What Does It Mean To Fear God? (and what we get wrong about fear)

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What does it mean to fear God? I mean at first glance that seems kind of counter-intuitive doesn’t it? If God is a loving and caring God then why should we fear him? 

I think the problem is fear gets a bad rap in our culture. We think of fear as something unhealthy that should be avoided. And that’s certainly true of some fear. But there’s different kinds of fear and not all fear is bad.

We’ll look at what the Bible says about fearing God in a minute. But first, I want to look at a few different kinds of fear. Because to understand the fear of the Lord meaning we first have to define what fear is. 

The Different Kinds of Fear

Many view the fear of the Lord as the same fear one would have in the face of a monster, a tormentor, an executioner, or some other clear and present danger. But that is not what it means to fear God. And that’s not what God wants, He wants to be in a relationship with us not for us to cower in terror at the thought of Him.

In western culture, we tend to only view fear as one thing, but in reality, there are multiple kinds of fear. And the Biblical meaning of fearing God is different from how many of us think of fear.

Martin Luther made a distinction between the different kinds of fear that I think is helpful. He made a distinction between what he called a servile fear and a filial fear.

Servile fear is the fear that we often think of. It’s fearing of looming danger or impending torture/pain. Think of how a slave would fear their master that beats them for each indiscretion. Servile fear leads one to the servitude of a master, not out of free will rather out of unhealthy fear. 

Filial fear is much different. Think of a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father. He doesn’t want to offend or displease his father. Not because he’s afraid of a beating he will receive, but because he loves him. In fact, when he does disobey he finds grace and restoration, not condemnation. Which furthers drives the respect he has for his father. 

It’s this kind of fear that we are called to have for God. To fear God is to take the posture of that child. It means that we have awe and respect toward the majesty God. Not because we fear He’s going to torture us if we don’t. Rather, because we recognize who He is.

What The Bible Says About The Fear Of The Lord

Now that we’ve distinguished the kind of fear we are supposed to have let’s look at what the Bible says about the fear of the Lord. 

You can find a full list of what the Bible says here: What The Bible Says About The Fear Of The Lord

The Bible talks a lot about fearing God. Famously Proverbs 9:10 says that it’s the fear of God that’s the beginning of wisdom. In contrast Psalm 36:1-4 says the wicked do not fear God. Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 10:28 to not fear those who could harm them, rather to fear God who could eternally destroy them. In Acts 9:31 we are told the early church was walking in the fear of the Lord. And on it goes.

What’s clear in the Bible is that we should fear God. 

We’ll talk more about the application in a minute. But what we should notice about what the Bible is saying about the fear of God is that it’s a good thing. In other words, we should fear God. And not only should we, but there are benefits for us if we do and negative effects if we don’t. 

The fear of God is a good thing. But remember what fear we are called to have. We are called to have a filial fear, like a respect a child has for his father, towards God. That kind of fear is a good thing. 

So, What Does It Mean To Fear God?

Now that we know the kind of fear the Bible is calling us, what does it actually look like to fear God? What does it mean to fear God? 

Let’s take a look at several ways we should fear God. 

  • To fear God is to approach Him with reverence and in awe (Psalm 89:7; Hebrews 12:28-29)
  • To fear God is doing what is pleasing to Him and not what is pleasing to us or others (1 Peter 1:24-25)
  • To fear God is to understand the seriousness of our sin and damage it causes (Romans 7:13) 
  • To fear God is to represent Him well to those around us
  • To fear God is to let Him be the authority in your life and no one else
  • To fear God is to be more concerned with what God thinks of you than anyone else

If I could sum up what it means to fear God I would say it is to love Him with all our heart, to keep His commandments, and to approach Him with respect. 

Having A Healthy Fear Of The Lord

So, let us fear God. We should stand in awe of Him, find our strength in Him, listen to what He says, and place our hope in His love. Doing so brings pleasure to God and tells those around about who we serve. 

Fearing God is also good for us. It’s when we live within the boundaries that God has established that we can find true freedom and joy. We don’t live this way because of fear of a beating that ensues if we disobey. Rather respect and trust lead us to desire to follow God. 

Let me end with a quote from William D. Eisenhower in an article he wrote for Christianity Today

As I walk with the Lord, I discover that God poses an ominous threat to my ego, but not to me. He rescues me from my delusions, so he may reveal the truth that sets me free. He casts me down, only to lift me up again. He sits in judgment of my sin, but forgives me nevertheless. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but love from the Lord is its completion. Fearing God by William D. Eisenhower

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