What is the fear of the Lord? Proverbs 1:7 tells us that it is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. But how can we love God when we are commanded to fear him? Doesn’t 1 John 4:18 tell us that “perfect love casts out fear”? How can we fear God when we have been delivered by him from the condemnation for our sins? How can a healthy marriage exist when the wife lives in fear of her husband? Some people will tell you that fearing God doesn’t mean quaking in your boots before him, but a healthy respect for who he is. They might even use the example of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia to illustrate how we should respect God as we would respect a powerful lion. In the book, Mr. Beaver replies to Susan’s question about whether Aslan is safe by saying, “Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” This may be a good way to explain the fear of the Lord to children, but I hope we have grown beyond zoomorphisms. Respect and reverence are far too weak of terms to capture the fullness of what fearing God means.
The fear of the Lord is a holy adoration for God that leads to action. The fear of God is not a feeling, but activity. It is recognizing who we are in light of who God is and acting upon that knowledge. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because wisdom is the application of God’s Word to every aspect of our lives. That is why fearing God is demonstrated by turning away from evil. A man who does not fear God lives as if he is his own god disregarding God’s Word when it interferes with his pleasure. The wicked are called to fear God and turn from evil because there is a day of judgment coming when every secret of their heart will be exposed (Luke 8:17). Hebrews 4:13 tells us, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” God knows everything we do and nothing is hidden from him. This is a strong motivation to fight against sin, even when no one else is watching. We fear God by turning away from what he says is evil because our old self was crucified with him. It is the recognition that we are now dead men who are alive in Christ.
To understand the fear of the Lord, we need to understand why he should be feared. God is the one who created all things and therefore holds us accountable to him. We must give an account to him one day for how we have lived our lives. He is perfectly righteous, holy, and just and his justice is inflexible. None of us can enter into his presence and his eyes are too pure to look upon sin (Hab 1:13). On that day, every proud and boastful heart will melt before him. Those who have long rejected the offer of the gospel will be cast into hell for their sins and lack of fear of God. While they are suffering “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb,” the saints and angels in glory will both love and fear God perfectly for all eternity (Rev 14:11). The sight of the damned in hell will serve as a perpetual reminder of why God must be feared. When we meditate on our own end as either a monument to God’s glory or justice, it is impossible to reduce the fear of the Lord to mere respect.
Aaron had far more than just respect for God when he saw the dead bodies of his sons who disregarded the commands of God. He held his peace when God said, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Lev 10:3). God is the one who both gives and takes life and he can take us out of this world any time he chooses. He promises blessings for those who fear him and curses for those who disregard him: “The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short” (Prov 10:27). Fearing God is the path to peace and happiness rather than living for sinful pleasures which bring guilt and fear. Fearing God frees us from anxiety and worry when we entrust ourselves to his will. As Charles Spurgeon once said, “The fear of God is the death of every other fear; like a mighty lion, it chases all other fears before it.” When we fear God, we will not fear man.
The fear of the Lord is one of the reasons we share the gospel with others: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor 5:11). We not only fear God ourselves, but we are afraid for those we speak to lest they reject the gospel and fall under the wrath of God. We are called to fear God more than the rejection we may receive from others. If they die without Christ, their eternal existence will be a display of the perfect justice of God. And if someone had not shared the gospel with us, we would join them in hell. We are saved, not because we are better than them, but because we are covered in the blood of Christ.
But how do love and fear relate to each another? The fear of 1 John 4:18 that is cast out is the fear of condemnation that will never be ours because Christ was condemned in our place. We know that the saints in glory fear and love God perfectly at the same time. But how can this be? I think the answer to this question has to do with the relationship between love and desire. If we fear someone, we will do what he commands to not be punished. But if we love someone, we will desire to do what he commands for who he is. Because we are weak and sinful creatures, we do not have the ability to fear God. That’s why we need the love of God to do for us what moral obligation can’t. We have God’s love abiding in us if we are trusting in Christ: “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). We are able to love God because he has changed our heart and given us new desires. Because we now desire to worship God from the heart, fear for him flows naturally from our new affections which do not take delight in evil (Jer 32:40).
Psalm 147:11 is important for helping us to understand this relationship: “But the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Fearing God is described as hoping in his love. A man who does not hope in the love of God is not a man who fears him. If our hope is in God to satisfy us, then we will love him instead of sin and loving sin is the opposite of fearing God. Jesus demonstrated this throughout his life: “And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD” (Isa 11:3). Jesus delighted in the fear of God which was demonstrated in his sinless delight in the law of God. Jesus feared God perfectly in our place. When we choose sin over fearing God, we show that our delight and treasure is not in him, but in something in creation. And all idolatry and sin involves exchanging the creator for the creation as our object of worship. May we learn how to love and fear God both for what he has done for us and for who he is.