The Christian tradition can seem a bit confusing when it comes to the subject of fear. Is fear a legitimate, God-given emotion, or is it something to be overcome by the power of love?
There is a strong biblical case to be made for both perspectives. On the one hand, the authors of the Bible repeatedly paint a picture of God that is the very antithesis of fear. In the 23rd Psalm, we read God’s promise to comfort us and relieve our fears:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
The author of 1st John writes in the same spirit:
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
On the other hand, the Bible is also full of statements that seem to say the exact opposite, describing fear as a virtue. For example, the Book of Proverbs states:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
And Jesus himself suggests that the true alternative to fearing the rulers of this world is to instead fear God:
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
I’ll be honest: I’m a lot more comfortable with the stream of biblical thought that promises an experience of love that totally obliterates fear. I resonate with the end-times vision of Isaiah, in which the lion lays down with the lamb. I love the apocalyptic visions of the prophets, who foretell a time when “no one shall make us afraid.”
At first glance, I’m less excited about the many biblical passages that talk about “the fear of the Lord.” In light of the fearless vision of the prophets, I find the idea of fearing God either confusing or disturbing. How can God be both the one who drives out fear, and a source of fear himself?
It’s helpful for me to remember that fear is a God-given emotion, just like anger, joy, and sadness. God created these emotions for a reason, so there must be an appropriate use for them. The authors of the Bible warn against anger, too – but it is appropriate to be angry at injustice. On the other hand, even “positive” emotions like joy can be twisted. For example, I think of God’s harsh judgment on the people of Edom, who rejoiced when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians.
If no God-created emotion is inherently good or evil, then, what is the proper role of fear? Certainly it is appropriate to fear things that will destroy us. It would be a huge problem if I did not fear walking out into a busy street filled with traffic! On the other hand, there is fear that is pathological. Far from safeguarding us, this kind of fear destroys our lives. Fear of pain could keep me from a much-needed surgery. Fear of human rejection could prevent me from expressing love and creativity.
In reality, the two streams of biblical witness about fear – the “perfect love that casts out fear” and the “fear of the Lord” – represent a coherent story about how emotions work. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, God created fear in order to benefit our lives. The fear of God – knowing that God is our ultimate reality to be loved, respected, and obeyed – put all of our other fears into perspective. Fearing God liberates us to experience lives of fearlessness in the world.
There are many reasons to be wary of “fear of the Lord” language, especially when the people preaching it are asking us to fear them. But it would be a mistake to recoil from the full spectrum of the Bible’s teachings about fear. The fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom. It’s liberation from all the false fears that have captured our lives!