What do you think of when you think of the term “the fear of God” or “fear of the Lord” when you hear it or read it in the Bible? Are we supposed to be afraid of God even though we are told in the Bible to love Him with all of our might? Is this concept of fearing God as confusing to you as it has been to me at times?
Is the Bible contradicting itself? Is the word fear just poorly translated where it should be translated honour, awe or reverence? Just how are we to understand this term the fear of God or the fear of the Lord? The fear of God is a multi-faceted term that when properly understood in its full richness will help deepen our relationship with God.
A logical place to start in explaining what the fear of God is to define the words that are translated into fear from the Hebrew and Greek and answer the question whether fear is a mistranslation for these words or not. The Hebrew words used for fear in connection with fearing God are yirah, yare and pachad and these words all mean “fear,” “terror,” or “dread.” One internet article entitled “Fear of God” (http://www.allaboutgod.com/fear-of-god.htm) says in relation to the Hebrew words used:
“Although many Christian teachers will downplay the ‘fear of God’ and use replacement words such as ‘respect,’ ‘reverence,’ or ‘honor,’ the Hebrew language is pretty clear. In addition, there are other Hebrew words that portray softer meanings, such as kabad (Exodus 20:12 – ‘Honor your father and your mother…’ Proverbs 3:9 – ‘Honor the LORD with your wealth…’)”.
The story is much the same with the Greek. The Greek translated fear in reference to fearing God is phobos. Phobos is easily recognised as the root of the word phobia used for the fear of anything in particular.
Our English word fear means to sense danger and be afraid and there is no getting around that being a part of the Greek and Hebrew words used for fear in reference to God. We can see that in the context of how it is used in the Bible. Let’s look at one example: Jeremiah 5:22: “Should you not fear me?” declares the Lord. “Should you not tremble in my presence?”
The first aspect of the fear of God is the one that usually comes to mind to most people and that is a fear of God’s judgment on our sins.
In Hebrews 12 in talking about the discipline of God Paul encourages us to not see this as negative but as a positive sign that God loves us and wants to bring us back on the right path even if that includes the pain of discipline at times.
God like most caring human fathers who love their children will, at times, discipline their children as a deterrent to bad behaviour that they know will hurt a child if they continue doing such things. Proverbs 14:27 puts it very well when it says: “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.” It’s a fountain of life – a positive thing to be spared from the dangers to one’s life.
How do we reconcile the seemingly opposing ideas of loving God and fearing Him? To reconcile these seemingly contradictory ideas we need to recognise that there is a right and a wrong kind of fear – a healthy fear and unhealthy fear. Fear is an emotion but it’s the choices we act on that determine if it is the right or wrong kind of fear.
When it comes to physical pursuits there is a healthy and unhealthy fear. There is a healthy fear of activities that might cause us danger and that healthy fear motivates us to avoid danger. The wrong kind of fear takes this fear to an extreme where we can become paralysed with fear in an unhealthy way such as some illogical phobias that can paralyse a person.
This also applies on the spiritual level with our relationship with God. One of example of this is the response of the Israelites to Moses to not have God talk to them directly at Mount Sinai. They allowed their fear to push out any sort of trust in God’s love and concern for them.
Another example is the fear of the unprofitable servant who hid his talent out of fear of his master. He made a poor choice in allowing his fear to paralyse him into inaction. He had the wrong kind of fear that didn’t produce positive results.
When we are walking righteously we don’t have to fear God’s punishment and we can fully trust without anxiety in God’s best for us even when we go through trials.
A second aspect of the fear of God is having a deep awe and reverence of God.
This is an overwhelming sense of God’s power and size and majesty that helps produce a deep respect and reverence and ties in with the use of the word trembling.
Imagine before you stands a giant over 100 feet tall and he is looking directly at you. If you don’t know the giant’s intention towards you no doubt you will be terrified. Even if you know the giant’s intentions are benign you are still going to tread carefully. The same applies with God. When we genuinely appreciate God’s power and presence and majesty we can’t help but be in great awe.
There is a third and often overlooked aspect of the right kind of fear of God. When we deeply love someone we have a positive fear not to disappoint or displease them and to honour them with our actions.
I mentioned before that the Greek word for fear is phobos. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words that phobos is not just “a mere ‘fear’ of His power and righteous retribution, but a wholesome dread of displeasing Him”. This is the right type of positive, productive fear. The well-known 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon made these comments on the fear of God:
“Have you heard of the boy whose father was exceedingly fond of him? He was asked by some other boys to go and rob an orchard with them but he said, ‘No, I will not go.’ They replied, ‘Your father won’t scold you, nor beat you. You may safely come.’ To this he answered, ‘What? Do you think because my father loves me, that therefore I will grieve him? No, I love him and I love to do what he wishes me to do. Because he loves me I fear to vex him.’ That is like the child of God. The more he knows of God’s love, the more he trembles at the thought of offending the Most High.”
This is confirmed in the definition of the fear of God in Proverbs 8:13 where we read “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” When we hate evil we are obviously not doing evil and therefore don’t fear His punishment at that moment in time. We are fearing to disappoint Him by hating that which offends God.
A classic example of this is Joseph when Potiphar’s wife was trying to seduce him. He didn’t say how can I do this wickedness against my master but to this woman who did not care about his God he said: “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” A fear to disappoint God and not wanting to offend God was front and centre in his mind.
The right kind of fear of God includes a healthy not unhealthy fear of God’s judgment on our sins to avoid the dangers of sin. It includes a deep awe and reverence of Him as well as being a positive fear not to disappoint or displease Him.
I hope I have helped give you a better clarity of what the fear of God is and hope that clarity can make a real and positive difference in your relationship with God.