As a young Christian in my twenties, I used to cringe whenever someone talked about the fear of the Lord. To me, any kind of fear was bad. And I couldn’t escape thinking of all the times I was afraid of my own dad.
How The Fear of My Dad Wrongly Shaped My Fear of the Lord
We grew up rich in Manhattan. But riches were never enough. Rich or poor, life with my father was always scary. I remember how at age ten, I was almost always afraid of him. Being with him was like walking on a landmine where my slightest misstep could make him explode. It could be that I misplaced my house keys; or something as trivial as sneezing without having a tissue in my pocket. If I sneezed once it would be alright. But if I dared to sneeze twice, dad would immediately begin yelling at me “Graham, where are your tissues!!!” It didn’t matter where I was or who I was with. Dad’s rage could occur anywhere.
And then there was the time in 5th grade where I lost my house key and dad thought of a creative way to punish me. Back in the 1970’s, New York City was a 9 to 5 town. So while dad yelled at me on Sunday night, he had a special plan for some extra shame on Monday.
That Monday morning at 8 am just before school, he set me loose on the streets of Manhattan to look for a key store. But of course, he did this knowing the key stores would be closed until 9 am, and that I would have to wait another hour for them to re-open.
My dad was keenly aware of the shame he wanted to impose on me. The embarrassment, the humiliation of walking into class late and in front of everyone, with no excuse. And so for spite, he told me “No I won’t write you a note to explain why you were late! Now get out there and start looking!”
This was my father. This was my price for not living up to his impossible standards. And this was my only understanding of fear. So yes, I was afraid plenty. And this kind of fear was so destructive that I knew it could never be a good thing.
My Attempts To Twist Scripture To Make Fear Not Fear
Many years later, I realized that the fear of my father was rooted in brokenness and dysfunction. It was a fear that came from a hurting man. A man who tried his best to raise young kids but who could never deal with the demons inside of him.
Now, I know that the fear of my father was very different from the fear of the Lord: That unlike God-made fear, my dad-made fear could never be used to build someone up. It could only tear things down.
But back then, I just saw fear as fear. So if this was the fear I was supposed to have for God then count me out!
And yet… I knew that Scripture referred to the fear of the Lord not just once, but dozens of times! And the context of such seemed inescapable. So I was stuck either thinking I had to fear the Lord like I feared my dad, or that I had to somehow explain away the fear of the Lord into something benign and counter intuitive.
For a time, I tried to see God like He was a celestial Santa Clause. I tried to twist Scripture so that He might seem like a kindly old grandfather we should never be afraid of. But deep down I knew that didn’t sound right. All those Bible verses couldn’t be wrong.
So I struggled a lot with this. Just what was the fear of the Lord? Was it simply respect? Was it awe? Or was it really fear?
As I learned years later, it can be all three. But before going into this, it’s time to set the record straight for those who think like I did. It’s time to dispel the notion that God is anything like your own dad.
God Is Nothing Like Your Earthly Dad
Some people had great dads. But many others are still caught in the pain and shame of having bad dads. It is true that Scripture refers to God as our father. But God is nothing like your dad.
God is neither male nor female. God is a mighty King. And yet He is tender like the best of moms. God is kind enough to buy you an ice cream cone, and yet so titanic that He blasts away entire galaxies into oblivion. God is to be revered and held in awe. He is way beyond any force of nature; God is wise. God is all knowing and all powerful. God created time and space. God is magnificent. God is eternal. God is Holy and God has high standards.
The best of earthly dads don’t even come close. God is slow to anger and quick to forgive. He is ready to cause pain, even when it grieves Him to do so. God will lift up the down trodden, humble the arrogant, and most of all, He will glorify His own name, just by being who He is.
God is untameable. He is undefinable. He cannot be put into a box. He is not safe. He cannot be controlled, hoodwinked or placated by any human being. God is not a benign, kindly grandfather who looks the other way when we do evil. God is an awesome mixture of being loving and gentle, and yet holy and with divine exacting standards of goodness. God is both a God of Grace and a God of Wrath. But He is not wanton and capricious like our earthly dads may have been. God is not wild and malicious. Indeed, Scripture says that the Lord “has plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
Our God gives us the Bible, and to those who know Him, He also gives His Holy Spirit. Therefore, we can commune directly with God and He with us! This too defies our comprehension.
The God of the cosmos is so big, that He even chooses to relate to very tiny things like us, which compared to Him are impossibly minuscule. And our God delights in doing so! God is always thinking of us. We are always on His mind. But even then, our desires and our wants, and our dreams, these are always second. As they rightfully should be.
God and Mankind Are Not Equals: Which Means We Are Ill Equipped To Go about Our Own Way without Him
Think about what it means to be a good parent. Would you ever let your three year old decide if it’s OK to pay your mortgage? Would you ever allow him to sit at the steering wheel and drive your car?
Your three year old is not your co-pilot. He is not your equal. For safety, whether he likes it or not, he must sit in the back restrained in a child’s car seat. And if he tries to take the wheel while you’re driving, you as the good parent will make him dread the day he does so again!
That said, we are very much like children. If God is the head, we must be honest with our true position here. Compared to God, we are not the tail. We’re not even atoms on the tail of the tail. Like a three year old, we know virtually nothing about what is good for us. And yet, wild beyond our belief is that God still cares for us. God knows the number of hairs on our head. And He has plans for each of them.
The Lord’s Love for us is both understandable and confounding. The fact that He won’t budge from His Holy standards, but sent us Jesus so we could nevertheless abide in Him…It’s all stunning and yet unfathomable.
The God who created black holes is also the God who continues to love us. And this when He’s seen every bad thing we ever did, and every bad thing we will ever do.
No human dad comes close. This is why fearing God is far different from fearing a human being. Our human dads punished us as they saw fit. But God’s punishment is for our own good. And this brings us to the topic of good and bad fear.
Fear Is Good if It’s of the Right Thing and in the Right Manner
Ever watch a good parent yank their three year old as he tries to run across the street? The parent is yelling, the kid is terrified, and often the child is spanked good and hard right in front of everyone. In short, the kid is made to have a stupendous fear of making the same mistake twice! And woe to him if he ever does it deliberately!
You may have been that kid. Or perhaps you remember it happening to your brother or sister.
- Is it wrong for the child to be afraid of their parent when they want to run across the street without looking?
- What about if they do it again? Is it wrong for the child to be extra afraid of being punished for doing it twice? Even if by accident? What about if it was pure defiance?
We all the know the answers to these. It’s healthy for the child to have this fear. Perhaps he’s way too young to appreciate the abstract, hidden danger of an empty street where he sees no cars. But he’s never too young to appreciate THE WRATH OF MOM. So the fear of mom actually keeps the wayward child alive. It’s the fear of mom that actually keeps him safe.
So what makes us any different when it comes to God keeping us safe? We think we’re all hot stuff. But we know nothing compared to the God of the universe. Just like a child, there are so many dangers we’re oblivious to. And like a child, there are many times we’ve been warned about the danger, but we still go forward in defiance.
The Fear of the Lord Is The Beginning of Wisdom
Scripture is clear that the fear of the Lord is actually a good thing. It’s a starting point to begin a healthy relationship with the one and only true God. A God who by being who He is, will always be bigger, wiser and better than we are.
God always knows what’s best for us. Note that the Fear of the Lord is not the end of your relationship with Him. But it does create a safe space for you to learn and grow with Him as the Head of your life.
We Need This Fear as the Dangers We Face Are Things We May Not Truly Be Aware of
Sometimes, we’re just like the kid who wants to touch the hot stove or pet the barking dog. Yes, the things we need to avoid look so pleasing to us, that only the fear of the Lord will keep us from doing something stupid.
The fact is that we do “innocuous” “innocent” things which seem OK for the moment, but which in reality, can cause long term damage, sometimes for generations. This could mean anything from getting hooked on drugs, looking for prostitutes in dark alleys, or even just spending more time at work when your family really needs you.
Then, there’s the deliberate defiance that comes when you’re hurt or enraged. In these cases, you may know you’re dead against God, but because of your pain, you simply don’t care. You want to lash out anyway and are ready to accept the consequences.
At this point, the fear of the Lord can rescue you. It’s for good reason that Scripture says to be slow to speak, quick to listen and slow to become angry. Often we don’t know the facts, we misjudge the circumstances, or totally forget that this one moment of rage can ruin a lifetime of trust. So when the Love of the Lord won’t stop you…then embrace the fear. For God is not to be mocked. God is holy. And God knows what He’s doing! Don’t test Him on this. Listen to the fear of the Lord!
Other Verses on The Fear of The Lord:
- The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7
- The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. Proverbs 29:25
- Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God… 1 Peter 2:17
- So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. Acts 9:31
- Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. 2 Corinthians 7:1
- “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Luke 12:4-5
- …. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. Ecclesiastes 12:13
- Praise the Lord! Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments! Psalm 112:1
- As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. Psalm 103:13
- Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! Psalm 33:8
- By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil. Proverbs 16:6
- And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. Luke 1:50
- The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death. Proverbs 14:27
- Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. Psalm 86:11
- Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. Proverbs 3:7
The Fear of The Lord Should Magnify Not Inhibit Your Relationship with Him
As you can see from the verses above, fear can mean reverence. But it can also mean being fearful of God when you deliberately do what you know is wrong or foolish. For example: If Scripture says to honor your father and mother; be very afraid if you’re about to send your dad a hate letter!
If the Bible says to love your neighbor, be fearful of intentionally harboring hate for him! When God says you should have gratitude, be fearful if you have a chronic habit of never being grateful. When this happens, the fear of the Lord should scare you! And it should push you to ask Jesus for help.
Feeling guilty won’t cut it! Even the worst godless people feel guilty. And guilt on its own never changes anything with what’s inside of you. So instead, allow the fear of the Lord to drive you to repentance.
Confess to God that you know it’s wrong, you know you are defying Him, and that you can’t change your attitude on your own. Then ask Jesus to fill you with His love and the wisdom of what to do next. Sometimes He’ll change your heart on the spot. Or He’ll begin giving you insight and the next step to take. Most of all, be very afraid if you choose to walk away from our God. OK, you’re a drug addict or a career criminal. If you have to confess and repent 20 times a day, so be it. DO IT. Our God can meet you wherever you’re at. He’s that good. He’s that big!
Examples of Things I Refrained from Doing out of Fear of the Lord
- Responding nastily in emails to someone who hurt me
- Resorting to extreme violence with a physically aggressive ex roommate
- Cursing out someone who was cursing at me
- Avoiding doing other extreme things to others which I could not easily undo
Examples of Things I Chose To Do Out of Fear of the Lord
- Apologizing for my part of behaving badly even though I was not totally wrong
- Begging the Lord for a change of heart when my heart was so cold I didn’t want to change
(He changed my heart right then and there!)
- Going forward on His promises rather than simply pursuing all my wants, my whims and my desires
The fear of the Lord is a good thing. It’s an acknowledgment that we are not in control. It is a reminder that the Lord can bless us in all we think, say and do. And that if we ignore His warnings, it’s the Lord who can take away these blessings. This is not a salvation issue for those who truly know Him. But it is something to be reckoned with nevertheless. The Lord gives us plenty of grace and mercy. But He is worthy of our respect and obedience, even when we’re angry or hurt or scared. He is not to be taken for granted just because He loves us.
Like a parent with a child, the fear of the Lord is just the beginning of wisdom. It’s meant to drive us closer in our relationship so we can be more and more like Jesus, both outwardly and inwardly. Any guilt or fear is meant to make sure we are abiding in Him and not trying to do it on our own. And if after repenting, you are still afraid, still feeling guilty or still fearful, then ask Jesus to free you of this!
The fear of the Lord is not to make you a better Christian. It’s not to make you nicer or work harder. The fear of the Lord simply creates a space which allows you to commune with our God! So don’t be afraid of this fear. Embrace it! I know it’s rescued me from many a poor decision. And often right afterward, I get to see the Lord’s grace, His kindness and His Mercy. For that’s just who He is!
My Story (Jesus In The Shower)