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“He’s a God-fearing man,” you might hear. Israel was to “learn to fear the LORD”, Moses said (Deut. 17:19). When I was unchurched, I thought this meant to be afraid of God because He’s scary and could crush me – and that He kind of wants to! No wonder I didn’t want to know Him. The explanations I’ve heard in the church weren’t much different.
Some argue for this view because the Greek word for fear in the Bible is where our English word phobia comes from. Are we really supposed to be Jesus-phobic? Others said we should fear God because He has the power to throw us in hell. After all, isn’t this what Jesus said? Then I heard that this has more to do with awe, respect, or submission, though these were always couched in dread. I accepted this as the truth, but it seemed counterintuitive to being in a right relationship with God. But there is another solution.
When you’re putting a puzzle together and have a lot of similar-looking pieces, you have to set them all aside and try them out one by one. That’s what this question is like; we have lots of evidence with various solutions, so we need to try each one to see what fits where.
An Ancient Figure of Speech
Fear in the Bible can certainly convey emotional anxiety, even of God, but this isn’t always the case. Wives are instructed in 1 Peter 3:2 to fear their husbands (though sometimes this is softened with respect). Then four verses later he tells them to, “not fear anything” (vs. 6). Fear either has multiple meanings, or he’s contradicting himself and telling wives to be terrified of their spouses.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” John wrote after saying “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 18). If we’re consumed by the love of God, which “casts out fear”, how can God tell us to fear Him? That’s like a cop taking our license away, telling us to drive home, then giving us a ticket for driving without a license. We must be missing something.
Turns out, fear was an ancient figure of speech for something else. There are a few sides to this puzzle piece I want to tease out.
When God rescued the Israelites, they “saw the great power that Yahweh used against the Egyptians, so they feared Yahweh and trusted in Him” (Ex. 14:30). Similarly, after being rescued by God, the Psalmist said that “many will see and fear, and put their trust in Yahweh” (40:3). I can see how deliverance can produce trust, but how can it produce fear?
This is Hebrew parallelism: when similar ideas are paired up for emphasis. As the Psalmist says, “Yahweh helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked and saves them” (37:40). He’s not saying that God helps, delivers, and saves as three distinct actions; no, they’re all one. In the same way, fearing God and trusting Him overlap in meaning here.
If fear can denote trust, it makes some of the puzzle pieces fit snugly in place. It makes sense that we should “serve Yahweh with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11) if we can fully trust Him, but less so if we’re horrified of him. It makes sense that fear would deter jealousy (Prov. 23:17) if fear means we can trust God to provide for us. But if fear means dread or respect or submission, it doesn’t quite fit.
How Kindness Produces Fear
Trust is just one side of this piece. Here’s the second. God told Abraham to sacrifice his son. When his knife was about to pierce Isaac’s chest, God stopped him and said, “Now I know that you fear God” (Gen. 22:12). Abraham’s allegiance to trust and follow God was tested, and he passed. He calls this fearing God.
This nuance can be summarized as loyalty, and is evident when someone trusts God so implicitly that they follow His instructions: “fear Yahweh your God…by keeping all His statutes and His commandments” (Deut. 6:2). That’s how God’s love can produce fear – if fear means trust and loyalty. We’re faithful to Him because He was first faithful to us. This isn’t just submission. You can submit to someone you don’t trust if they have a gun to your head. This entails following Him because His ways are best for our happiness.
Here's one of the more perplexing pieces. When the Israelites were about to inherit the promised land, God said the abundance of gifts were so “that you may learn to fear Yahweh” (Deut. 14:23). Did He bless them to scare them, or to make them respect Him, or to make them submit to Him, or to lead them to trust and love Him? Which piece fits best here?
What about submission? It's true, submission to a superior can be implied by fear. Animals fear humans because we have dominion over them (Gen. 1:26). So the Corinthians received the church leader Titus “with fear and trembling” (2 Cor. 7:15). But when it comes to fearing God, it’s not simply submission because He’s bigger than us; it’s volunteered because He’s better for us.
Here's how the pieces fit together. God shows His powerful kindness by Jesus’ sacrifice – this leads us to trust Him to take care of us. This is the fear of God. By rescuing us, He demonstrates His invincible devotion to us, so we are seduced to devote all we are to Him. This is the fear of God. So long as we see that He is more powerful and kind than anyone, we won’t be tempted to betray our allegiance for another. All this is the fear of God. Trust. Devotion. Allegiance.
It's radically different from being afraid. Nor is it simply awe, respect, or submission. We can be in awe and respect of a hurricane without trusting it, just as we can submit to a superior without being devoted to them. These don’t fit all the evidence. But what about the threat of hell?
Jesus’ Threat of Hell
“I warn you whom you should fear: fear the One who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Lk. 12:5). Sounds pretty straightforward, until you read the next verse: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten by God. Even all the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not; you’re more valuable than many sparrows” (vs. 6-7). What does God’s compassion have to do with hell?
Unless He’s contradicting Himself, He’s using fear as trust, in which case the threat of hell is actually a promise of vindication against one’s persecutors: “Anyone who messes with you has to deal with Me. So don’t fear”. This flows smoothly into the next verse where He argues for God’s devotion to our safety. Protection, not threats, invoke trust and loyalty, the above meaning of fear.
If this is the case, He’s making a pun off of the dual meaning of fear (which was common), saying “You don’t need to fear people, in the sense of being afraid of them, if you fear God, in the sense of trusting Him.”
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be afraid of what God can do if we oppose Him – we certainly should be. It means that the expression, fear of God, isn’t about that. It’s more complex and beautiful than that. It’s about reciprocating fidelity, so it doesn’t conflict with God’s love; it compliments it. Then we don’t need to pretend that God is a monster wanting to hurt us, or a kidnapper with a gun in our face. We don’t need to cower from the God who cherishes us. We don’t need to tremble from the God we trust. We can run towards Him without restraint or hesitation because He wants us to feel safe with Him.
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