You Have Nothing to Fear…Except for God.

This is my favorite time of year.

After a long, hot New Mexico summer, there’s a certain relief when fall finally arrives. The nights get cool, the leaves change hue, and I can finally-FINALLY-wear jeans without feeling as I was going to pass out from heat exhaustion.

But also…it’s spooky season.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved scary things. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t like blood or gore or extreme violence. But the subtle kind of shivers (think gothic ghost stories or creepy, understated psychological thrillers) have always been one of my favorite parts about October. I enjoy the fear because I understand it’s a safe fear. A pretend fear I can banish with the click of a remote or the slam of a book cover.

My son, on the other hand, isn’t a fan.

Although he enjoys dressing up and getting candy, he generally does not enjoy Halloween. He hates scary things–even pretend scary things. He frightens easily and tends to hold on to fears with a tight grip. Even removing him from the terrifying object (be it a book, show, or even some of the more gruesome Halloween decorations around our neighborhood) does not cease to quell his apprehension.

October is not an easy month for him.

Mainly because he hates feeling afraid. Which is something I think, if we’re honest, we all can relate. Whether you’re like my son–who abhors any all things scary–or even myself, who enjoys the occasional creepy notion so long as it’s no real threat to myself, I think we can all agree that it’s no fun feeling true fear. For me, it invokes feelings of impotence, danger, and weakness. Fear implies threat, and most (if not all) of us do not like to be in situations in which we feel threatened.

So, what then to make of the use of the word fear in Bible, especially when connected to God Himself? It’s a term used over 300 times in reference to God so I believe it’s definitely not something we simply gloss over or ignore, as uncomfortable as it might make us. We are told over and over how God is loving, kind, merciful, and good….and yet within these same pages we are instructed to fear Him. In fact, several verses go much further than that; they command us to fear Him:

“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13b, emphasis mine).

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? (Deuteronomy 10:12-13, emphasis mine).

“Show proper respect to everyone. Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” (1 Peter 2:17, emphasis mine).

Not only this, but several more verses expound why we should fear God; it’s not only because we’re commanded to, but because it pleases God0–and, somehow, it’s good for us:

“The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” (Psalm 147:11)

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” (Psalm 111:10)

“The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death.” (Proverbs 14:27)

“His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” (Luke 1:50)

Although I am far enough along in my Christian walk to understand that some things I may not exactly enjoy may be good for me, owing to God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and power, this is one thing with which my heart has always wrestled. My relationship with God should be the most intimate and important one in my life; He is my Creator and my Redeemer. The world is a terrifying and confusing place; I should feel safe in the arms of my Father like nowhere else. Because, God Himself is perfect love and “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). How, then, am I to reconcile these two seemingly contradicting and conflicting feelings: love and fear?

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Martin Luther grappled with this issue all the way back in the 15th and 16th centuries. For him, the issue came down to the type of fear we’re talking about. For most of us, when we think about “fearing” something, we are describing servile fear. Servile fear is the fear a prisoner might feel for his captors, a slave would feel for his malevolent master, or–to put it in modern day terms–the way we might feel if someone put a gun in our face during a robbery attempt. It’s a feeling of anxiety experienced in the face of clear and present danger at the hands of another person.

On the other hand, there is also filial fear. The word “filial” comes from the Latin word for “family,” and it encompasses the type of a fear a child feels for his parents (IF the relationship with the parents is a healthy, nurturing, and loving one; if not, the fear would more likely be in the servile category). Filial fear is experienced in the anxiety a child feels at disappointing his or her parents. Not out of fear of punishment, but because the amount of love and respect is so high, he or she dreads letting the person down in any way.

Filial fear is much closer to the true meaning of fear when it is used in connection with God. Psalm 33:8 illustrates this beautifully:

“Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world stand in awe of Him.”

Fear here is immediately followed with standing in awe. Our fear of the Lord doesn’t stem from punitive cowering but rather from a stark and wondrous view of reality. We fear Him because we recognize Who He Is…and who we are not. He is the Creator of the Universe, the sustainer of all things, the God “who so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) We, on the other hand, are His created, mere “jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7) into which He breathed His life and offers not only a relationship with Him but also the riches of heaven and eternal life.

We should stand in awe of Him. As David wrote in Psalm 8:4-6, “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.” When we think about who God is and the amazing blessings He has bestowed upon us in relation to who we are (sinful, fallen, created things), the only natural response, I believe, is to worship Him. To live lives so mindful and reverent of the connection we are able to have with the God of All Creation that we can’t help but fear–with a filial fear–Him as we continually seek the sustainment of that relationship. I fear Him not because I think He’s going to hurt me but rather because I love and respect Him so much, I don’t want to do anything to dishonor Him.

But that’s not to say that servile fear should play no part in our understanding of God or what it means to be in relationship with Him. Sometimes our intimacy with God can mute our grasp on His wrath. Yes, God is loving, merciful, and kind…but He is also holy. And holiness is incompatible with sin, thus the threat of judgment is a very real and very sobering truth. As Hebrews 10:31 states: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Or as Jesus says in Matthew 10: 28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

And you thought Michael Myers was scary. *Shudder*

God is not to be mocked or ignored. His wrath is the most frightening thing a person can experience. Thus, servile fear is appropriate to some degree. However, this servile fear, rather than cause us to shrink away, should instead encourage us toward repentance and reconciliation with Him. Yes, the thought of God’s judgment is terrifying. But, the God who is perfect love has generously offered a way through that judgement in the sacrifice of His own Son, Jesus Christ. That knowledge, once fully understood, should be the catalyst which leads us into filial fear–a fear of the Lord born out of awe and wonder at who He is and the way He loves us.

I think William D. Eisenhower reconciled the two notions best in his article ‘Fearing God” for Christianity Today:

“Unfortunately, many of us presume that the world is the ultimate threat and that God’s function is to offset it. How different this is from the biblical position that God is far scarier than the world …. When we assume that the world is the ultimate threat, we give it unwarranted power, for in truth, the world’s threats are temporary. When we expect God to balance the stress of the world, we reduce him to the world’s equal …. 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.”

So regardless of your feelings about Halloween and all things spooky, let this be a reminder that, if you are a follower of Christ, you have nothing to fear…except for God. And that’s actually a very good thing.

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