What does it mean to “fear” God?

Q.  There’s been something that’s been eating away at me about our relationship with God.  Jesus said the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, your soul and your strength.  Okay, that might be possible if it weren’t for the  “flip side.”  In Matthew 10, Jesus said not to “fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. Fear Him, rather, who can destroy both the body and the soul in hell.”  I don’t think I’m alone in having felt far more fear during my life than love.  I don’t think anyone can truly love and trust someone they’re scared “to death” of.  People have told me that “fear of God” means “reverential awe,” but the idea of body and soul being destroyed in hell seems more like “terror and shaking” to me.

You’re right, there’s no question that Jesus told us both to love God and to fear God in the sense of being afraid of what might happen to us if we really displeased God.  But I think the essential issue is, “What is God’s fundamental disposition towards us?”  Is it to welcome and heal and bless, or is it to accuse and judge and punish?  I believe that God is both loving and just, gracious and righteous, so the real question is whether we can count on God wanting most of all to see us healed and transformed and restored, or whether God is basically out to get us, just waiting for us to mess up so he can nail us.

God’s own self-description in the Bible leads us to believe that he is fundamentally gracious and loving.  Moses begged God, “Show me your glory,” and in response God “proclaimed his name” to Moses in a special divine appearance. He said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”  Here we see the two sides of God, the side that attracts us to love him and the side that makes us afraid he will punish us and even makes us wonder how God can go after the children and grandchildren of offenders.  (But that’s for another post.) However, the loving side is clearly primary and predominant.  So we can be eager to love and please God knowing that he’s working with us to make that happen, and not looking for every chance to punish us.

I remember that when I went to the dentist once when I was a kid I reached up for some reason to try to move his hand when he was working on my teeth.  He quickly and powerfully slapped my hand away.  But then he explained patiently and kindly that I could hurt my mouth and teeth badly if I ever moved his hand while he was at work.  (Not that I’d really have had the strength to do that!)  He told me I could just raise my hand and he would stop what he was doing and listen to my concern.  So, should I have been afraid to go back to the dentist after this, fearing that he might slap me again?  Or should I have been reassured that all he wanted to do was protect me and care for me?  So long as I didn’t reach for his hand again, I could be perfectly secure and safe trusting him to care for me.

I think it’s the same way with God.  He has great power that he will use to keep us from harming ourselves and others.  But what he really wants is to help and protect us.  If we know that he wants the best for us, and that we’re working with him to help bring that about, we don’t need to have the “terror and shaking” kind of fear.  But we should still have a healthy respect for what God can and will do to protect us and others from the destructive things we might do.  And that, in itself, shows that God is essentially loving.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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