Perhaps you’ve heard, as I have, that there are 365 “fear nots” in the Bible – one for every day of the year. The impression given is that fear is a bad thing, something we should resist, avoid and turn from. The problem is that we are also told in Scripture to fear God. So are we to fear or not fear?
Some argue that the fear talked about when speaking about God is simply, or only, a deep respect. The problem is that when we read of encounters with God in the Bible, the people encountered appear to be more than simply respectful, they seem afraid.
When Daniel had a vision of the Lord he records this:
I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; those who were with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless. (Dan. 10:7,8).
This seems to be a great deal more than simply respect. And in Isaiah we are told this:
The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread. (Isaiah 8:13)
Dread is not often a word one associates with respect.
I am not arguing that we are not to respect God but it seems that quaking, awe-struck fear in the presence of God is appropriate. And it is appropriate because it is a deeply visceral act of homage. Fear is an act of surrender, the giving of our hearts, to that which we fear. This is why the Bible so often tells people to “fear not”; giving to something other than God such power over our hearts is idolatrous. And that is why we never read of God telling people to “fear not” in His presence, but only to “fear not” those things that are created.
Leveraging our Emotional Resources
As with most resources like time and money, we only have a limited amount of emotional energy. Therefore, it is important that we steward those emotional resources appropriately. When we invest our emotional resources fearing what ought not to be feared we strengthen the power of it’s hold in our lives. As N.T. Wright so ably explains, “when humans worship part of creation or forces within creation, they give away their power to those aspects of the created order, which will then come to rule over them.” This helps to explain why the first listed of those being thrown in to the lake of fire are the cowardly (Rev. 21:8). The coward is the one who has given rule of his or her heart to another other than God.
So what does this have to do with the mission of God? It does not take a prophet to see that we are in the midst of great upheaval. Threats of nuclear attacks, violence on streets and greater polarization on views on many contentious topics are everywhere. It’s enough to drive people to live their life out of fear; either aggressive and violent or in retreat. But this is exactly what we cannot do. The pre-exilic advice given by the Lord to Isaiah just prior to the Assyrian invasion is appropriate for those seeking to live faithfully under His reign today:
Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy;do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread. (Isaiah 8:12 – 13)
Our witness to God’s reign is observed by others by what we fear. To live missionally in the uncertainty of cultural upheaval, is not to live without fear, but with right ordered fear. To live in confident trust of a sovereign King who remains in control and who alone is worthy of our worship, even, and perhaps especially, the worship of our heart’s fear.