The Strongest Human Emotion
Boo! It’s one of the first words we enjoy. As children, we loved to leap out on our friends and shout it. But at the same time, we were scared of the dark and the monsters under the bed. We were both fascinated and repelled by our fears. And not much changes when we grow up: adults love scary movies and thrills that bring us face-to-face with our worst fears. But we also agonize over all the dreadful things that could happen to us: how we could lose our lives, health, or loved ones; how we might fail or be rejected. Fear is probably the strongest human emotion. But it baffles us.
To Fear or Not to Fear?
When we come to the Bible, the picture seems equally confusing: is fear a good thing or bad? Many times Scripture clearly views fear as a bad thing from which Christ has come to rescue us. The apostle John writes: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). Indeed, the most frequent command in Scripture is “Do not be afraid!”
Yet, again and again in Scripture we are called to fear. Even more strangely, we are called to fear God. The verse that quickly comes to mind is Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In the New Testament, Jesus describes the unrighteous judge as one “who neither feared God nor respected man” (Luke 18:2). Paul writes, “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
All of which can leave us rather confused. On the one hand, we are told that Christ frees us from fear; on the other, we are told we ought to fear—and fear God, no less. It can leave us wishing that “the fear of God” were not so prominent an idea in Scripture. We have enough fears without adding more, thank you very much. And fearing God just feels so negative, it doesn’t seem to square with the God of love we meet in the gospel. Why would any God worth loving want to be feared?
My aim now is to cut through this confusion. I want you to rejoice in this paradox that the gospel both frees us from fear and gives us fear. It frees us from our crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful fear. And I want to show that for Christians “the fear of God” really does not mean being afraid of God.
Indeed, Scripture will have many hefty surprises in store for us as it describes the fear of God. Take just one example for now. In Isaiah 11:1–3 we are given a beautiful description of the Messiah, filled with the Spirit:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
Those last two statements should make us question what this fear of the Lord is. Here we see that the fear of the Lord is not something the Messiah wishes to be without. Even he has the fear of the Lord—but he is not reluctant about it. Quite the opposite: his delight is in the fear of the Lord. It forces us to ask, what is this fear, that it can be Christ’s very delight? It cannot be a negative, gloomy duty.
Today’s Culture of Fear
But before we dive into the good news the Bible has about our fears and the fear of God, it is worth noticing how anxious our culture has become. Seeing where our society now is can help us understand why we have a problem with fear—and why the fear of God is just the tonic we need.
These days, it seems, everyone is talking about a culture of fear. From Twitter to television, we fret about global terrorism, extreme weather, and political turmoil. Our private lives are filled with still more sources of anxiety. Take our diet, for example. If you choose the full-fat version on the menu, you’re heading for a heart attack. Yet we keep discovering that the low-calorie alternative is actually carcinogenic or harmful in some other way. And so a low-grade fear starts with breakfast. Or think of the paranoia surrounding parenting today. The valid but usually overblown fear of the kidnapper lurking online or outside every school has helped fuel the rise of helicopter parenting and children more and more fenced in to keep them safe. As a whole, we are an increasingly anxious and uncertain culture.
And therein is an extraordinary paradox, for we live more safely than ever before. Though we are safer than almost any other society in history, safety has become the holy grail of our culture. And like the Holy Grail, it is something we can never quite reach. Protected like never before, we are skittish and panicky like never before. Quite simply, our culture has lost God as the proper object of fear.
How can this be? Quite simply, our culture has lost God as the proper object of fear. That fear of God (as I hope to show) was a happy and healthy fear that controlled our other fears, reining in anxiety. With our society having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming more neurotic and anxious. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns—from personal health to the health of the planet—have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds. Good things have become cruel and pitiless idols. And thus we feel helplessly fragile, and society fills with anxieties.
The Fearful Legacy of Atheism
The suggestion that loss of the fear of God is the root cause of our culture’s anxiety is a real blow to atheism. For atheism sold the idea that if you liberate people from belief in God, that will liberate them from fear. But throwing off the fear of God has not made our society happier and less fretful. Quite the opposite.
So, what does our culture do with all its anxiety? Given its essentially secular self-identity, our culture will not turn to God. The only possible solution, then, must be for us to sort it out ourselves. Thus, Western society has medicalized fear. Fear has become an elusive disease to be medicated. (I do not mean to imply here that use of drugs to curb anxiety is wrong— only that they are a palliative, at times an important one, and not an ultimate solution.)1 Yet that attempt to eradicate fear as we would eradicate a disease has effectively made comfort (complete absence of fear) a health category—or even a moral category. Where discomfort was once considered quite normal (and quite proper for certain situations), it is now deemed an essentially unhealthy thing.
It means that in a culture awash with anxiety, fear is increasingly seen as wholly negative. And Christians have been swept along, adopting society’s negative assessment of all fear. Small wonder, then, that we shy away from talking about the fear of God, despite its prominence in Scripture. It is understandable, but it is tragic: the loss of the fear of God is what ushered in our age of anxiety, but the fear of God is the very antidote to our fretfulness.