No one has to be convinced that we live in fearful times. Anxiety and fear of danger seem to be facts of modern life. Perhaps you’re feeling more fearful than you have for a while—after all, the world has become broken and confusing in a variety of ways that scare us. Everyone experiences some anxiety and uneasiness, but I think we can all agree that we don’t need more fear. As we celebrate this Advent season, I recall what the bright angel said long ago to the frightened shepherds on the hills near Bethlehem: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” (Luke 2:8–10, NKJV). This cheerful angelic refrain can’t be repeated often enough. Every one of us needs to listen to the voice of this visitor who spoke to the shepherds. Advent tells us that a fear-based culture is anti-Jesus. God doesn’t want us to be afraid, so what should we do when the Bible tells us to fear God?
Perhaps you believe that the antidote to fearing the world is fearing God. Should we be afraid of Him instead? Is the alternative to worldly fear a reality that anticipates dread in facing God? The heaven-born message, however, is to fear not; the good news is that there is no need to be afraid. As New Testament scholar N. T. Wright expounds, “Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think—‘Be good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Don’t be afraid. Fear not. Don’t be afraid” (Following Jesus, 2014, p. 66). More than anything, God wants us to not be afraid. Stop being afraid!
So, what does it mean to fear God? In the Bible, fear has a much broader meaning than it does today. Many fear an angry God whom they cannot love, a fear fostered by religions steeped in punitive mindsets. Tragically, many people think of punishment when they think about fearing God. While fear is generally considered a negative emotion, however, the fear of God is utterly positive.
The word translated to “fear” in the Bible can refer to either fear or reverence. Fear usually implies a reaction to retribution or punishment, while reverent admiration and awe are our reactions to God in His infinite glory. We should be careful not to consider the fear of God as a negative response, for “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NKJV).
In his book God in Search of Man, Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel explains what the most common Hebrew word for “fear” means:
According to the Bible the principal religious virtue is yirah. What is the nature of yirah? The word has two meanings: fear and awe. There is the man who fears the Lord lest he be punished in his body, family, or in his possessions. Another man fears the Lord because he is afraid of punishment in the life to come. Both types are considered inferior in Jewish tradition. Job, who said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him,” was not motivated in his piety by fear, but rather by awe, by the realization of the grandeur of His eternal love.
Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is “a surrender of the succors which reason offers”; awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy.
In a sense, awe is the antithesis of fear. To feel “The Lord is my light and my salvation” is to feel “Whom shall I fear?” (Psalms 27:1). “God is my refuge and my strength. A very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the seas (Psalms 46:2–3).p. 76–77
Have you ever stood in the presence of something so extraordinarily wonderful that it hits you in the gut? Fear of God reflects a person’s awareness and overwhelming delight in the sheer beauty and utter grandeur of God. There is a rabbinical story that equates the magnitude of God’s unalterable majesty with the brilliance of the sun. In it, an emperor wants to see God, but Rabbi Joshua explains that he cannot. When the emperor insists, the rabbi invites him to look directly at the blinding sun. The emperor objects that he cannot, and the rabbi responds, “If you say of the sun, which is only one of the servants standing before the Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘I cannot look directly at it,’ how much less could you look at the Divine Presence?” (Talmud, Chullin 60a).
Anyone who desires to see God must recognize that He is mightier than the luminous nebulae strewn across the vast universe. Glimpsing the beauty of God’s majesty is more than our souls can bear; it ends our unsuitable existence, causing it to crumble to the ground. We see this when Peter glimpses God in the person of Jesus. Peter is so amazed and astonished that he falls, exclaiming, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8, NKJV). The beauty and grandeur of God are overwhelming; His is a beauty so infinite and compelling that it crushes us, shattering our self-absorption. His presence is like a mighty, thundering waterfall plunging its torrents into the unknown depths of our being (Psalms 42:7–8; 93:4).
Though the Israelites’ attitude toward God is wrought with shock and terror, Moses reassures them that there is no need to be afraid (Exodus 20:20). Moses knows there is no need to fear God—a truth the Israelites do not seem to recognize—as Moses has the opportunity to experience God. While God’s supernatural light and power remain concealed in the cleft of the rock, shrouded in a pillared cloud, Moses gets a prayerful glimpse of Him. In deepest reverence and humble admiration, Moses hides his face, trembling in awe. I am reminded of lyrics from a Negro spiritual: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
If we want God as a mere high-five buddy, we will lose this sense of divine wonder and awe. Our defenses will offer us a false sense of security as we evade the implications of connecting with the living and holy God. It’s only when we discover who God is, our knees buckling before His holy distinctiveness, that we come to truly recognize who we are and how greatly we need Him. This is what John the Baptist realizes when he declares that he must decrease while Jesus must increase (John 3:30). When we experience the magnitude of God’s overwhelming grandeur and love, we tremble like Moses. We become undone like Isaiah. The beauty of His holiness fills us with awe and amazement.
The greatest moments of awe are based in faith, which motivates our admiration of God, but faith is challenging because our minds are feeble and finite, unable to grasp the absolute beauty of the infinite. While I cannot fully comprehend this awesome God, I humbly tremble at the descriptions of Him I manage to conceive. I am both fascinated by and radically awed at His sublime beauty, and I sense the wonder of the divine. I realize that He is more beautiful than any expression of selfless love we could ever experience. As my awe of His infinite greatness and beauty grows, my faith likewise grows—for to be in awe of God’s beauty and grandeur is to grow in faith.
The remarkably insightful Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote the following:
I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and skepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.Letter to Mme.N. D. Fonvisin (Letter XXI, 1854), as published in Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to His Family and Friends,1914,translated by Ethel Golburn Mayne, p. 71
I live for these same moments—so much so that even if the truth I know were a fabrication of my finite mind, it would not matter. Christ’s loveliness eclipses everything else to inspire faith; no matter what, I will worship Him in the beauty of His holiness. I don’t say this irreverently. It is extremely intimate to have faith in Jesus’ faith, to stand with a profound sense of wonder and amazement. Christ is so beautiful that I choose Him as my constant guide through life, as a truth greater than the universe itself. The good news, however, is that this conception of God is true, and nothing is lovelier or purer. Any truth claim that does not imitate the God of Jesus is false.
Searching for a God who is both believable and real leads me to enter through the veil, the dark glass that conceals the divine from our sight. Instead of a hindering fear, I find God’s love wooing me, pulling me in. God whispers to not be afraid and dispels all my fears. This encounter I seek is not casual; I’m not looking for a buddy, as a buddy cannot fulfill the deepest yearnings of my soul. In such moments, my fear and anxiety are wiped away, replaced with radical amazement. I no longer find myself cringing in terror; slavish fear is banished. Instead, I am filled with wonder and awe, for there is no one else like Him. I find myself driven to my knees in utter reverence and humble respect for His amazing and all-powerful love. I feel His strong arms catching me and lifting me to His throne, where I am seated with the Almighty King of the Universe.
I don’t seek a tame God, mind you, but a fiercely passionate one who loves me completely and quiets my fears, freeing me to love Him. He convinces me that He is truly and thoroughly good. In this experience that transcends all joys and satisfactions, my heart trembles with attraction under the compelling power of His love, as my old self crumbles into dust. In total dependance, I rise transformed. Such a relationship compels me, drawing me ever deeper. I feel safe in the strong arms of such a fierce yet gentle lover, one who repeatedly tells my fear-prone heart, “[I]t is I, do not be afraid” (John 6:20). Thus, I am empowered to live free of fear in today’s world.
Craig Ashton Jr.