What Does God Have To Do With Fear?

In yesterday’s Fear And Forgiveness post I centered my thoughts on Psalm 130:4 which states that a purpose of God’s forgiveness is to create fear. As some who commented pointed out, there is fear and then there is fear. So what are we talking about when we say forgiveness generates fear of the Lord?

Quite apparently this fear is not the dread of coming retribution. Forgiveness eliminates that kind of fear completely. Rather, I think it is an awesome awareness of what God is capable of.

By illustration, think of a little kid watching his dad swat ball after ball in the batting cage. Afterward he looks up in wonder and says, “Wow, Daddy, I didn’t know you could do that.”

God’s forgiveness does the same thing — it generates awe and makes us think, If He can forgive my sin, what can’t He do.

The interesting, and perhaps confusing, thing is that the God we bow before in amazement is the same God who ought to generate great fear, according to Jesus, because He has the power to judge and to condemn:

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
– Matt. 12:28

So which is it? Fear or fear?

Perhaps another illustration would be helpful. All kinds of things here on earth should generate healthy respect — guns, dynamite, fire, knives, lightning, speeding cars, pounding waves, steep cliffs, electricity, and so on.

Take electricity, for instance. It makes life as we know it in the western world possible, so if we think of it at all, our attitude is most likely gratitude. Rarely do we think to be afraid of electricity. Yet if a small child picked up a screw driver and headed for an electrical outlet, most adults would rush to intervene. And if a toddler is a regular in a home, it’s not unusual to find all the vacant outlets protected with plastic caps.

Adults don’t need to be afraid of electricity, but we have a healthy fear of it. We aren’t going to abuse it or misuse it or let small children play with it because we know the results could be deadly. At the same time, we flip switches and change light bulbs and plug and unplug electrical cords with care but not with fear. We don’t lie awake at night trembling at the thought of a potential electrical shock.

In the same way, when we are in right relationship with God, we don’t tremble in the fear that He will turn His wrath on us. Nevertheless, we recognize His wrath, and that it is a fearful thing. In fact, our fear — our awareness of His power, our awe at what He is capable of — should make us quick to run to the aid of someone who is “carelessly handling” God, who is putting himself in jeopardy because he does not himself yet fear the Lord.

Paul says it well:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.
– 2 Cor. 5:10-11a, ESV [emphasis mine]

My other fear is that false teaching about hell and God’s wrath and God’s righteous judgment will dissuade genuine Christians from seeking to persuade others. Will we become so numb to the seriousness of falling into the hands of an angry God that we forget to run to the aid of those about to thrust their fingers in a live light socket?

Published in: on April 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm  Comments (6)  
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  1. Really good analogy with the electricity – one of the better approaches to the “Fear of the Lord” idea that I’ve yet seen. Appreciate it.


  2. Well put Sister Dear!


  3. Really great post and I too love the electricity analogy.

    As there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ the fear of the Lord is a healthy and robust awe of the Creator of the Universe, the One who died and rose again, and truly has defeated that last enemy, death.


  4. Thank you all for the feedback.

    Luther, well said. How could the fear of the Lord not be healthy if it is the beginning of wisdom? It saddens me that some who name the name of Christ have such a warped view of the fear of the Lord.



  5. I like the electricity analogy, and I’ve used a similar one (I thought of fire instead, myself) in the past, but there’s a qualitative difference between the kind of fear we have for things that are safe (and only safe) when controlled and treated carefully and the fear we ought to have of God.

    Perhaps this would be a better analogy, at least for teasing out this part of it: Suppose I worked for a very large company, that despite its size was still owned lock, stock, and barrel by one individual. If one day the owner came and inspected my department, and invited me (or us) to lunch afterward, I would be quivering with fear, of a sort far beyond my usual extreme shyness, because the man has the power to fire me for any reason or no reason at all, and I could do nothing about it. But if the owner kept coming by, engaging me in conversation, sharing meals with me, and so on, eventually that fear would go away as I learned to trust him.

    That analogy isn’t perfect, because with other human beings (even those in authority over us) we can often trust them because we can go over their heads, go to the press, take legal action, or otherwise retaliate if we are treated unjustly; there is nothing we can do to God, so the only reason to not be terrified of him is that he is trustworthy.


  6. Jonathan, as you say, analogies aren’t perfect, but they do help us get a grasp on larger issues. I like your boss analogy. It’s similar to one I’ve used before about driving along and seeing a traffic cop. I’m not afraid as long as I’m going the speed limit, not weaving in and out of traffic, or cutting other drivers off. They have power, but it doesn’t make me afraid because I know it isn’t directed at me. Because of Christ, I know God’s power, which I still see and recognize and hold in awe, is no longer directed at me.

    Yes, it really does boil down to His trustworthiness assuaging my terror.



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