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Fear of the Lord

December 6, 2013

I can remember as a child my only feeling toward God was fear.  My early religious education had provided me only a rickety scaffolding from which to view the Divine, an anemic Jesus set against His petulant bogeyman Father.  I had learned that God punished sin, and I believed that if I vexed Him enough, it might make sense to have invested in some lightning rods.


A pivotal event in my early school years really “put the fear of God into me.”  I had a bit of a toe-to-toe schoolyard altercation with another boy, and in the heat of youthful braggadocio, he told me an enormous bald-faced lie.  I indignantly retorted that God was going to get him for his dishonesty.  To my horror, the next day I learned that the previous evening, the boy had died in a farming accident, run over by his father’s tractor.  In my mind I connected the two events, convinced that God had punished my schoolmate for his whopper, that he was probably roasting in Hell, and perhaps I had called down the wrath of God upon him.  God became truly fearsome to me, and I certainly didn’t want to attract His attention, lest He smite me as well.  My fear of God evoked avoidance and escape.  Though not yet penned, the sentiments of a line from Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 captured God’s warning to me—“the next time you see Me comin’ you better run!”  


Later in my life, having recovered from that interpretation, and beginning to take a bit of a serious look at matters of faith, I couldn’t understand the recurrent biblical directive to fear God. My earthly father, given to fits of vitriolic rage, was not all that loving in my experience, yet I hadn’t feared him.  If indeed God was the loving Father suggested in the Bible, why should I be afraid of Him? 


The issue wasn’t resolved for me for many years.  What I read and what I heard mostly supported the idea of fearing God.  But I saw no believable reason to do so.  God for me was certainly wondrous, but not scary. 


Then I began to see light creeping through the cracks in the depressing theology I had absorbed.  A turning point was a painstaking look at Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, immeasurably aided by Henri Nouwen’s deeply insightful and revelatory little book The Return of the Prodigal Son:  A Story of Homecoming.   Here I found the God I knew in my heart, the God I loved and who loved me unreservedly.


I made up my mind to dig deeper, to try to make sense of the two discordant pictures of God I had before me—one fearsome and one loving.  Spurred on by the words of 1 John 4:18—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—echoing through my mind, I determined to look at what the word translated as fear in the Bible really meant.  What I discovered went a long way toward making sense of the matter.


I learned that in the Old Testament there are four Hebrew words that have been translated into English as fear, three essentially similar and the fourth significantly different from the others in its meaning. The three indicate terror or dread, and are reserved for discussion of God’s enemies.  The other is used when speaking of those who love God; it suggests an attitude of reverence, honour, respect, regard and awe.  The Koine Greek of New Testament has only one word for fear, which can mean either terror or reverence.  The context, however, always makes it clear which sense of the word is intended; applying the other renders the text nonsensical. 


Nowhere in the New Testament are we instructed to be afraid of either God the Father or Jesus.  In fact, again and again we find, “Do not be afraid” and similar phrases.  The loving relationship that God desires to have with His children cannot exist in an atmosphere of fear.  Reverence is born out of an appreciation of God and all He has done and continues to do for us.   The only threat implied is to my ego.

The following two parallel verses, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, I believe express the embodiment of what is truly meant by the fear of God.


And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,  (Deuteronomy 10:12 ESV)


And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  (Luke 10:27 ESV)


This is the fear of the Lord—to love Him with a slavish passion that animates submission to His discipline, obedience of His law, dedication to His service, and love toward one another.  It is to love what He loves and despise and shun what He hates.  It enfolds reverence, awe, adoration, honour, respect, worship, confidence, and gratitude in the embrace of love.  Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and love from the Lord is its completion.

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