Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

Archive for the month “September, 2013”

The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Conclusion)

 As we wrap up this exploration of “the fear of the Lord” in the Bible, let’s recall a couple of key observations from the first two segments. First, both the Old and New Testaments affirm fearing God as a virtue. Second, the Old Testament ties fearing God closely to loving God, as well as other surprising elements such as finding forgiveness, refuge, and hope in him.

Some consider the notion of fearing God objectionable, but we don’t have to begin with subjective responses. The Bible simultaneously commends fearing God and raises its own issues with the surface appearance of what fearing God means. In other words, we have a problem if we understand “the fear of the Lord” as being afraid of God, because the Bible points us in a different direction.

What’s Wrong with Fear?

What, we might ask, is the problem with fear in the first place? On the one hand, fear plays a valuable role in protecting us from very real dangers. In so doing, it steers us away from paths that lead to painful consequences.

On the other hand, fear tends to serve as a short-term and self-focused motivator, which greatly limits its usefulness. The fight-or-flight instinct that fear triggers can save us in situations of physical threat, but it harms us by shutting down our capacity for skills such as reasoning and empathy in less life-threatening contexts.

In addition to fight and flight, fear can also cause us to freeze. The third servant in the parable of the talents took his large amount of money and buried it because he feared the master’s wrath should he lose it. Ironically, it was this fearful response that exposed him to the anger of his master.

Fear also hinders meaningful relationships. After the first sin, Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God due to their fear (Genesis 3:8-10). Their sin was serious, but God had to draw them out before their relationship could move forward. When we are afraid of someone, the way of avoidance is understandable, but it allows no room for restoration of the relationship. The fear of the Lord, on the other hand, draws us to him.

Whereas passages like Deuteronomy 6 and 10 connect the love and fear of God, John contrasts them:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 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 4:16b-18

Notice that John does not identify the object of fear in this passage. He does connect it, however, with judgment and punishment. This concern sounds much like that of the servant in the parable of the talents, whose self-oriented “feelings” of fear led him not to please his master, but to disappoint and anger him.

A Definition?

In the end, it is difficult to provide a simple definition of “the fear of the Lord” in the Bible. It is easier to say what it is not. In seeking a positive definition we must acknowledge that the gap between God and humanity, due both to his incomparable nature as Creator in general (see Isaiah 40:10-26) and his holiness in contrast to our sinfulness (see Isaiah 6:1-5), underlies the fear of the Lord. Yet this fear also forms an appropriate response to his forgiveness and the hope he provides, as we have seen.

In the end, we should understand the fear of the Lord in a way that calls us not to run from him in terror, but to approach him humbly and gratefully. We stand in awe of his power and holiness, but also of his patience and mercy. We surrender our attempts at self-justification to his gracious provision. We submit our puny power and goals and wisdom to his will. For this reason, the fear of the Lord is “a fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:27).




The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Part 2)

In the first part of this post, we saw that the Old Testament, rather than contrasting the fear of God with the love of God, closely connects them (along with obeying the commandments). This connection, in conjunction with other factors we are about to explore, makes it difficult to reduce “the fear of the Lord” to being afraid of God.

Look to the Parallels

Most of the instances of “the fear of the Lord” in the Old Testament appear in the poetic writings, especially Psalms and Proverbs. One of the key features of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, in which two lines are closely tied together. For example:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

                        –Psalm 19:1

In this verse, the second line restates the first. Another common type of parallelism contrasts the two lines, as with the following:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

                        –Psalm 1:6

When a poetic text speaks of “the fear of the Lord” (or comparable language), that with which it is compared or contrasted should prove highly instructive as to how the biblical writers understood the meaning of fearing God.

Consider these examples:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,

but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

                        — Proverbs 1:7

Do not be wise in your own eyes;

fear the Lord and depart from evil.

                        — Proverbs 3:7

But with you there is forgiveness;

therefore you are feared.

                        — Psalm 130:4

How abundant are the good things

that you have stored up for those who fear you,

that you bestow in the sight of all,

on those who take refuge in you.

                        — Psalm 31:19

The Lord delights in those who fear him,

who put their hope in his unfailing love.

                        — Psalm 147:11

Blessed are those who fear the Lord,

who find great delight in his commands.

                        — Psalm 112:1

To parallel “the fear of the Lord” with a spirit of humility and openness to instruction is helpful but not particularly surprising. More striking, however, is its connection with God’s nature as one who forgives (Wouldn’t God be more fearsome if he was unforgiving?), who provides a source of refuge, whose unfailing love inspires hope, and whose commands bring delight.

It would be possible to substitute “love” for “fear” in these last few parallels. In fact, this substitution would probably make more sense to a contemporary reader. The fact that this is the case reaffirms the close association between loving God and fearing God in the Bible.

A brief examination of these parallels further demonstrates that defining “the fear of the Lord” as being afraid of God does not fit the biblical evidence. Interestingly, some words of Jesus in the New Testament appear to challenge this conclusion.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

                        –Matthew 10:28

Notice, however, the words that immediately follow:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

                        –Matthew 10:29-31

Jesus is attempting to encourage disciples who fear sharing the same kind of persecution directed toward him. He does so through a touching reference to “your

Father’s care.” As in this passage, the call to fear God is actually a means of removing fear. Since the call not to fear is the most frequent command in the Bible, it would be surprising if “the fear of the Lord” were to mean, “be afraid of God.”

Next: Some closing thoughts on the limitations of fear.

Post Navigation