A Special Type of Fear

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can provoke, and it can paralyze. But the right fear can make you a friend of God.
Most people fear something. Some fear heights, others fear wild animals, and others fear spiders or snakes or sharks. In Australia, where I live, you can experience all these fears, considering Australia is filled with all these things.

Sometimes fear can be so overpowering it controls our lives. Some people, for example, won’t swim in the ocean for fear of sharks. Others can’t enjoy walking in the countryside for fear of snakes.

The Bible frequently speaks of fear. From the days of Joshua (Josh. 1:9) to the prophets in the divided Israelite kingdom, God commanded His people not to fear human threats. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah repeatedly challenged Israel not to be afraid of foreign attacks or oppression (Isa. 40:9; 41:10, 13–14; 43:1, 5; 44:2, 8; 51:7; 54:4, 14; Jer. 30:10; 42:11; 46:27–28). God’s promise of His presence and protection whatever the circumstance can counter fear and enable us to overcome it (Isa. 41:10).

In the New Testament, God told the priest Zacharias and the Lord Jesus’ mother, Mary, not to fear (Lk. 1:13, 30). Jesus told His disciples to have no fear (Mt. 10:26–33). Likewise, the Lord told the apostle Paul, “Do not be afraid . . . for I am with you” (Acts 18:9–10) and told him the same thing again during a life-threatening storm (27:24). If not overcome, fear generated by adverse circumstances can prevent God’s people from fulfilling God’s will for them.

But the Bible also mentions another type of fear, and this one leads to godliness and a closer relationship with the Lord.

A Universal Command
The Bible commands all humanity to fear God (Ps. 67:7). King Solomon wrote, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (Eccl. 12:13, NIV).

Jesus taught, “Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Lk. 12:5).

The writer of the book of Hebrews stated, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31); and later, “our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).

The apostle Peter wrote, “Fear God” (1 Pet. 2:17) to the dispersed believers in Jesus as they faced persecution for their faith. The early church walked “in the fear of the Lord and comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31) and multiplied as a result.

Paul exhorted the Philippian believers, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), knowing that God was working within them for His good pleasure (v. 13).

So how does this fear of God differ from normal human fear of circumstances? People tend to avoid bad situations, recoil from them, and flee to safety. Should people recoil from God? Does fear of God provoke or paralyze? Why is it necessary? And what does it look like for God’s people?

A Look at Both Sides
It is worth considering what happens when people do not fear God. Paul described the consequences:

Men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power (2 Tim. 3:2–5).

The fear of God restrains human wickedness. Without it, people run rampant—a truth the psalmist captured when describing the activity of the wicked man (Ps. 36:1–4) who has “no fear of God before his eyes” (v. 1). This truth also surfaces in the book of Romans (3:18).

For believers, fearing God is a characteristic of our relationship and an appropriate response to God’s absolute authority and peerless power over all creation, including us. Supernatural fear of God involves awe, reverence, and respect.

However, fearing God produces the opposite effect. It restrains human sinfulness and prompts obedience to God’s commands. It is associated with friendship with God (Ps. 25:14), salvation (85:9), fulfilled desire (145:19), divine pleasure (147:11), prolonged life (Prov. 10:27; 19:23), sound wisdom (Mic. 6:9), evangelistic motivation (2 Cor. 5:11), and progress in holiness (7:1).

Clearly, fearing God reaps much benefit for us. Such positive associations suggest its distinction from the fear of danger or harm.

A Consuming Fire
So, how do we learn to fear God? Through exposure to His Word (Dt. 4:10; 17:19; 31:12–13).

The Bible provides the knowledge of God, His moral standards for humanity, the consequences of transgressing them, the solution for such failure, and the blessing of a restored relationship with the Almighty.

Experience also helps us learn to fear God. Jeremiah wrote that, at a future time, the nations “shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and all the prosperity” that God provided (Jer. 33:9).

Ultimately, the fear of God in His people is a spiritual reality that is not manufactured by external factors. Jeremiah prophesied that God Himself will give Israel “one heart and one way, that they may fear [Him] forever, for the good of them and their children after them” (32:39).

God said, “I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. Yes, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will assuredly plant them in this land [Israel], with all My heart and with all My soul” (vv. 40–41).

Fearing God is a good thing, keeping us close to the Lord. This fact is also true of church saints, who are new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) through spiritual renewal (Eph. 2:1–10).

For believers, fearing God is a characteristic of our relationship and an appropriate response to God’s absolute authority and peerless power over all creation, including us. Supernatural fear of God involves awe, reverence, and respect.

God’s love for sinners conditions His wrath so that we can approach the holy and powerful God of Israel with the expectation that He is able to meet our needs.

A child, for example, has a healthy fear of a loving father’s discipline; and believers should regard their heavenly Father in much the same way, recognizing that God hates sin and addresses it in them through loving discipline, to which they submit (Heb. 12:5–11). But even words like awe, reverence, and respect fail to project the intensity of the biblical meaning.

Sin carries serious consequences (Gal. 6:7–8). Knowing God’s goodness in dealing with sin and His grace and mercy in providing a place for us in His Kingdom prompts us to worship Him, as expressed by Hebrews 12:28–29: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.”

Fearing God does not drive us from God but, rather, draws us to Him, knowing that (1) if we have no faith in Jesus, He will punish us for our sins for all eternity; and (2) if we have faith in Jesus, He has removed the threat of eternal judgment and provided full acceptance for us in Him (2:17–18; cf. 4:14–16). God’s love for sinners conditions His wrath so that we can approach the holy and powerful God of Israel with the expectation that He is able to meet our needs.

The very attributes (God’s absolute authority and power) that produce godly fear in us also give us confidence in Him. So, let us seek Him alone with full assurance of His greatness and goodness (10:19–22).

Photo: Adobe Stock

2 thoughts on “A Special Type of Fear

  1. G’day Max, thank you for your question. Gods’ love casts out our natural human fear of threats to our safety, because we can trust God for His sovereign care and protection from harm, or His help through the difficulties resulting from those threats. God’s love also removes the fear of judgement because as His children we are no longer under condemnation. As I mentioned in the article, two types of fear exist and this verse addresses the natural human fear that paralyses or provokes action. It does not eliminate the fear of God, which is complementary to the love of God. Just as we love and fear good parents in our childhood, so we love and fear God, the best parent, as His children. I hope this helps in understanding how these work together in our relationship to God.

  2. ​’Bonjour from ‘Paris’
    I’m reading from France.
    I really appreciated your presentation on fear and the need to fear God. However, the text of 1 John 4:18-19 has always left me wondering. How to understand this text in light of what you just said:
    1 John 4:18-19 “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, for fear involves punishment; he who fears is not perfect in love. We therefore love God, since God first loved us.” French LSG
    ​Thank you for your enlightenment.
    Max JOUAN

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