Have a Healthy Fear of God

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Professor, Tyndale Theological Seminary

The coexistence of fear with joy and human flourishing seems to be difficult for many people to understand. Yet the psalmist says, “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). Fear and joy not only can exist at the same time, but must.

The combination of fear with joy is not limited to the Old Testament; the New Testament is full of warning passages directed at Christians (or at least those who have every outward indication of being saved) which draw their motivational force from the production of fear. These warning passages exist alongside assurance passages which stress the confidence, hope, security, and joy we have in our faith.

The Fear of Fear

Nonbelievers have long mocked and rejected the role of fear in Christian teaching and proclamation. Bertrand Russell famously focused on fear in his critique of Christianity in the early 20th century. He argued that, “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. . . . Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion has gone hand-in-hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.”

Christians likewise seem terribly afraid of fear. We want to stress motivation from positive emotions such as love and gratitude, and tend to be very uncomfortable with any use of fear appeals to motivate conversion or growth in holiness. Such fear of fear, however, comes at a cost, and the warning passages throughout Scripture suffer neglect or interpretive abuse as a result.

Many Christian leaders seem determined to convince their hearers that they should never experience any emotional discomfort when contemplating God’s holiness, justice, and judgment; “the fear of the Lord” is always understood to mean respect or awe and never, we are told, indicates that we should actually be afraid of God.

Divine Threats

This avoidance of fearful exhortation directed towards believers and unbelievers based on the reality of God’s holy and just judgment was not shared by the authors of the Bible. There is no space to explore the many warning passages, but we can briefly consider several direct threats from Jesus through John to his church in the book of Revelation.

Ephesus: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5).

Pergamum: “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:16).

Thyatira: “Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works” (Revelation 2:22).

Sardis: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you (Revelation 3:3).

Laodicea: “I will spit you out of my mouth. . . . So be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:16, 19).

John did not follow up on these threats by assuring his hearers that they didn’t really apply, weren’t really severe, or didn’t mean what they seemed to mean. He doesn’t seem worried about potential emotional discomfort; fear producing threats were necessary to wake up and shake up the Christians and motivate them to repentance, perseverance, and faithfulness.

So how do we reconcile the biblical use of fear appeals and threats with our widespread cultural conviction that such rhetoric should be rejected? Recent research by argumentation theorists on the evaluation of threats in argumentation points to several points for evaluation.

Legitimate Threats

The context is key for determining whether a threat is appropriate. For example, if a salesman concludes his sales pitch by threatening to punch you in the face if you don’t buy his vacuum cleaner, the context would suggest the threat is inappropriate. Likewise, you would not want to conclude a marriage proposal with a threat. But threats are appropriate in other contexts. An academic dean can threaten a student with expulsion for plagiarism and a judge can threaten to take away your license for drunk driving. The legitimacy of a threat depends upon the context and whether the threatener has legitimate authority.

The Bible reveals a God who is sovereign and powerful, the ultimate legitimate authority. Since he is our Creator, we belong to him and he has every right to command, threaten, and judge. This reality is, of course, offensive and contrary to ideas of ultimate human autonomy and self-determination. We want to be in charge, and we want to determine for ourselves what we should and shouldn’t do, but such aspirations don’t align with reality or human capacity. We will always fail when trying to play God; our frail human bodies weren’t built for that.

Threatened by Love

A legitimate authority can still be critiqued for the inappropriate, overbearing, or cruel use of threats, but at this point the character and intentions of the threatener become very important. Is the threatener cruel, vindictive, arbitrary, and reckless or loving, caring, and kind? What does the threatener intend by the threat? Does he intend to humiliate, manipulate, and harm or does he intend the threat to lead to well-being, wholeness, and flourishing?

God’s love for us in our brokenness and sin is a major theme throughout the Bible. While we were still weak, unrighteous sinners, God demonstrated his love for us through Jesus’s death on our behalf (Romans 5:8). God’s love for rebellious and broken humanity motivated him to send his Son to rescue us (John 3:16). God intends his warnings and threats to motivate us to repentance, perseverance, and growth in holiness — this is the way to shalom, wholeness, and human flourishing. Rejection of sin and pursuit of holiness leads to a life increasingly free from debilitating addictions and the sin that dehumanizes and destroys.

Living with Fear and Joy

Healthy fear and joy in the God of our salvation not only can go together, but must. We will never find joy in God while willingly and habitually living in unconfessed sin.

I don’t find the motivation to flee temptation and sin by assuring myself that sin isn’t dangerous or that my choices don’t matter; motivation comes, in part, by recognizing the terrible danger that sin poses, even for Christians. This fear, however, is not debilitating or destructive; it motivates us to cling closer to Christ in desperate and persevering faith and trust. Such constant dependence through faith produces an unspeakable and glorious joy (1 Peter 1:8).