Am I supposed to fear God or love God? Is this an either/or proposition, and if not, what does it mean to fear God? Many Christians have been led to think that they should resolve this tension through the following dangerously oversimplified contrast: the Old Testament calls for believers in God to fear him, whereas the New Testament calls for a response of love instead.
One problem with this “solution” is that the New Testament also appeals to “the fear of the Lord” several times (see Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1; Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:17; 2:17-18; Revelation 19:5). In addition, the greatest command, to love God with all one’s being, appears in Deuteronomy 6, a passage we will consider below.
The main problem, however, remains our view of what the problem is in the first place. We tend to view the fear of God as a negative, whereas the Bible views it in a highly positive way. The wisdom writers in the Old Testament, in particular, view it as the essential foundation to wisdom (see, for example, Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7).
Let’s begin, however, by going back to Deuteronomy 6, where verse 4 exhorts Israel to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength. In the opening verses of the chapter, however, Moses precedes that exhortation with these words:
These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.
Notice that this passage not only places fearing God in close proximity to the call to love God wholeheartedly, but it also places fearing God in an interesting relationship to the commands of God. We often consider fear as a motive for obeying God, because if we don’t keep his commands we will be punished. In Deuteronomy 6:1-2, however, the commands are given “so that” we may fear him “by keeping” his commands.
Another significant passage from Deuteronomy ties together loving God, fearing him, and keeping his commandments:
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
At a minimum, passages such as these demonstrate that fearing God and loving him are seen in the Bible as non-contradictory. When we bring obeying his commands into the mix as well, we are beginning to make progress toward a healthier understanding of the fear of the Lord (as well as the love of the Lord). Rather than contrasting these ideas, the Bible ties them closely together. In fact, one could argue that the various phrases in Deuteronomy 10:12-13 are essentially saying the same thing in different ways.
Another observation may prove helpful in this connection. Our first reaction to words like “fear” and “love” is to think of them as emotions. We struggle, therefore, when we are called to “fear” God or to “love” our enemies. Those feelings may seem inappropriate (especially the latter). Furthermore, how can we feel something as a result of a command?
On the subject of loving our enemies, consider the language of Exodus 23:4-5:
If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.
These verses describe love of enemy, but they do not use the word “love.” They command us to behave in a certain way toward an enemy, not to feel a certain way. This perspective is true in general in the Bible. It might sound hypocritical to us because we don’t think we should do something if we are not “sincere.” Hypocrisy has to do with motive and intent. If we have the proper motive and intent, we do not have to feel warmth for others in order to act lovingly toward them. An increase in loving feelings typically comes as a result of loving actions, not the other way around.
Next: Positive associations with fearing God in the Bible and an attempt at a definition of “the fear of the Lord.”