Be terrified of God! (??)

See end of post for a 4-minute audio addendum: Why all the Scary Stuff in the Bible then?

As I was reading through the opening scenes preceding the birth of Jesus in Luke 1 this Christmas, I was struck by a strange seeming contradiction.  In Mary’s song giving thanks for God reaching down to exalt the lowly (and in doing so shaming the proud and haughty), she states, “His mercy is on those who fear him.” 

Those who fear him.  So, are we supposed to be terrified of God? 

Many places in the Bible we are instructed to fear God, actually.  Now that’s confusing.  If God ultimately wants fear from his children, then why did he choose to come as an infant in a manger with animals, the least threatening thing imaginable?  If God ultimately wants fear from his children, then why did he turn the other cheek and refuse to retaliate against those who murdered him?  This is not a very scary picture of God he is painting for the world.  And let’s not forget, that in Jesus we see the highest and clearest portrayal of the character of God.  Jesus said, “if you have seen me you have seen the father” (John 14:9).  And Jesus is not scary.  Even when he’s doing the only moderately scary thing during his ministry (cleansing the temple), little children are drawn to him!  Jesus is about the least scary person ever.  Therefore God is about the least scary person ever.

So, what do we make of this “fear God” business?

Well, if you read on in Luke 1, the puzzle starts to come together.  In Zechariah’s poetic prophecy, he idealizes a situation where we “serve Him without fear.”  Wait a minute, Mary had just said that we should fear Him, now Zechariah is saying God wants us to serve him without fear.

Then, combine Zechariah’s statement with the insightful commentary by the apostle John that love and fear are mutually exclusive: “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18).

So does God want our fear or our love?  It can’t be both.  Seeing as God is defined as being love and not terror, we might ask ourselves, does love seek love or fear?  Love seeks love, and does not demand fear.

So then, what do we make of Mary’s statement and the others in the Bible that we should “fear God?”  Well, the angel Gabriel who came to Mary can help us out with this.  We know that God doesn’t want us to be terrified of him because Gabriel says “do not be afraid, Mary.”  In fact, it has been said (though I haven’t verified) that statements like “fear not,” “do not be afraid,” etc. appear 365 times in the Bible–one for each day of the year.  So we know that God didn’t inspire Mary to say that we should be terrified of God.

Plus, if we assume that she’s suggesting we should be terrified of God her statement wouldn’t even make sense in itself (“mercy on those who fear Him”).  Fear and mercy are incompatible.  If you’re terrified of somebody, you’re not experiencing their mercy, but rather, they’re inflicting psychological and emotional pain upon you.  So the fear Mary speaks of can’t be “fear” as we normally think of it.  There must be a kind of so-called “fear” that helps us experience God’s mercy.

What do we make of the numerous places in the Bible where it says we should “fear God,” then?  A fear that helps us experience God’s mercy.  Hmm.  Is there another way to understand the biblical admonition to “fear” God than is commonly thought?  Indeed there is!  As usual, a Greek or Hebrew word has more angles of meaning than one of our words, and thus their word for “fear” can carry with it connotations not of terror, but instead (and here’s the important part!) connotations of “respect” and “reverence.”  In other words, to “fear God” in the Bible means not that we’re afraid of him, but that we are willing to listen to him, that we are teachable.  The goal is not to be terrified/afraid of God, but to revere him.  Put another way, since we admire God’s character so much, and since we owe our existence and every good and perfect blessing to our loving Creator, it is fitting that we look to him as the authority that we love and respect and listen to.  That is what it means to fear the Lord.  It is the very beginning of wisdom.

It is not in God’s character to lord it over us (Matt. 20:25ff), but he knows that it is ultimately best for us to worship, admire, honor, respect, and learn from him, and not a false concept of God.  It is good for us because we tend to become like that which we admire and worship.  If we look to a higher ideal in the form of a God of love as revealed in Jesus, then it will change us; it will be good for us.  Only if we listen to (or “fear”) the one true God, the only God who is love, will we be healed of our selfish minds.

God has our best interest at heart, and he proved it by showing that he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to reach out to us and win us back to love and trust.  Since he has our ultimate good in mind, how could we do anything less than respect and honor him in his goodness and follow the ways he says are best for us–i.e. “fear God” (respect him, listen to him, follow his instructions).

We can be sure that God does not want us to be terrified of him, because what he really wants most from us is a relationship of love, an intimate friendship.  The very definition of eternal life is “knowing God” (John 17:3)–and the word “know” in the Bible means intimate relationship even marital intimacy when the context suggests, such as, “Adam knew Eve and she conceived Cain” (Gen 4:1).   And Jesus said that he wants not terrified servants, but understanding friends.  Yes, God is friendly, wants you to be his friend, and wants to be your friend–an intimate relationship.  John 15:15 says, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

In order to experience that intimacy with God, we must live within his law, the law of love, the very reality within which we were designed to thrive and live in harmony with him who made us.  But, to find what that law of love looks like in principle and in practice, we must be willing to listen to God, to “fear” God, to obediently live within the very design protocols of ultimate reality: others-centered, self-giving love.  If we don’t respect the one who made us and if we don’t seek to pattern ourselves after him, then we will remain in sin and selfishness and never experience the joy of living in relationship with a God who is love.  But if we do listen to him and follow him each day, we will experience life eternal: knowing God, intimate friendship with God.


4-minute auido addendum to this post: if God’s goal is to awaken love in his children rather than fear, then why does he deliberately evoke fear and terror in his people throughout the Bible? 


About Scott

God has given me a glimpse into his character of love, and it has changed me. My deep desire for every person is that they see Him as he truly is, forsake destructive habits of thought and living, and become a disciple of Jesus.
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3 Responses to Be terrified of God! (??)

  1. Patty Parks says:

    Scott, thank you for this post. In the New Testament believers are exhorted to serve the Lord in fear. I understand what you are saying about serving in reverence and awe and love, but just as a human father warns his children (and disciplines when there is disobedience), evoking fear in the disobedient child, does not God warn His children and evoke fear in us when we do not live according to his commands without repentance? For those who are acting un-Christian as you mention in your book, is it possible that they do so because they have no fear of God and/or do not have a repentant heart? Many of Jesus’s teachings bring this to bear (parable of the unmerciful servant, Matt 45-51)

    It used to confuse me but now saddens me today when I hear from unbelievers that “religion is the cause of all wars.” I know God my Savior, and I know that He is Love! As Paul wrote in Phil 3:17-19 “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” Paul wept over those who lived as enemies of the cross of Christ. Was he weeping over unbelievers who live as enemies of the cross of Christ? In the context, and based on Paul’s other New Testament teachings, it seems that he is weeping over those who profess to know Christ but do not live as Christ taught and lived.

    The Fear of the Lord is is a very deep subject matter and likely another great paradox. We fear, and yet we do not fear. We rest in Christ, and yet we work for Christ. But most of all, we rejoice in God our Savior and desire others to know Him — as He is! Your sister in Christ, Patty

  2. Scott says:

    Patty, thanks for the thoughtful comment! Did you get a chance to listen to the 5-minute audio addendem that addresses the question: “if God’s goal is to awaken love in his children rather than fear, then why does he deliberately evoke fear and terror in his people throughout the Bible?”

    You are very correct that God sometimes acts scary on purpose like a loving human father would. Good point! The question is: why would love act like that? Well, whom God loves he disciplines. Children need that kind of thing sometimes. Hopefully as we become mature in Christ we do not need it, but God is definitely humble and loving enough to stoop down and use methods that he doesn’t enjoy, that are not part of his character, just like a loving human father does the anger and fear thing even though he just wants trust and love with his child in the long run. At age 30, my parents no longer use fear with me because I’ve become mature. Hopefully we can get there with God where fear isn’t a part of the equation any longer, but rather, “perfect love has cast out all fear.”

    My opinion on the Christians who do not reflect the love of Christ accurately (like I mention in the book) is not that they need more fear of God. I think they’re permanently stuck with a false picture of God that he IS actually a vengeful, angry tormentor. Then their characters are shaped to be the same, and hence the wars, the torture, etc. Perhaps if they got to know the God of love, then they would be changed to become more like him. What do you think?

    You are right that religion is not the cause of all the wars. Satan and human beings who participate in his principles (so consistently found in human governments) are the cause of all the wars.

    I really like that Philippians verse you quote. It’s like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. It’s very sad to see those who should know better ruin themselves.

    • ron hackel says:

      Scott, I’m new to the sight and kind of messed up responding to just your first statement and not realizing you were writing more. The verse I supplied from Job shows that fear can mean awesome respect and love as Satan said, does Job fear you for nothing, after you have been blessed so by God. There are several more words that you should consider as being misleading in the Bible. For example the word “righteous”. Satan wants us to think of a person such as Mother Terressa as a person that is righteous. He wants you to think of a person that has led what seems to be a very upstanding moral life. This is required so that he can carry on his deception that the reason Jesus died was to pay a penalty for our acts. Consider the following use of righteous; 2 Peter 2 : 7 “and if he rescued Lot a righteous man”
      Lot was going to throw his two virgin daughters out to a sex crazed mob and later fathered his two grandchildren by these daughters. Is this the image that comes to your mind when you think of a righteous person? What made Lot righteous is that he trusted in God and left Sodom before it was destroyed.
      Another example is David.
      ACTS 13 : 22 “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.”
      David was the biggest scumbag in the Bible. He was an adulterous, lying murderer. But God loved him because he trusted God. Everytime he did something wrong he knew God would forgive him.
      This is the real meaning of a righteous person, one that puts trust in God. A person that realizes God is total love and would not abandon any of us.
      2 Timothy 2 : 13 “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”
      God is total love he can no more abandon us then a zebra can change his stripes. If you read Ezekiel or Hosea, God compares himself to a husband who’s wife has left him and is prostituting herself. In each case he takes her back although he makes the case that no one should ever have to take a wife like this back. The problem was started in heaven and it was Lucifer getting some of the angels to mistrust God. He then got Eve to mistrust God. The problem that God has to solve is restoring His name to a Universe that has been led to mistrust his name. As a God of love the only way to do this is to allow His created beings to live in a world where they have to trust themselves. We call it freewill. It is like the prodigal son you can only learn through experiencing it. If God would simply say I’m right and Satan is wrong He would have a rebellious creation on his hands. The next check-out line always seems better until you’re in it. Sin (doubting God) can not be appreciated for what it is until you experience it. Once we see the consequences of sin, as God said the problem will never happen again.
      NAHUM 1 : 9 “Whatever they plot against the Lord he will bring to an end; trouble will not come a second time.”
      There are several other words that Satan has confused us with. I’ll wait to see if you would like to comment on this and if you actually want to explore the others.

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