Monday, August 5, 2013

What does it mean to "fear" God?

The Bible says a lot about fear. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to make sense of some of it. Or at least, it can be difficult for me, and I'm guessing I'm not alone.

What really trips me up is all the stuff the Bible says about fearing God. In case you haven't checked lately, it's in favor of it. Big time. Here are a few examples:

  • The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. 1
  • But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine. 2
  • The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. 3
  • He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them. The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy. 4
  • The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. 5

And it's not just the Old Testament either:

  • His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 6
  • “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him." 7
  • Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. 8

Getting the picture?

What I struggle with is how to understand this mass9 of verses in light of other things the Bible says about fear. Things like this:

  • There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 10
  • For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 11
  • For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 12

In addition to all this, pastor/teacher types throw around statements about fearing God all the time. Unfortunately, I don't recall ever hearing a good explanation (or even a bad one) for what fearing God means. We get a lot about its results and why we ought to do it, but not much about what it is. Take this Oswald Chambers quote for example: "The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else." 13 He gives us no help in figuring out what fearing God is, and so leaves himself open to responses like this one from an atheist blogger:

There was a time when I thought that all non-Christians lived their life in constant fear. Fear of the future, fear of death, fear that they would be wrong in the end and have to face judgment. I now know this to be a lie. It is a lie spread by Christianity in order to protect itself from unbelief. If believers think that without god there is only fear, they will be less likely to question their beliefs. When I see something like the [Chambers] quote it makes me wish...I could tell them that, no, I don’t fear everything. I don’t fear god. I don’t fear death. 14

The atheist makes a good point: if "fear" here means what it normally means in popular vernacular, then Chambers is just wrong. Atheists don't have to fear everything in that sense.

But is that the sense in which the Bible means we should "fear" God?

I don't think so.

So what does it mean then? It is tempting to interpret it as "having a reverential respect and sense of incredible awe towards Yahweh’s powers." In fact, that is exactly how another theist-turned-atheist blogger interprets it. She continues,

If you think your deity is perfect, good, loving, and can do anything for you that you ask for, then I can see how the world and our struggles might appear less daunting or intimidating. If I had Superman in my back pocket, I’d feel pretty safe. 15

You see the problem with this interpretation? It puts the focus of the fear on God's power, presumably His power to control our circumstances or protect us from bad things or perhaps "smite" those He chooses (see image).

I agree with this atheist, too, that this kind of fear is unacceptable. I think, however, that there is another alternative.

Now, I'm not (yet) a theologian in the academic sense, nor do I have any credentials that qualify me to speak authoritatively on ancient Judaic conceptions of God or fear. However, I recently had a chat with a friend about what it means to fear God, and afterward he suggested I write about it here so other people could benefit from my perspective. So here it is, for what it's worth.

My current working definition of the "fear of God" as it is used in both the Old and New Testaments is something like, "recognizing God's nature and my relation to it." This is "fearful" because when I see how loving and good He is, I simultaneously see how far short I fall of that, or even of desiring that, and that unless I can learn to love what He is, I am doomed.

Notice that this is entirely consistent (so far as I can tell) with all the verses about fear above. In fact, His being Love (see 1 John 4:8) entails this: since love is the most real thing in the universe
and, I would argue, the only sort of relationship that is possible with Godif I refuse to participate with Him in a love relationship, then the only other option (logically) is my separation from Him. And since He made me and sustains me in existence, this is just my destruction.

Further, since I am currently not fully acclimated to His being/presence (i.e. love), it can be very uncomfortable to be around Him. Hence the "fear."

Note that on my interpretation fear is not an integral part of our love relationship with God, nor is it a result of reflection on His "smiting power." Rather, it is a second-order (that is, after-the-fact reflection) realization of the difference between God's nature and my own desires. On my definition, I reflect (based on experiences with the divine nature) on God's love, and realize that in order to be compatible with it, my desires will have to change, and that this will likely involve suffering. The only other option, however, is voluntary destruction. This realization then produces fear, but it is a fear which motivates (or should motivate) action to transform (hence, it makes sense to say that it is the beginning of wisdom). 

Thus, my "fear" of God would result, not from any essential inconsistency in our beings or from His ability to punish me, but from the current state of my will/desire, shaped as it is by the history of humanity's sin, along with my own. I recognize that what I want and what He is are very different, and yet I simultaneously recognize that what I need is Him. Reflection on this then produces fear. But that fear is always temporary and always dispelled as love increases, and my nature/desire is more closely aligned with His.

I, for one, find this interpretation both satisfying and provocative. It also avoids the objections so easily leveled against the other sort of interpretation we mentioned, as it isn't based on God's power or wrath but on His love. Join me in praying that those two atheists will encounter that love directly and be changed.

And let me know what you think!

1 Proverbs 1:7

2 Psalms 33:18-19

3 Psalms 34:7-11

4 Psalms 145:19-20

5 Psalms 147:11

6 Luke 1:50

7 Luke 12:4-5 This one is particularly interesting, as two verses later it says don't fear! Surely Jesus wasn't contradicting Himself!?

8 Philippians 2:12-13

9 For a much longer list, see here.

10 1 John 4:18

11 2 Timothy 1:7 Some translations use "fear" instead of "timidity," but for consistency I'm keeping the NIV here.

12 Romans 8:14-17

13 From "The Pilgrim's Song Book," available here.

14 Full post here.

15 Full post here.

1 comment:

  1. Incidentally, I just came across this statement from an Old Testament commentator speaking about the Psalms: "‘Those who fear the Lord’ is a designation in the psalms for those who seek to make the Lord the decisive orienting center of their lives." (James L. Mays) For the record, in my attempt at explicating the meaning of "fear of God," I am not disagreeing with this general point by Mays, but rather seeking to go a bit deeper *theologically* (rather than just exegetically).