I’ve been thinking lately about the fear of the Lord and how I often hear people teach about the topic. Often the speaker will say something like this: “Fearing God isn’t about being afraid of Him; it’s about respecting Him. The word fear in that passage (whatever passage they’re reading at the moment) really means respect, not fear.”
I’m burning to say: Can we knock it off already? Cause this just ain’t even true. I mean, I get that we want God to be palatable, and if we tell people that fearing God is meant to be quite…frightening…He doesn’t come off sounding as inviting. But let’s be honest. Can we just be honest? Or have we said it so many times, or had it said to us so many times, that now we forgot that something just didn’t seem right about it?
Ok, so again: it just ain’t true. Seriously. “Fear of the Lord” does not just mean, “respect.” I mean, we should all respect God, and respect the Lord Jesus. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have respect. But I am saying that the “fear of the Lord” both includes that AND means a lot more than that. Let me start with three quick reasons that this should be evident before we even dive in deeply:
1) The word “fear” in any sentence in the New Testament is generally consistently the same word throughout the text, whether it’s talking about fear of the Lord or fear of anything else – except in the few English translations that go as far as to render the word as “terror.” (Which really isn’t completely wrong, either. There is only one instance that most translations will render this word as “respect” which I’ll touch on at the end.) That relative English translational consistency mirrors consistency of the Greek text where the word is “phobos,” which is where we get the English word phobia. There’s no special word being pulled out here for “respect” in these verses, such as “respect of the Lord.” It’s just fear – the same word for fear that the Luke 21:26 has in the phrase, “men’s hearts failing them for fear,” about the calamities occurring in the end times; the same word in Matt 14:26 when the disciples saw Jesus walking on water and thought He was a ghost coming towards them, “and they cried out for fear.”
Now obviously the disciples weren’t on full tilt all the time towards Jesus; they weren’t typically walking around as afraid of Him as they were when they thought He was a ghost walking on water – and in fact, Jesus said “It’s me, don’t be afraid.” But the real fear of the Lord (that is, fear of His actual person, as opposed to fear of a mistaken vision of the Lord as a ghost) isn’t meant to be something we experience in its fullness 24/7, either – it’s something that comes to the surface at key moments if we’re spiritually healthy.
2) Even if one might argue that regardless of the word employed, the fear of the Lord is a different type of fear than other fears, and that this type of fear is more about “respect” than actual fear, there is the small problem of the accompanying word “trembling.” As a new believer I remember reading passages that referred to “fear and trembling” (as a good thing, mind you) and wondering where trembling came into my personal or corporate experience of life with the Lord. There didn’t seem to be a grid I had as a new believer in the 20th century for what I was reading here from the first century. Why did they keep refering to “fearing and trembling” as relatable Christian experience? Granted, it only appears a handful of times, but that handful was so foreign to me as a young believer, that it made me take note. (For a glance at some verses on the topic, click here.)
3) We’ll get into this more down below, but no discussion of fearing the Lord can be had without discussing, “Perfect loves casts out all fear,” ala 1 John 4:18. But on the immediate sense of what we’re talking about here, if “fear of the Lord” really only means, “respect for the Lord” then logically speaking, this verse really means that “respect for the Lord” is cast out by perfect love. Does that sound right to you? I know we can be legitimately informal and relaxed with God, and should be, but is it ever right to treat Him with outright disrespect? While He may graciously overlook disrespect, I don’t think it ever becomes something His perfect love would aim us towards.
So going forward: I think the real question becomes, “Why have we become so afraid of the fear of the Lord?”
We have literally tried to erase the experience of fearing Him from our spiritual experience, as if it is a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs. I beg to differ – the fear of the Lord may be uncomfortable, but just as spiritual disciplines like fasting or showing kindness to strangers can be initially uncomfortable, there is actually a deep reservoir of spiritual life and encounter with God to be had in some of these places.
When it comes to the fear of the Lord, I think of it as a scale or progression from “fear” to “perfect love.” The problem is that we want to rush to the end, and so we quote 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love casts out all fear” and think that since we know that this type of reality is legitimate and exists (and the verse says it does) that we can immediately claim that as our portion. But this just does a disservice to us: knowing what perfect love accomplishes does not mean that we ourselves are in that state of perfect love. We somehow want to cast out fear in order to arrive at perfect love, but that’s not how the verse even says spiritual life works or should work; it’s backwards. We have to be made perfect in love before the fear is cast out (and then, we won’t need to cast it out – the love will do it – because we will be so in union with Him that we will love everything about Him that can be feared, and know which side we are standing of that too.)
But it’s very, very important not to try to take this shortcut. Because if we try to claim the spot of “perfect love” before we’ve actually found ourselves immersed in that perfect love, in real experience, then we hinder our ability to ever lay hold on that experience for real, instead making our grasp of His love just a concept or theory. Love is not a philosophy: it’s not enough to say, “I know Jesus died for me, I know He has shown me perfect love, therefore, this is the verse that currently applies to me.” There’s a danger of substituting head knowledge ABOUT love for actually being “made perfect IN love,” by numbing ourselves to fear of Him and thinking that this is the same thing. And the uncomfortable fact is that Godly fear plays a large role in getting us to actual experience of spiritual realities….so short-cutting our way out of fear can be seriously detrimental to our walk.
We have to start at the beginning of the progression: “The fear of the Lord is the *beginning* of wisdom.” When we first set out on pilgrimage to lay hold of the things of God, we don’t know how to make such a journey.
Here is the promise for trembling hearts on pilgrimage:
Psalm 25:14 The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.
Someone may say to us to “press in” and we don’t even know what “press in” actually means. Someone might say to “fix your eyes on Jesus” and we’re not sure: is this a figure of speech, a literary device, or is there something I’m supposed to do here and how does it work? Is it just a meditation thing? A mental thing? Jesus says, “Come to me” and we don’t know: does this mean to pray the prayer I read in a pamphlet or the one the preacher on TV is giving me to repeat after him, or does “coming” to Jesus mean something else that I can’t seem to figure out and no one seems to know what to tell me? And where are the streams of living water He said would flow from my belly if I drank from Him? Or we wonder why if we have a new nature that we can’t seem to stop sinning, in the same way, over and over. I’m just throwing out examples – for each person the heavenly nudges will hit home at some different spot and some of these sentences will apply and some won’t. Unless we’ve already taken this trek and found the gold at the end of the rainbow, we are left with only part of the deal and sense there is something more; we sense there is something else promised to reach for, to have of Him. And our fear of Him will help us in myriad ways to get there.
The point is that for all of us, we’re on a pilgrimage to press on to know the Lord. Sure, we offhandedly refer to people in the Christian camp as those who “know the Lord” but to really, truly know Him, to have real encounter with Him, to eat at His table in some real sense and to sense His presence and to hear His voice and to do His will – again, the exact things that we need to grow towards are different for some of these come easy to some and difficult for others – but it is the “fear of the Lord” that pushes us in our first nudge on this journey – the fear of the Lord teaches us the wisdom of how to embark when we don’t know what step to take.
And it cycles: we may get to the fulfillment of a pilgrimage and there we lay hold on some beauteous spiritual treasure that our limited fear of Him and belief in what He said, told us to go reach for initially. But years later some new aspect of our lives in Christ may need to be reawakened to uncomfortability through the fear of the Lord, and again we learn in that fear a wisdom that pushes us to reach and grope and scramble until the answers start appearing. Fear sobers us, makes us shun mediocrity that we would otherwise settle in with comfortably, and pushes us into the unknown, eventually to cry out to Him in the distress that His fear’s wisdom has birthed in our souls, and He meets us there:
Psalm 34:17 When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.
Isaiah 42:16 (ESV)
16 And I will lead the blind
in a way that they do not know,
in paths that they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I do,
and I do not forsake them.
Without the fear of the Lord – whether it is fear of missing out on something of the Lord, or fear of His awesomeness and holiness, or fear of His power, fear of His detailed look at our lives and hearts, fear of His judgments (which is a much bigger topic than hell, btw), fear of His disappointment, fear of grieving Him, even fear of living an unfulfilled life as He teaches us to number our days (yes, fearing Him has all sorts of facets and some are more mature and developed than others, but that doesn’t really matter much) – without fearing Him, can we ever really KNOW His love fully and perfectly?
Do we know what it is to find purpose if we have never experienced aimlessness? Do we know what it is to be pardoned if we never appreciate the depth of an offense? Do we know what it is to be found if we have never experienced being lost? Do we know freedom if we’ve never wrestled against our bonds? Do we know what His pleasure means if we’ve never opening our awareness to His displeasure? Too often I think we try to nullify the vastness and depth of God by making Him a fuzzy puffball in our minds incapable of being anything that could be feared by anyone. This doesn’t help us – this might make Him more palatable for a time, but it doesn’t bring us to the depth of real encounter with Him we honestly want.
All the philosophy and knowledge and understanding about God in the universe – even when that philosophy is focused on His love – is relatively pointless if we can’t actually encounter this God, wrestle with Him like Jacob, and have real encounter with Him and His presence. And it’s pointless to know about His love, read about it, write books about it, preach about it, and try really really hard to believe it if we never can actually go swim in it – have Him touch us with it. People might tell us we’re not walking by faith and we’ve gone off the deep end into emotionalism; but in my book, Jesus died to tear a veil to make God actually, not just conceptually, accessible. If He’s not being accessed and experienced, then it might be valid to be afraid that something is wrong in what one has learned of Him and oneself thus far – it will be the beginning of wisdom that will take a pilgrim to much greater places where He has prepared a fountain of fresh water for His thirsty ones.
And that brings me to the “being made perfect in love.” I personally don’t think this is an “I’ve arrived!!” sort of thing. Just as being filled with the Spirit is not a one-time thing in our lives (the Greek actually says, “Be ye BEING filled” as an ongoing tense) nor a “haha I’ve arrived” sort of thing, so also being “made perfect in love” I believe is something we might experience at certain seasons of our walk with the Lord, but we’re not always there either. We are made perfect in love over and over again, every time we find ourselves drenched in it. It’s a similar thing I believe to what we find in John 15:9-11 (ESV):
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Being made perfect in love is not a place we arrive at simply by knowing He has loved us; we arrive there through communion with Him and participation in a shared life with Him, through learning His heart and His commands and at times through sharing in His sufferings. Being made perfect in love is not a justification thing; it’s a sanctification thing. We don’t get there just by claiming it; we get there by whatever process we eek out with Him to really come into maturity of oneness with Him. And we stumble out of that perfect communion and cry out in fear, “Lord, how did I lost my sight of you this time? I’m sinking!” and He pulls us up to walk on the water once again.
But amidst all our drama and ebbs and flow with the Lord, the fear of the Lord and the love of the Lord are our tutors, but they work together, neither one casting the other aside, as we move along the continuum between them. The fear of the Lord is not some unclean spirit needing to be cast out by love as soon as possible; rather,
“The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever.” (Psa 19:9)
At the right season in our walk, embracing the fear of the Lord is part of embracing the Spirit of God
“And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD”
Finally, we have Romans 8 which reads, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”” (ESV). But bear in mind that there is a difference between the fear that comes from a spirit of slavery, and the fear that comes from a spirit of sonship. Both result in fear – one healthy, one not so healthy. If, after reading this, someone would fall into an unhealthy sort of debilitating fear that gets in the way of drawing near to the Lord and finding peace with Him, then a wrong spirit I would say is using my words to torment. But even Biblically, sons have a certain type of fear of their Fathers:
“Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.” (Psa 103:13)
That’s all – I’ve written waaay too long a blog post and don’t have a tidy way to bring it to a close. There’s another one coming up soon on other themes that we seem to be “growing out of” in the body of Christ that we probably shouldn’t be. Till then… Heather out.
(*Note: the one clear time the NT word “phobos” almost always gets translated as “respect” and not fear is in Eph 5:33 where wives are told to “phobeo” (fear/respect) their husbands. I’m not going to tackle that in this posting because it’s already super long, except to say that while the emphasis is clearly leaning towards respect, it was probably a level of respect/fear that would seem very strange to modern marriages. And that’s a whole entirely different discussion outside of the scope of this thread.)
Other posts on fear begin right here.