What is the Fear of God?

Many years ago I saw a new title by a favored author and I immediately purchased the book for two reasons:  one, I always benefited from all that author’s writings, and two, the book was on the topic of the fear of God, something I had struggled to comprehend as a believer.  So with anticipation I placed my order and as soon as the book arrived I began reading.  And while everything the author wrote was true, I also wasn’t especially helped — at least helped in the way I hoped I would be helped.

I have read more books, I have read many Scriptures, I have studied passages, I have listened to sermons, and I have  preached on the topic of the fear of God.  But I still have never felt I had a full grasp of the subject.

A few weeks ago, I saw a sale on a new book by Michael Reeves on fearing God.  Actually, it was two books [see below] — and I immediately bought copies for myself, and enough copies for our church bookstore for our Book of the Month feature in February.  I suppose that last step might have been presumptuous since I hadn’t read it yet, but I have been helped tremendously by some of Reeve’s other works, and I thought this would be the same. [Aside:  I have the highest regard for his books Delighting in the Trinity and Rejoicing in Christ.  If you haven’t read them, you should.]

I wasn’t disappointed.

Though short (72 pages), What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord? has helped me understand the fear of the Lord in ways that much longer works have not.  Scripture is clear and theologians and pastors (including me) have made a distinction between the fear of terror that an unbeliever should feel towards God and the fear of “respect” (and not terror) that the believer should experience in relation to God.

Yet it has always seemed to me that those explanations fell short of the reality of what fearing God is for the believer.  Shouldn’t my relationship with God be more than just “respect?”  Reeve’s answers are so helpful.  Consider three statements.

First, drawing on passages like Psalm 145:19-20 and the relationship between the fear of God and the love of God, he says this:

The living God is infinitely perfect and overwhelmingly beautiful in every way. And so we do not love him aright if our love is not a trembling, overwhelmed, and fearful love. In a sense, then, the trembling “fear of God” is a way of speaking about the intensity of our love for God.

The right fear of God, then, is not the flip side to our love for God. Nor is it one side of our reaction to God. It is nor that we love God for his graciousness and fear him for his majesty. That would be a lopsided fear of God. We also love him in his holiness and tremble at the marvelousness of his mercy. True fear of God is true love for God defined. [30; my emphasis]

Then, listen as he relates fearing God to joy (two concepts that are not often related):

Speaking of the happy thrill and exquisite delight of this fear is surprising language. Yet Scripture is clear that just as the fear of God defines true love for God, so it defines true joy in God. The fear of the Lord is a pleasure to believers, for it is about enjoying his fearfully lovely glory.

Blessed” or happy”—like God—”is the one who fears the LORD always” (Prov. 28:14). Thus Nehemiah prays, “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name” (Neh. 1:11).

This right fear of God is not the gloomy flip side to joy in God. Rather, it is a way of speaking about the sheer intensity of the saints’ happiness in God. It helps us to see the sort of joy that is most fitting for believers. Our delight in God is not intended to be lukewarm. Our joy in God is, at its purest, a trembling and wonder-filled—yes, fearful—joy. For the object of our joy is so fearfully wonderful. We are made to rejoice and tremble before God, to love and enjoy him with an intensity that is fitting for him.…

The nature of the living God means that the fear which pleases him is not a groveling, shrinking fear. He is no tyrant. It is an ecstasy of love and joy that senses how overwhelmingly kind and magnificent, good and true God is, and that therefore leans on him in staggered praise and faith. [32-34; his emphasis]

Finally, he draws out how fearing God is a source of strength for the believer:

The fear of the Lord also gives believers strength, especially in the face of anxieties and the fear of man. We don’t tend to talk much about “the fear of man” today: we call it people-pleasing or peer pressure. Classic signs of it are the overcommitment that comes from an inability to say no, self-esteem issues, and an excessive sensitivity to the comments and views of others. And need I even mention our fear of evangelism?

So how can the fear of the Lord free us from our anxieties and our fear of man? Essentially, it acts like Aaron’s staff, which ate up the staffs of the Egyptian magicians. As the fear of the Lord grows, it eclipses, consumes, and destroys all rival fears. So the Lord could advise Isaiah: “Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (8:12-13). When the fear of the Lord becomes central and most important, other fears subside.

Here is truth for every Christian who needs the strength to rise above his or her anxieties, or who needs the strength to pursue an unpopular but righteous course. The fear of the Lord is the only fear that imparts strength. And the strength this fear gives is—uniquely—a humble strength. Those who fear God are simultaneously humbled and strengthened before his beauty and magnificence. Thus they are kept gentle and preserved from being overbearing in their strength.

All of us are temperamentally inclined to lean one way or another. Some are natural rhinos: strong and thick-skinned, but not gentle. Others are more like deer: sweet and gentle, but nervous and flighty. The fear of the Lord corrects and beautifies both temperaments, giving believers a gentle strength. It makes them—like Christ—simultaneously lamblike and lionlike.

We need to hear those truths.  Only when we fear God — tremble and quake with delight and joy, will we be strengthened to face all the smaller fears and anxieties that tend to overwhelm us in our daily tasks.  We fear in this world, because we have not learned to fear (and love and rejoice in and be strengthened by) the One who is sovereign over and above this world.

This is a small book with a powerful and encouraging message.  Read it.  Soak in its biblical truths, delight in the God who is revealed in the book, and rest in this turbulent and troubled world.  Then use this book to minister to those you are discipling and counseling who are struggling with ungodly fears and anxiety.  And if you find this book helpful, you might also consider the expanded version of it, Rejoice and Tremble (think of this latter book as the full version and the shorter volume as the condensed version).

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