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Why the fear of the Lord is good news

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June 8, 2021

We live in a culture that is anxious and fearful about all kinds of things. Lack of control, loss, and a million “what-ifs” plague our thinking and grip us with fear almost daily. And though we like to think the defensive posture we take against these fears will allay our phobias and amend the dangers lurking around every corner, it leads us toward a more resolute posture of misdirected fear and moral confusion. All this, says Michael Reeves, is a “consequence of a prior loss: the fear of God.”

In his latest book, Rejoice & Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord, Reeves addresses this idea of fear head-on, and he calls the church to a retrieval of the doctrine of the fear of the Lord. And, contrary to what many may assume, doing so leads not to “morose and stuffy” disciples, but to a deep, abiding happiness and “delight in God.” 

Reeves recently spent time answering some of our questions about his excellent book. Read our interview below.

You do a lot of work in the book ensuring that the reader arrives at a proper, biblical definition of the word “fear.” How does modern culture define fear?

Our culture is a deeply anxious one. From Twitter to television we fret about global terrorism, extreme weather, pandemics, and political turmoil. Though we are more prosperous and secure, though we have more safety than almost any society in history, we are constantly looking for ways to eradicate our fears. And this should be no surprise: when your culture is hedonistic, your religion therapeutic, and your goal a feeling of personal well-being, fear will be the ever-present headache. 

But the real reason for our anxiety is our loss of the fear of God. Having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming ever more neurotic, ever more anxious about anything and everything. Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shifting sands of both morality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, we feel helplessly fragile. No longer anchored, society fills with free-floating anxieties.

When the Bible uses the phrase “fear of God,” what does it mean by that?

The right fear of God is a blessing of the new covenant (Jer. 32:39–40). The Lord promises: “They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide” (Jer. 33:9). This is not a fear of punishment. Quite the opposite: in Jeremiah 33, the Lord reeled off a catalogue of pure blessing. He would cleanse them, forgive them, and do great good for them. And they fear and tremble precisely because of all the good he does for them.

In fact, it is Jesus’ own filial fear that believers are brought to share. Jesus fears the Lord his wonderful Father (Isa. 11:3). Now it is not that he loves God and has joy in God, but finds (unfortunately) that to fulfill all righteousness he also must fear God. Quite the opposite: the Spirit who rests on him is the Spirit of the fear of the Lord, and his delight is in the fear of the Lord. This filial fear is part of the Son’s pleasurable adoration of his Father; indeed, it is the very emotional extremity of that wonder.

You say part of society’s confusion about fear and its larger moral confusion is a consequence of our collective loss of this fear of God. How does a proper fear of God calm the fears and anxieties that our culture is perpetually plagued by?

The fear of the Lord acts like Aaron’s staff, which ate up the staffs of the Egyptian magicians. As the fear of the Lord grows, it outgrows, eclipses, consumes, and destroys all rival fears. So the Lord could advise Isaiah, ‘do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread’ (Isa. 8:12-13). When the fear of the Lord becomes central and more important, other fears subside. 

To be clear, the fear of the Lord does not eclipse and consume other fears simply because it sees God is bigger than the other things I fear, though there certainly is that. It is beauty that kills the raging beast of anxiety. See, for example, how in Psalm 27 David speaks of the Lord’s ‘light’ and ‘salvation’ as the balm for his fears. Here is truth for every Christian who needs the strength to rise above their anxieties, or who needs the strength to pursue an unpopular but righteous course. The fear of the Lord is the only fear that imparts strength.

You distinguish in the book “between wrong fear and right fear.” Can you describe why, at the root of “wrong fear,” we’re likely to find unbelief? How does unbelief contribute to a confused or wrong fear?

Yes, this wrong fear of God is at odds with love for God. Where a right fear falls down in worship leaning toward God in love, a wrong fear dreads, opposes, and retreats from God. This is the fear which generates the doubt which rationalizes unbelief. It arises in good part from a misunderstanding of God. The unfaithful servant in Jesus’s parable of the 10 minas displays exactly this problem when he unfairly complains to his master, “I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man” (Luke 19:20; also Matt. 25:24, 25). He sees nothing of his master’s kindness: in his shortsighted eyes the great man is all parsimonious severity, and therefore the servant is simply afraid. He is just like Adam who, though once convinced of God’s goodness, becomes tempted by his own sin to think of God as mean-spirited and uncharitably restrictive. When people, through misunderstanding, become simply afraid of God, they will never entrust themselves to him, but must turn elsewhere for their security.

In contrast, you state that “faith is fertilized by the (right) fear of God.” How is it that a proper fear of God bolsters our faith in God?

Right fear is part of the make-up of the heart that trusts God, which is why we read in Scripture of this fear moving or giving birth to faith. The Israelites, for example, “saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Ex. 14:31). In fact, saving faith cannot be separated from the right fear of God, for we will only trust in God to the extent that we have this fear that leans toward him. Right, wondering fear prompts us to trust in God. Only a God-fearing heart will ever be a God-trusting heart.

Is there a connection between the fear of God and our love for God?

Absolutely! Sometimes fear of God and love of God are put in parallel, as in Psalm 145:19-20. Similarly, Moses equates fear and love in his summary of the law (Deut. 6:1–5). The living God is infinitely perfect and quintessentially, overwhelmingly beautiful in every way: his righteousness, his graciousness, his majesty, his mercy, his all. As such, we do not love him aright if our love is not a trembling, overwhelmed, and fearful love. In a sense, then, the trembling “fear of God” is a way of speaking about the intensity of the saints’ love for and enjoyment of all that God is. It is love for God as God.

When we have a proper fear of God, what is the result? What kind of person does this right fear form us to be?

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 as we share Christ’s own pleasure and delight in God. 

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,’ wrote Solomon (Prov 1:7). In the fear of God we know God. Any ‘knowledge of God’ that is devoid of such fearful and overwhelmed wondering is actually blind and barren. The living God is so wonderful he is not truly known where he is not worshipped and heartily adored. We who love theology need to remember that there is no true knowledge of God where there is no right fear of him. In the fear of God we also know ourselves: it is when we are most thrilled with God and his redemption that our masks slip and we see ourselves for what we really are: as creatures, as sinners, as forgiven, as adopted.

The fear of the Lord is also — and most famous for being — the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Mere intelligence is not a safe guide to walking through life wisely. We need the fear of God to steer our abilities, and without it, all our abilities are a liability. Take the brilliant young theological thug online: he may just be as bright as he thinks he is, but his untempered ability only makes him more dangerous. 

How can followers of Jesus cultivate a biblical fear of God?

Psalm 130:4 teaches us that forgiveness is the most fertile soil for growing a right fear of God. Without God’s forgiveness we could never approach him or want to. Without the cross, God would be only a dreadful judge of whom we would be afraid. It is divine forgiveness and our justification by faith alone that turns our natural dread of God as sinners into the fearful, trembling adoration of beloved children. ‘Oh! that a great God should be a good God,’ wrote John Bunyan, ‘a good God to an unworthy, to an undeserving, and to a people that continually do what they can to provoke the eyes of his glory; this should make us tremble.’1John Bunyan, The Works of John Bunyan, vol. 2 (Glasgow: W.G. Blackie & Son, 1854; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 14.

For those who sincerely desire to fear God aright but find that “right fear” elusive, what words of encouragement do you have for them? 

Know that the filial fears of Christians are the firstfruits of heaven. For when we rejoice in God so intensely that we quake and tremble, then are we being most heavenly, like the angels who fall on their faces in ecstatic wonder. But for now, Christians see in part and so we only love and rejoice in part. We hang our heads, knowing that moments of filial, trembling wonder are all too faint and all too few. But when we see him as he is, that ecstasy will be unimpaired and absolute. Now our fearful wondering at God is partial; then it will be unconfined.

Yet as we wait, the answer to our spiritual lethargy comes at the foot of the cross. At the cross you simultaneously repent and rejoice. His mercy accentuates your wickedness, and your very wickedness accentuates his grace, leading you to a deeper and more fearfully happy worship of the Savior. It is there that our resisting dread of God turns to fearful adoration.

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author