Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Should We Fear God?

Should we fear God?

Among the many old-fashioned beliefs once cherished by American Evangelicals is the conviction that people should “fear God.” Such talk can sound very strange to the neophyte or the non-theist. Some might respond with dismay, “You mean you worship a God you’re afraid of?”

Nowadays you don’t hear much said about fearing God – even from Evangelicals. Many churches are working hard to save the Christian faith from itself. Without a radical makeover, many believe that Christianity cannot survive. Just one of the many facets of the faith that many are seeking to correct is the seemingly outmoded idea that people should fear God.

Where did the idea of fearing God come from anyway?
I recently began a study of the biblical book of Proverbs. Just a few verses in I read what Derek Kidner calls the motto of the entire book, a statement about fearing God. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). The first chapter goes on to personify wisdom as laughing at foolish people whose fears become realities (Proverbs 1:26-27). When destruction comes wisdom refuses to help those who did not “choose the fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 1:28-29). In chapter two the “fear of the Lord” is placed in parallel with the “knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:5). The Proverbs have a lot to say about the fear of God (Proverbs 2:5; 3:7; 8:13; 9:10; 14:26; 14:27; 15:16; 15:33; 16:6; 19:23; 22:4; 23:17; 24:21). There’s even a promise that those who practice “fear of the Lord” will live long lives (Proverbs 10:27)!

Judging from the Old Testament book of Proverbs, the “fear of the LORD” is not a bad thing at all! What of the rest of the Old Testament?

In chapter 20 the patriarch Abraham is afraid that the men of a place will kill him and take his wife because “there is no fear of God in this place.” Apparently, the fear of God kept people from taking advantage of each other. God is called by the title “Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42, 53). Joseph told his brothers that he feared God, expecting that claim to assure them that he would not treat them unfairly (Genesis 42:18).

One of the most intense stories of the whole book of Genesis, or the entire Bible for that matter, is the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14). Abraham was commanded by God to offer his only son as a human sacrifice. This test of Abraham’s obedience served to prove one thing – Abraham feared God (Genesis 22:12). (Don’t worry; Abraham didn’t go through with it. God provided a substitute sacrifice).

In the time of Moses’ birth there was a standing order to kill all male Jewish babies. The midwives refused to conduct the infanticide because they “feared God” (Exodus 1:17, 21). While horrible plagues were being unleashed on the people of Egypt, some “feared the word of the LORD” and took steps to protect themselves from the coming judgments (Exodus 9:20). But Pharaoh did not “fear the LORD God” (Exodus 9:30). When Pharaoh and his army were drowned the watching Jews “feared the LORD” (Exodus 14:31). The new nation looked for certain qualities in its leaders – truthful men, haters of bribes, individuals who “fear God” (Exodus 18:21). Finally, in chapter 20, we see an interesting juxtaposition. Moses tells the Jewish nation not to fear. He then says that God is testing them so that they will continue to fear him and therefore refrain from sin (Exodus 20:20).

“Fear of God” is a prominent feature in the narrative (Deuteronomy 4:10; 6:2, 13, 24; 8:6; 10:12, 20; 13:4; 14:23; 17:19; 25:18; 28:58; 31:12-13).

The song book of the Bible glories in the “fear of God” (Psalm 2:11; 15:4; 19:9; 22:23; 25:12, 14; 33:8, 18; 34:7, 9, 11; 36:1; etc.). The Psalmists correlate fearing God with rejoicing, protection, honor, righteousness, favor, beauty, and intimacy with God.

This book of ancient wisdom ends with the admonition, “fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

From start to finish, this book stresses the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 8:13; 11:2-3; 29:13, 23; 33:6; 50:10; 59:19; 63:17).

This cursory overview of the “fear of the Lord” in the Old Testament yields a rather incontestable result – fearing God is a good thing. But, what about the New Testament? After all, the New Testament is considered more relevant for today’s Christians than the Hebrew Bible.

If anybody should know whether we should “fear God” it’s Jesus. He warned people to not fear humans. Instead, he encouraged people to fear God (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:4-5).

The earliest Christians feared God (Acts 9:31). Gentiles who followed the Jewish religion (without becoming full proselytes) were known as “God fearers” (Acts 10:2; 13:16).

Paul quotes the Old Testament to paint a picture of humanity separated from God, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18).

2 Corinthians
Christians are urged that they should be “perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).

The “fear of God” is presented as a basis for Christian unity (Ephesians 5:21).

According to the Hebrews writer, the proper way to worship God is with “godly fear” (Hebrews 12:28).

1 Peter
Peter urges Christians to “fear God” (1 Peter 2:17).

The Bible ends like it begins, with the “fear of God.” Those who fear God receive rewards (Revelation 11:18). An angel preaches to the people of the earth that it is time to “Fear God” (Revelation 14:7). Who can help but fear God (Rev. 15:4)? It is those who fear God who praise him and enjoy a meal with God at the end of time (Rev. 19:5).

How should we understand the phrase “fear of God”?
The words translated as ‘fear’ in some English Bibles are more flexible than our common usage of the English term. Biblical ‘fear’ can include not only terror and being afraid, but profound respect and awe. 

Typically, when the Bible speaks of the “fear of God” it is describing or prescribing an attitude within God’s own people. The primary idea isn’t that God’s people should be afraid of God. But that we should be afraid to be on God’s bad side. And everyone should maintain a deep and profound reverence for God.

Why fear God?
The Bible contains many promises for those who fear God. The blessings of the fear of God extend to society at large. A community with healthy respect for God is less oppressive than societies without the fear of God. When people don’t fear God they tend to oppress the weak. As the Bible puts it, they “curse the deaf” and “put a stumbling block in front of the blind” (Leviticus 19:14).

Fear of God leads to a good life, a life of obedience to God’s good laws. Refusal of the fear of God inevitably leads to sinful folly that will just as inevitably be ultimately regretted on the Day of Judgment. God is the final judge. Recognition of his authority to sentence sinners ought to make any sensible person think twice about breaking his laws. 

But isn’t God the God of Love?
And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  By this, love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.  There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.  We love, because He first loved us.  
                                                                                                     - 1 John 4:16-19

“Amazing Grace” is still a popular hymn, even among many of the Christians who are working to rid Christianity of the fear of God (which they see as an outdated understanding). It includes the lines “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear. And grace, my fears relieved.” These lyrics seem to echo the ancient words of the apostle John, “perfect love casts out fear.”

Every one of us has done dirty stuff. Awareness of our guilt, and the punishment that awaits us, is a wonderful gift from God. We become afraid because we know that we haven’t lived like Jesus.

The good news is that God’s grace doesn’t leave us in our fear. God’s love changes us. Because God lavished his love on us when we were still criminals we come to love him. As his love enters us and grows we are transformed into new people – people who live like Jesus. Being made perfect in love means living like Jesus “in this world.” Those who live like Jesus need not have any fear of punishment. Rather, we go to the judgment boldly. We long to see the God we reverence and love face to face.

Reclaiming a rejected teaching
The God of the Bible is no joke. He will not be mocked. When the world became full of violence he wiped out the human race with a flood (sparing just 8 people). He has sent calamity, diseases, tornadoes, and fire from heaven to punish those who did not choose the fear of the Lord. There is coming a day when every human action will be brought into judgment. For most that will be a day of horror.

Those who turn to Jesus in repentance, becoming his disciples, can go to the Day of Judgment boldly. For us, death has lost its sting. Love is waiting.

It’s time for those of us who recognize the authority of Scripture to choose and spread the “fear of God.” This proper attitude toward God brings many blessings. Spread the joy to those around you. Encourage everyone you know to choose the fear of God.