Fear is an often misunderstood emotion and concept among Christians.
I distinctly remember teaching a Bible study several years ago. My passage had as its theme the fear of the Lord. This is a common theme in the Bible. There’s no escaping it. Anyway, about 2/3 of the way through the study, an older brother raised his hand, red-faced, and popped off his question:
“I thought we’re supposed to love God. I thought we’re supposed to serve God out of love, not fear.”
He was visibly irritated. But his color returned as I began to answer as gently, lovingly, fearfully and faithfully as I knew how.
What this brother had done is to bifurcate or divide love and fear into two mutually exclusive or contradictory categories. It’s a common malady among us westerners. We love to compartmentalize our lives, me included. It seems to simplify things a bit for us in our hectic schedules. So, we pour our “love syrup” into one square of our life’s waffle, and our “fear syrup” into another square. And the two squares are poles apart.
But the Bible does not make such a division. God does not treat fear of Him and love of Him as if they are incompatible or mutually exclusive. We know this for one simple reason. God commands us to do both!
“You shall fear only the Lord your God” (Deut 6:13).
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37).
My family and I have recently been reading through Exodus together. I love how we see the lesson of proper fear being taught by God to Israel. After the death plague of the first-born, Pharaoh finally lets the people of Israel go free. But he changes his mind and begins to pursue them. Israel is on the shore of the Red Sea. Egypt’s mighty army is closing in fast, chariots-a-rolling.
“As Pharaoh drew near, the sons of Israel looked and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they became very frightened; so the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord” (Ex 14:10).
Fear. Fear of man. But we can surely understand Israel’s concern at this point! This does not look good. And they begin to complain and grumble against God and Moses, expressing their desire just to go back to slavery in Egypt. But God redeems them with a mighty hand and parts the Sea. When Egypt pursues, the sea swallows them up, and God is glorified by both Egypt and Israel.
“When Israel saw the great power which the Lord had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses” (Ex 14:31).
Again fear. But this time it’s fear of the Lord. And faith in the Lord. Fear and faith then are clearly not mutually exclusive. God had begun to transform Israel, you see, at the level of their fear. They moved from fear of man and circumstances, to fear of God. Blessed change! And after giving the Ten Commandments, God through Moses again expresses His desire for Israel to properly direct her fear:
“Do not be afraid; for God has come to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin” (Ex 20:20).
Do not fear. Fear. Which one is it, Lord? Yes. It’s both. In context, Israel feared God would utterly destroy them in wrath. But God reassured them through Moses that His intention toward them was gracious. They were to fear Him in a way that drove them to love and obey and trust Him. Fear done rightly keeps us from sin (Prov 16:6).
But fear of God’s wrath is also commendable. God Himself commended this attitude in Israel (Deut 5:28). Anyone who does not fear God’s holy wrath against sin is a fool (Prov 1:7). Even the thief on the cross beside Jesus understood that much (Luke 23:40).
And Jesus understood it too. In ways we cannot ever. This is surely what the agony of Gethsemane was about – fear of God’s holy wrath against sin. As the Eternal Son of God, Jesus knows full well what He is about to endure. More than you or I can ever fathom, Jesus knew, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). So He sweat blood. Now, when’s the last time you and I ever feared God so greatly?
And it is this glorious, unfathomable love of Christ that now drives out our fear of God’s hot wrath against our sin. This in context is precisely what the Apostle John gets at when he writes, “Perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).
Jesus feared for us! Jesus bore the wrath for us! For those whom He has redeemed by His blood on the cross, it is a sign of weak faith to fear God’s punishment in hell on us. Why? Because Jesus took our hell on the cross. And God can now no more send us to hell than to send His Holy, Risen and Reigning Son back onto the cross. And that ain’t happening (Heb 7:23-28). We’re saved to the uttermost! His sacrifice is once for all!
And now maybe we can see more clearly how proper fear of God drives us to love Him more deeply. I do fear God. I fear displeasing Him. I fear dishonoring His Holy name. I fear misrepresenting Him. And when I think on Calvary, I tremble. I tremble at a love so great for such a worm as I. I tremble that all the wrath my sins earned was poured out on the Righteous One. But I fear not that that wrath will somehow find me. God is not a God of “double jeopardy.” Has He said and will He not do it? (Num 23:19; John 3:16)
As the amazing hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty proclaims:
“What a love! What a cost! We stand forgiven at the Cross.”
God help us fear rightly. God help us love rightly. God help us believe rightly. For when by God’s amazing grace the right kind of fear, love and faith come together, we are hot on the trail of Christ-likeness.