What does it mean to fear God? And is the fear of the Lord a good or bad thing?
It depends what you mean. Depending on your background, the fear of the Lord can sound incredibly distasteful. If you grew up in a church that portrayed God as always waiting to strike you down for the slightest fault, then fearing God probably sounds pretty terrible.
In my pre-Christian, Roman Catholic days, my fear of the Lord (at least this is what I grew up believing) was essentially a fear of going to hell. I was taught that if I missed Mass on Sunday that was a mortal sin that needed to be confessed if I were to escape hell. As you can imagine, I feared God, but it wasn’t a good or healthy fear. I had no assurance of salvation.
I had no sense that God loved me. I felt like I could never please him, that he was always unhappy with me and waiting to punish me. I carried that unhealthy fear of the Lord into my early days as a Christian. If you asked me, “What does it mean to fear God?”, I couldn’t have given you a good answer.
A Healthy View of The Fear of the Lord
Gradually I came to understand the gospel that God so loved me he sent Jesus to die for me, and that when he saved me, he adopted me as his son and that nothing could ever separate me from his love.
But scripture talks about the fear of the Lord in a very positive manner.
Consider the words of Psalm 147:10-11:
His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.
Or consider Proverbs 1:7, which says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
I have a friend who describes his grandfather as a cantankerous old man who would sit in his chair all day and thwack him and his cousins with his cane anytime they walked in front of him. Is this what God is like?
Sitting in his chair, trying to keep people from having fun? A cosmic grouch?
Does fearing God mean that we are scared to death of him, assuming that he’s just waiting to lash out at us?
God commands us to fear him and says that he takes pleasure in us when have the fear of the Lord. Why? Does he enjoy it when we have a fear of God? I know I don’t want my children to be afraid of me. I want them to love me and enjoy being with me, not to be afraid of me.
In order to answer this question, we need to understand what it means to have a proper fear of God.
What Does It Mean To Fear God? Humility
So what does it mean to fear God?
Here’s a simple definition of the fear of the Lord:
The “fear of God” that brings God pleasure is not our being afraid of him, but our having a high and exalted, reverential view of him.
To “fear him” means to stand in awe of him:
Let all the earth FEAR the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world STAND IN AWE OF HIM! (Psalm 33:8).
You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! (Psalm 22:23)
To fear the Lord is to stand in awe of his majesty, power, wisdom, justice, and mercy, especially in Christ – in his life, death and resurrection – that is, to have an exalted view of God.
To fear God means to dwell upon his beautiful, glorious holiness which is the very opposite of sin and evil, and to revere God and know that he loves us so much that he desires us to hate and turn away from sin.
To see God in all his glory and then respond to him appropriately. To humble ourselves before him.
To adore him.
What does it mean to fear God? It means to revere and glorify and love him above all else.
We tend to be in awe of worldly power, talent, intelligence, and beauty. But these things don’t impress God because “His delight is not in the strength of the horse (mighty armies, worldly power) nor his pleasure in the legs of a man (human strength).” After all, we are simply frail, earthen vessels whom God uses for his pleasure.
But God delights in those who fear him – those who stand in awe of him – and instead of trusting in their own human abilities or resources, “hope in his steadfast love.”
This is why we must be quick to listen and slow to speak. We know that we are creatures who desperately need God, and so we don’t always voice our opinions immediately.
What Does It Mean To Fear God? Childlike Reverence
There is also a sense of “childlike” fear of the Lord. R.C. Sproul, speaking of Martin Luther, said this:
Luther is thinking of a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them. He has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves, not because he’s afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he’s afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child’s world, the source of security and love.
To fear God is to relate to him as a child relates to his strong, respectful father. We respect and honor the Lord, and we are afraid of displeasing him. Therefore we obey him.
We know that he loves us and delights in us, and we are simultaneously aware that he is holy, righteous, and above all else. We fear him in the sense that we have a deep respect for him and reverence of him.
Charles Spurgeon helpfully put is this way:
The Wicked Do Not Fear God
By way of contrast, the wicked person doesn’t fear God. He doesn’t stand in awe of God. The wicked don’t honor or revere or love God.
The wicked have a low view of God:
Transgression speaks to the wicked
deep in his heart;
there is no fear of God
before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes
that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit;
he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
He plots trouble while on his bed;
he sets himself in a way that is not good;
he does not reject evil.” (Psalm 36:1-4)
The wicked person has such a low view of God and such a lack of awe for God that he doesn’t think God can find out his sin or hate it.
He doesn’t act wisely or do good because he doesn’t view God as holy and just and serious about punishing sin. He trusts in his own wits and strength. Obviously, the Lord doesn’t find any pleasure in the wicked.
The wicked refuses to fear God.
The Fear Of The Lord Brings Great Reward
In his book The Joy of Fearing God, Jerry Bridges says:
It’s odd how little we talk about the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is a wonderful gift from God that has brought joy and gladness into my life and has spared me from unimaginable pain and suffering.
Yet I’ve never heard a message preached on it. I don’t hear Christians talking about it. It doesn’t seem to be in the forefront of many people’s minds. It may be, but I don’t hear much about it. What is this wonderful gift from God, this incredible blessing? It is the fear of the Lord.
God tells us that to fear him will lead to all kinds of wonderful blessings in our lives. For example, the fear of the Lord leads us to an abundant life.
The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death.
Sin leads to death. God wants us to experience an abundant life – a fountain of life. God doesn’t tell us to fear him to squelch our fun, but to give us overflowing joy.
The fear of the Lord gives us great confidence in life and blessing for our children:
In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.
The fear of the Lord causes us to experience God’s friendship and to know his covenant promises to us:
The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.
Let Us Have A Healthy Fear of The Lord
So let us fear God – stand in awe of him, take refuge in him, and hope in his steadfast love. For it brings the Lord pleasure when we trust in him for strength and help, not our own wits and resources.
It also serves as a protection for us. When we fear God appropriately, we stay far from sin. We don’t want to displease our good and loving father. We want to delight him.
The fear of the Lord is not a bad thing. Rather, when understood rightly, it motivates us to worship God and follow hard after him.
We know he’s our father. We know he’s good. But we also agree with Mr. Beaver in the book The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Speaking of the lion Aslan (who represents the Lord), he says:
Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.