What is Godly fear?

“For they could not endure what was commanded; ‘And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.’ And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling'” (Hebrews 12:20-21; cf. Hebrews 12:28-29).

The English word “fear” has a variety of meanings, from abject terror, to respect, honor, or reverence. Fear can be a stimulus to caution and a producer of adrenalin which enables the soldier or policeman to function at a higher level. Or it can paralyze one to total inaction.

Fear is often inspired by enemies, but may also result from exposure to apparent dangers from heights, storms, or other inanimate circumstances. Some are irrationally afraid of flying; others of darkness. Most humans know well the emotion of fear. It is not unusual for us to have people tell us of their fear of flying, or their reluctance to visit strange countries, which prohibits them from coming with us to mission areas.

It is not surprising that a common reaction to God is fear. After all, what or who is of greater power and potential to harm us. God, being invisible, is largely unknown to us, so we cannot be certain of his response to what we may do.

Even Jesus said:

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

The Hebrew writer calls God “a consuming fire” and warns:

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

When Israel was assembled before Mount Sinai to be given the Covenant through Moses, God first spoke to the whole congregation out of clouds, earthquakes, fire, and thunderings. The people found this to be a terrifying spectacle, so much so that they begged God not to appear to them again directly but to speak through Moses (Exodus 19:1-20; 20:18-21). Even Moses confessed fear inspired by God’s power and holiness (Deuteronomy 9:19).

In Christ, however, we are encouraged to overcome that kind of fear of God.  Rather, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22).

“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Christians may have confidence to approach God, not in terror, but in expectation of his love and blessings.

John teaches that the more we love God, and the more we are aware of his love for us, the less we have to fear from him (1 John 4:18). God does not seek a relationship with mankind based on cowering fear, but on love.

Some, however, have gone beyond Scripture with this concept. They argue that if perfect love casts out fear, and if God loves us perfectly, then there is nothing he would ever do to harm us. Humanity, they say, has nothing whatsoever to fear from God, in this world or that which is to come. God loves us, and God would never punish or harm those whom he loves.

This is far from Biblical truth. The Hebrew writer, contrasting the covenant of fear with the covenant of love, commands, “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Hebrews 12:28).

One should not be irrationally terrorized by God, who is our loving father. But we must still have great respect and reverence for him. We know who he is, and of what he is capable. We know his love, but we also know his justice and holiness. Godly fear expresses itself in awe, in submission, and in reverent worship.

“Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:1-2, 6).

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