is like saying, “I’d like to go to the moon, but I’d rather not go from here because earth is too far.” The distance from fearing God to loving him may be a long one. This should not tempt us to look for another point of departure, because there isn’t any. Only the fear of the Lord gives to life the meaning that makes love possible.
Take Heed Lest You Fall
The fear of the Lord serves another purpose. It is one of the motivations for morality. It is not the only one. Yet fear figures prominently in the Bible’s answer to the question, Why should I be moral? For instance, in arguing against the licentiousness at Corinth, the apostle Paul appeals to fear. He refers to instances in which God’s people died in their sins in the desert. Then he draws the lesson.
“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:11–12).
Paul will very soon turn to the importance of agape. Love is the final motivation for obedience. But first he issues a threat. We need to be spurred to the place where love can do its work. How else can we understand the Bible’s many dark passages? In a section much like the earlier one, Paul says, “Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:20–22, NIV).
Let’s explore what this means. Fear arises when I encounter God. For in this encounter, I do not meet a distant deity with no influence over my life. To the contrary, I meet the one true Power in the universe, the One who controls my destiny—now and forever. And he comes to me with terms. My desire to meet his terms stems in part from my awareness that my life is literally in his hands. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). Scripture does not differentiate between the fear of the Lord and the desire to obey him. They are one and the same.
Throughout history, when Christians have looked to God both in love and in fear, they have attained to their highest level of moral behavior. Who can consider the decline of moral standards today without connecting it with the disappearance of the fear of the Lord? Sermons on love alone will not lift us out of the mire. There is not the slightest bit of evidence that love alone is a sufficient motivation for righteousness—and considerable evidence to the contrary.
The point is that a personal encounter with God will have moral consequences. In my discovery of the Savior who is also my Judge, I discover several reasons to obey him. Fear is one of these.
Fear Not, For Behold!
The Bible reports that confronting God is a dreadful experience. Yet fear does not have the last word. Those who are shaken to the core are told, “Fear not.” We have to conclude that while an unfiltered experience is terrifying, it also brings an unshakable reassurance. We are unsettled from our false securities, but then resettled in the true security of God’s love. Perfect love does indeed cast out fear. Yet the implication is that those who have never trembled from head to toe will never know God’s perfect love. In those who have, however, a fearful heart can be a way of saving oneself for something better.
Unfortunately, many of us presume that the world is the ultimate threat and that God’s function is to offset it. How different this is from the biblical position that God is scarier than the world by far. Recall Jesus’ command, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
When we assume that the world is the ultimate threat, we give it unwarranted power, for in truth, the world’s threats are temporary. When we expect God to balance the stress of the world, we reduce him to the world’s equal. We replace his sovereign freedom with an echoing function. Such an echo may answer our loneliness for a time, but it cannot question our decisions.
Too much conventional Christianity worships an echo. Unfortunately, comfort of this sort does not work. Reassurance that is not rooted in the fear of the Lord is cheap reassurance. It may have an outward appearance of godliness, but it has no real power for meaning or righteousness.
The words “Fear not” will never come with power to those who keep to the conventional pattern: threatened by the world; reassured by God. God said as much to Isaiah.
“Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread” (Isa. 8:12–13, NIV).
Until we recognize how wrong it is to be intimidated by the world, the idea that wisdom begins with a dreadful encounter with God will remain completely unintelligible.
Yet if wisdom starts with fear, it does not end there. As I walk with the Lord, I discover that God poses an ominous threat to my ego, but not to me; that he stands over against my delusions, but not against the truth that sets me free; that he casts me down, but only to lift me up; that he sits in judgment of my sin, but forgives me nevertheless. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but love is its completion.
Even so, those who start with fear need to come back to it repeatedly. Perfect love replaces fear in the perfect believer—and who can claim that status? The same wisdom that shows me the love of God also reveals that I presume upon that love too often. I, for one, need a healthy sense of divine wrath for those times when my love has grown cold.
Martin Luther was right. It is important both to love and to fear God. Just as the Puritan focus on fear alone distorts the life of faith, so does a syrupy emphasis on agape. Surely today’s all-God-wants-is-to-win-your-love sermons are as extreme as the harshest Puritanism. Future generations will no doubt be embarrassed by the way we have confused talk about love with giving it a sure foundation.
The truth is, each of us is like Moses: able to look across to a promised land where love rules, yet still on this side, where love is not perfect, where the flesh needs to be goaded, and where the cares of this world contend with the lure of the world to come. We look across to a future perfection while admitting it is far from us. Wisdom begins—and begins again—when we fall into the hands of the living God. There is fear and trembling here. But our salvation cannot be worked out under any other circumstances.
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