Becoming like God
The knowledge of God that the fear of the Lord brings is not a sterile knowledge. Those who fear God come to know him in such a way that they actually become holy, faithful, loving, and merciful, like him. Abraham’s faithfulness to God in offering his son Isaac, for example, is proof that he feared God (Gen. 22:12). For, like a fire in the heart, the fear of the Lord has a purifying effect: “By the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil” (Prov. 16:6; see also Ex. 20:20). It consumes sinful desires and fuels holy ones. And the word “desires” there is key, for the fear of the Lord does not keep believers from sin in the sense that it makes us merely alter our behavior for fear of punishment. Rather, it brings us to adore God and so loathe sin and long to be truly and thoroughly like him.
Becoming like God must mean becoming happy. God, after all, is “the blessed” or happy God (1 Tim. 1:11). The Spirit we are given is the Spirit of the fear of the Lord, who causes us to share Christ’s delight in the fear of the Lord (Isa. 11:2–3). To fear God is to enter that blessed divine life. You naturally expect that the fear of God would make you morose and stuffy, but quite the opposite. Unlike our sinful fears, which make us twitchy and gloomy, the fear of God has a profoundly uplifting effect: it makes us happy. How can it not when it brings us to know this God?
Notice, for example, how “the fear of the Lord” and “the comfort of the Holy Spirit” are paired in the early church’s experience: “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). For to fear God is to know the Spirit’s consolation and Christ’s own happiness and satisfaction in God.
Along with making us happy, the fear of the Lord makes believers large-hearted, like God. Think of the lovely little story of the prophet Obadiah, in the days of Elijah:
Now the famine was severe in Samaria. And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the Lord greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water.) (1 Kings 18:2–4)
Far from making Obadiah self-involved and frosty, the fear of God made him profoundly generous and compassionate to those hunted prophets in need. For the fear of the Lord is the precise opposite of hard-heartedness. Indeed, Proverbs 28:14 deliberately contrasts the two:
Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.
That softheartedness and large-heartedness toward others is actually the overflow of a prior love: our tenderheartedness and affection toward God. It means that those who fear God have—to use another much-misunderstood word—a jealousy for God. Charles Spurgeon explained:
It is one of the most solemn truths in the Bible, “The Lord thy God is a jealous God.” We might have guessed it, for great love has always that dangerous neighbour jealousy not far off. They that love not have no hate, no jealousy, but where there is an intense, an infinite love, like that which glows in the bosom of God, there must be jealousy.1
Fear gathers us together in the warm and humble fellowship of a shared love.
Such righteous jealousy should not be confused with selfish envy: it is a love that will not let go of the beloved or make do with substitutes. As God the Father is jealous for his beloved Son, and as Christ is jealous for his bride, the church, so too those who fear God find in themselves a loving jealousy for God. They become jealous in the same way that he is jealous. Adoring him, they cannot abide his glory being diminished or stolen by idols or by people. False teaching will distress them, not because it contradicts their views but because it impugns him. Self-righteousness becomes loathsome to them because of how it steals from the glory of his grace.
Then, from this sensitive appreciation of God in all his glory grows another Christlike quality: humility. “So do not become proud, but fear,” wrote Paul (Rom. 11:20), for trembling in wonder at God keeps one from trusting in oneself. It is the key to true humility, which is not about trying to think less of yourself or trying to think of yourself less but about marveling more at him. A true and happy fear of God simply eclipses self. It is, in other words, the antidote to pride and the prayerlessness that springs from pride. When God is so marvelous in our eyes that we rejoice and tremble, we cannot but praise him and throw ourselves on him in hearty and dependent prayer. We cannot be great in our own eyes or self-dependent. Not only that, but this fear levels and unites us as a church. In light of God’s merciful magnificence, we find ourselves leveled before him as mere creatures and sinners. This fear admits no boasting before God and so admits no elite and no second-class in the church. And because this fear is such a loving adoration, it also binds together all who are leveled before God. Fear gathers us together in the warm and humble fellowship of a shared love.
Joyful, loving, humble, and jealous for God, the right fear of God makes the difference between hollow, devilish religiosity and beautiful, Christlike believers. It also makes the difference between hollow, grasping, professionalized ministries and life-giving ministries of delighted and satisfied integrity.
- C. H. Spurgeon, “Godly Fear and Its Goodly Consequence,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, 63 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1917), 22:233.