When our pastor spoke several weeks ago about fear, I began to ponder fear of God and love for God. Upon hearing the message, I knew I must confess my long-standing problem with unhealthy fear—fear of God’s plans, fear of the future, fear of injury. So I prayed with a woman in our church’s prayer ministry. Then she asked me if I thought of God as my Father. Now, I know that Jesus taught us to pray to our Father, and I believe God cares about me. But on a daily basis, I don’t often think of God with that level of familiarity and closeness. After all, just the sight of God’s unfiltered glory would have struck Moses dead.
That kind of glory makes fear of God seem more appropriate than love for Him. But actually we are told to do both. The book of Proverbs speaks favorably about the fear of God (9:10, 10:27, 14:27, 19:23). And the famous passage that commands us to love God with our whole bodies and minds? It also contains a command to “fear the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5, 13).
Jesus and the New Testament writers also echoed these ideas. (See Matthew 22:34–38, Luke 7:36–47, John 14:15, and Revelation 2:4 for teachings about love for God. See Luke 12:4–5 and Philippians 2:12–13 for teachings about fear of God.)
Then we have this jewel: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NIV). In the previous verse, we see that the context is the day of judgment, but the larger context of this passage is our present love for God and love for others. John seems to be saying fear and love are incompatible.
This is not a question original to me. I have read countless definitions for the fear of God. Most settle on something like awe or reverence. But this explanation has never made sense to me. As I read some of the passages which exhort us to fear God, the fear seems to be more than a quiet awe. It sounds like terror.
In a search to answer my questions on this topic, I found an article by John Piper, “Does Fear Belong in the Christian’s Life?” Piper’s conclusion is that love for God is superior to fear of God, but that fear will always have a place in our lives this side of heaven. He says fear is an appropriate response in any moment we do not fully love God. And in this life, we all have those moments.
Fear of others, fear of the future, fear of obeying the Lord—these are not good. But fearing God when we have sinned is appropriate and healthy.
What do you think of this explanation?