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?