September 15, 2019
The Old Testament speaks of two emotions that the Hebrew people were to feel toward God: love and fear. Not one or the other, but both love and fear. The two went together. In Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses summarized what God expected from the Hebrew people in their mutual relationship: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul.”
When it comes to loving and fearing God simultaneously, Christians have a different outlook. We are quite comfortable with the first emotion, loving God. We claim to believe in a loving God, one who in Jesus reached out his arms to forgive, accept, and welcome us back into God’s good graces. We are eager to love such a God. However, Christians are uncomfortable with the second emotion: fearing God. We don’t understand how we can love someone whom we fear. Maybe we agree with A. S. Neil, the progressive educator and author of Summerhill, who once wrote that, although the Bible teaches that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, more often it is the beginning of neuroses.
The author Lillian Smith, in her novel Killers of the Dreams, explains how such neuroses begin. She recalls from her early childhood: “Our first lesson about God made the deepest impression on us. We were told that He loved us, and then we were told that He would burn us in everlasting flames of hell if we displeased Him. We were told that we should love Him for He gives us everything good we have, and then we were told that we should fear Him because He has the power to do evil to us whenever He cares to. We learned from this part of the lesson another: that ‘people,’ like God, and parents, can love you and hate you at the same time; and though they may love you, yet if you displease them they may do you great injury; hence being loved by them does not give you protection from being harmed by them.”
The neurotic juxtaposition of fear and love may account for why Christians, who have the greatest respect for the Bible, are uncomfortable with the Bible’s frequent command that we are to fear the very God whom we love. Whenever I have been part of a group discussing the Bible and the phrase ‘fear of God’ occurs in the text, some member of the group is invariably quick to qualify the meaning of that phrase. Few Christians like the idea that we are supposed to be afraid of God. So I often hear Christians explain that ‘the fear of God’ does not mean that we are to actually fear God, instead it means that we are supposed to respect or revere God. They are quick to tone down the disturbing attitude of fearing the Lord into a more acceptable attitude of respecting the Lord.
But I wonder if in our eagerness to make this Biblical expression more appealing and less offensive to our modern sensibilities, we shortchange ourselves and our relationship with God. The ancient Jews and early Christians had no hesitations in urging their followers to fear God. Over one hundred times the authors of the Old Testament affirmed that people should fear God. Even Jesus warned his followers that they should fear God, who has the power to cast the deceased into hell (Luke 12:5). Unlike modern believers, the ancients had no hesitation in affirming that humans should both fear God and love God.
Our awkwardness with the idea that we are supposed to fear God prompts me to ask: Why are we so fearful of fearing God? Do we seriously want to erase all fear? To paraphrase FDR’s famous inaugural speech, “Are we fearful of fear itself?”
Fear is not a dirty four letter word. Fear simply means the distressing feeling we have when we anticipate something bad happening in the future to someone we love. Most of the time I fear for myself, but I could fear for my wife, my family, my friends, or my nation. We view fear as a negative emotion, one to be avoided or subdued. But, consider for a moment the alternative. What if people had no fears? Would our lives improve? I fear not!
You may have seen when driving around downtown several racks containing numerous green bikes. These bicycles are for bike-sharing. Folks can jump on a bike, ride around town, park it at a conveniently located bike rack and leave it for someone else to ride. The idea has caught on in numerous cities as a way to cut down vehicular traffic, plus lower the carbon footprint. Several cities have tried the experiment in sharing bikes, but initially most failed. Back in 1993 Cambridge, England—a college city with lots of biking enthusiasts—launched a bike-sharing program. Their program offered free, unrestricted use of some 300 bikes strategically located throughout the upscale college town. By the end of the first day, all 300 bikes were stolen.
Organizers quickly realized that the appeal of everyone loving to ride on new bikes could not compete with the allure of taking a new bike for free. Since then, city bike sharing programs, require that everyone pay ahead and register, so that the authorities can track down whoever steals a bike. The widely-shared love for riding a bike around town works best when coupled with the fear of tracking down anyone who steals one.
Fear of punishment promotes civil societies. Every homeowner wants their neighbors to have fears. We want our neighbors to fear the police when we file a complaint against their children’s verbal harassment of our child. We want our neighbors to fear the threat of a lawsuit if they violate the zoning code and pile up rusty cars in their back yards. We want our neighbors to fear our unpleasant reaction if they throw their trash into our yard. Our neighbors’ fear of what the authorities can do protects us.
If fear is so beneficial in our dealings with one another, why do we consider fear unsuitable or even harmful in our relationship with God? Why can we not see that fear of God may be beneficial?
Dominic Johnson, in his book God is Making You: How The Fear of God Makes Us Human, cites two psychologists, Azim Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla, who compared crime statistics from countries around the world. They looked for factors, such as Gross National Product or social inequality, which could predict the national crime rates. They found a surprising factor. The most reliable predictor was fear of hell. The more a nation’s population believes in hell, they more the population fears divine punishment for misdeeds, the lower the crime rate. The fear of divine punishment curbs crime.
This statistical insight confirms what the French philosopher Voltaire said centuries ago. Voltaire, an outspoken atheist, boasted that he had no fear of God, yet he admitted that the fear of God was a protection for him. He reportedly said, “I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife to believe in [and fear] God. I think that if they do I shall be robbed less and cheated less.”
Which would you prefer, a car repair mechanic who has the fear of God in him or one who fears no one, not even a disgruntled customer?
An ancient Jewish rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, on his deathbed said: “May your fear of God be as strong as your fear of men.” The rabbi was very wise. For most humans fear what other people think of them more than they fear what God thinks. You have surely noticed that when people are tempted to act immorally, shoplift, or cheat on a test, they look around to see if any one is watching. They fear what observers might think if someone catches them in the act. But rarely, when we prepare to do something wrong, are we fearful that God will see what we are doing. The rabbi was wise enough to realize that if people feared God only as much as they do other humans, they would perform far fewer evil acts, just as the two psychologists recently confirmed.
The fear of God is beneficial, in the first place, for it protects us. The Bible offers two more benefits from fearing God. The fear of God liberates people from fear of other human beings and protects the weak from the powerful.
At first glance, the suggestion that the fear of God liberates people from fear of other human beings seems to contradict the rabbi’s proverb: “May your fear of God be as strong as your fear of men.” A story can resolve the confusion quicker than my explanation.
According to the Bible, in Exodus chapter one, an ancient Pharaoh in Egypt decided to institute a zero population growth policy among the Jewish migrant workers in his kingdom. He feared that rapid growth among this immigrant group would disrupt the status quo, threaten the Egyptian social order. Thus, he ordered the Jewish midwives to drown all the Jewish male babies in the Nile. Only female Jewish babies were permitted to live. However, two Jewish midwives, Shifra and Puah, disobeyed the Pharaoh's edict. According to the Bible, the reason for their act of civil disobedience was that “they feared God” (Exodus 1:17). Both refused to obey the king because they feared God more than they feared the Pharaoh. Their immense fear of displeasing God freed them from their natural fear of displeasing Pharaoh. They answered to a higher authority.
If you had been an expectant Hebrew mother in ancient Egypt, would you have wanted a midwife who feared God more or one who feared Pharaoh more? The fear of God in Shifra and Puah protected the lives of the helpless Hebrew babies. There would have been no Moses without the God-fearing initiative of those two midwives. There would have been no deliverance for the masses from Egypt's oppression without those two God fearing women. Their act of civil disobedience—possibly the first in Western history—brought liberation to the oppressed Jews.
The fear of God liberates believers not to fear human authorities when human structures oppose God. Also, the fear of God protects those who have no powerful allies to defend them. Frequently, when Moses gave instructions for the upper echelons of Hebrew society to protect the weak, he added the incentive clause: “you should fear the Lord.”
For example, Leviticus 19:32 says, “You should honor the aged and you should fear your God.
Leviticus 25:36 says, “You should take no interest [on a loan] for your brother [who has become impoverished] but should fear your God.
Leviticus 25:43 says, “You should not rule over [your servant] with harshness, but you should fear your God.”
Sometimes people refrain from taking advantage of another person, because they fear retaliation, or fear a lawsuit, or fear arrest, or fear embarrassing public opinion. Such fear restrains people from harming others. But when it comes to taking advantage of the aged, the helpless, the lowest class, and the immigrant, no such customary fear applies. No one is afraid of the weakest, the fewest, those with no political or no economic clout. In those instances Scripture reminds us, that even if we have no reason to fear a human being, even if we are tempted to take advantage of the weak, we ought to fear God. We ought to do what is right. For God is on the side of the weak.
To fear God is good. Fear protects us from danger. Fear liberates people from the fear of other human beings. Fear protects the weak from the powerful. To fear God acknowledges that God takes our actions seriously and holds us accountable. Such a realization may prompt us to behave more humanely, justly, cautiously, prudently.
We don’t need to excuse or water down the frequent order in the Bible to fear God. It is good for us to fear God, maybe even be afraid of God. Warning us to fear God shows that God takes seriously what we do. Not because God is capricious, out to get us someday when we are not watching, but because God is consistent, holding us accountable when no one else is watching. Fearing God is not the beginning of neurosis, some haunting suspicion that God is out to get us. Fearing God is the beginning of morality, an empowering awareness that God has standards for us. Fearing God shapes how we live, how we ought to live.
I loved my parents. They were good, decent, devout people, well-intended parents who did their best. I also had good reason to fear them, because they had expectations for their children’s behavior. As a juvenile I misconstrued their disappointment as the absence of loving me. Now that I have raised children, I realize that loving is not the same as tolerating. Fearing and loving can go hand in hand. In healthy families, both love and fear shape how children behave.
Fearing God is good for us. Christians should exercise more of it. It is good for us who need courage to stand up for what is right. It is good for the weak who need someone to stand up for them. Our society could stand more people fearing God.
I agree with Voltaire, “I think that if more people feared God, we shall be robbed less and cheated less.” Putting the fear of God into more people could make us all safer.