Fear holds a paradoxical status in Scriptures—it is regularly treated both as a positive and a negative; as fruitful and as destructive.
Positively, wisdom is a crucial moral outcome for those who “fear the LORD”. On one occasion in Genesis God is even personified as “fear” when Jacob twice addressed his hostile father-in-law, Laban, with a vow based on his father Isaac’s relation to God: “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty handed.” And, “So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac…” [Genesis 31:42& 53] Yet in the next stage of Jacob’s story he faced the threat of meeting his embittered brother Esau whose last announced intent had been to kill him, and so Jacob was both “afraid” of and in “fear” of him. [32:7 & 11—as a technical note: separate but largely synonymous Hebrew terms for fear are used in the separate chapters] Later in the Old Testament we find that Saul was “afraid” of David; David was “afraid” of King Achish; and David was also “afraid” of God. [1 Samuel 18:12; 21:12; 2 Samuel 6:9—same Hebrew word]
This paradoxical quality of fear is also a New Testament reality. It often speaks of the productive fear of God, as in the Old Testament [Acts 9:31; Romans 3:18; 2 Corinthians 7:1]. And also of the fear of Christ [Ephesians 5:21]. So, too, there is a negative fear as in the fear felt by the guards of Christ’s tomb when he was raised [Matthew 28:4]; and the fear of death the devil uses to rule the world. [Hebrews 2:15]
What, if anything, do these apparently competing versions of fear have in common with each other? Certainly one feature is that fear is affective: an emotion; a heart-based, visceral response to something or someone we encounter. And, as such, fear is a powerful motivator—it tightens the gut, creates sweat, arouses our fight-or-flight reflexes, and—applied negatively—is able to undermine the soul over time through emotional exhaustion, depression and destructive doubts. Fear will also reshape our priorities. It follows us until its source is overcome or resolved. Peace evaporates in the presence of fear.
How, then, does a fear of the Father and the Son relate to our call to live by faith as those devoted to God? The question is crucial to faith. An Old Testament text can help us here.
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, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth and all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their seed after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your god is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. Deuteronomy 10:12-17
Moses juxtaposes fear and love in this text in the same sentence, along with the activities of walking in his ways, serving him, and obeying his commandments: these are what the LORD “requires” of us!
But how are these seemingly dynamic emotions of fear and love related to the other elements in the text? One answer, offered by the Christian Stoics in church history, is to reinterpret the emotion of love to be an act of the will. Any command implies a capacity to act, they tell us. And actions are initiated by choices—that is, by the human will. Only the activities of the will, they believe, account for the list of behavioral features linked to love and fear.
That means, in turn, that the pairing of fear and love together also assigns fear to the realm of the will. It explains why some Bible translators take the underlying word for “fear” to mean “reverence”—as in calling people to the act of “giving reverence” to God. By adopting this solution the Stoic goal of reaching “apatheia”—i.e. self-control—is met, and with that any notions that spirituality operates through frothy emotions are set aside.
Let me suggest, instead, a reading based on a relational—heart-based—theology and anthropology. In this understanding the heart is taken to be the motivational center of both God and his human creatures. To be created in his image is to share in the relational character of the Trinity. That just as God lives in an eternal mutuality of shared devotion and delight—such that “God is love”—so, too, the first man-woman union was bonded by love. That is, the inaugural marital love of Eden represented the overflowing font of God’s love flowing into and through the marriage union. It was also reciprocated by the partners as they responded with shared delight to their Creator’s overflowing care. So, when Moses wrote that the “LORD set his heart in love” on his people, Moses was speaking of God’s affective devotion to his people as an outflow of his own being.
But what about fear? How does it fit in the same sentence with love?
Genesis 3 offers the link. Fear was introduced in the Fall. In the moment that Adam and Eve were captured by the vision offered them by the serpent—to be “like God” even if it violated God’s bond of mutual love—they discovered fear. They had taken up the mantle of defining good and evil for themselves; so their reference point in life was no longer God’s love for them, but their love for personal needs, wants, and welfare. Their bonds of love were shattered and in the place of love came fear: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked.” Adam’s nakedness was nothing new. But when he declared his independence from God it became an issue: his shame revealed his new self-focus—as a lover of self rather than a lover of God—which exposed his terrible inadequacy and unholiness in the presence of the only true God.
What, then, is the ultimate DNA of fear? It is the shiver of living death exposed to the consuming fire of the Triune life of God—an emotion of the condemned in the presence of the one who will not allow any rebellion in his kingdom! Fear is a naked shame in the presence of the One who calls out: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”
Against God—in the stance we held with Adam—we used to pretend that we could manage life from within our stubborn self-sufficiency—to still be “like God” in watching out for our own welfare and living on our own terms. In Adam’s scheme God was meant to be our helper, and not our Lord. That may appear to work for us for a time, but it shatters when God comes and speaks: “For the LORD your god is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” God’s love brings to us a full exposure to his moral holiness.
Faith is our response to God’s love: we return to him in repentance. Within our newly birthed faith Adam’s ambition is seen to be corrupt—a pretence of life despite being dead in trespasses and sins. We respond to God’s wooing because his love is poured out in our hearts and we are awakened to his goodness. We no longer trust ourselves to be “like God” but we rejoice that God is God and that he is our God! We come to the love of the Triune communion—the glory the Son invites us to share with him in the great prayer of John 17.
How then is the fear of God a positive reality? The emotion of fear that comes with our life upheavals; or as the Spirit exposes our souls to God’s words and ways, will always be a barometer in our soul. Fear is the meter that tracks our continuing independence. As we progress from our Satanic self-confidence into a Spirit-led devotion, the presence of fear signals a continued self-reliance and, with that, nakedness. Fear points to that part of us that has yet to be consumed by the flames of God’s loving presence. In our new standing as believers our moments of fear are like the small terrors of our youth when one of our parents needed to scrub the dirt out of the wounds in our knee or elbow after we crashed a skateboard or a bicycle. The cleansing needs to be done and we want the benefit—and it’s the love that stands behind it that makes us willing to come in for our needed treatments. But it’s never enjoyable.
A healthy fear of God is rooted in our confidence that every sordid thought, every ungodly word, deed, or attitude will be consumed, ultimately, by God’s holy presence before we enter our eternal state. He disciplines us in this life because he loves us. He hates our sin; and he loves us. The woman at the well had her sins exposed and she came to love Jesus. The woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears was forgiven and she loved Jesus. And the more we love him, the less we sin. And perfect love leaves no room for sin at all! Until that day of perfection comes—at his appearing—let us fear God by looking more and more to his love, a love that turns our hearts away from evil.