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.
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).