The Bible is uncomfortably comfortable, even happy, with promoting a particular kind of fear.
For many of us, any experience of fear feels like an enemy to be fought and freed from. And God does free us from our fears: “I sought the Lord,” Psalm 34:4 says, “and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” Well, all our fears but one. Just three verses later, King David writes, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him. . . . Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints” (Psalm 34:7, 9). So, trusting God casts out a certain kind of fear and kindles another — even commands another: You who would be free from your fears, fear the Lord.
A significant part of maturity, then, is learning to not fear what we should not fear, and to increasingly, even gladly, fear the one whom we should.
Acquainted with Fear
When David penned these lines in Psalm 34 about fear, he had just escaped more fearful circumstances than the majority of us will ever face. The most powerful man in the land, enflamed with intense and violent jealousy, was hunting him like prey (1 Samuel 20:33). King Saul was so determined to kill David that he attempted to spear his own son to death for standing in the way.
Desperate to escape, David fled to the Philistines, that awful enemy he had warred against for years. When he entered their town, rumors spread quickly: “Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, ‘Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands’?” (1 Samuel 21:11). David realized he had crawled out of harm’s way only to find himself in equally dangerous hands. Terrified by what the Philistine king might do to him, David pretended to be insane to make himself seem pitiable and harmless (1 Samuel 21:13). Whatever fears might plague us, we have not yet needed to feign madness to survive.
“You who would be free from your fears, fear the Lord.”
And this was only one scary scene of hundreds that David faced — he fought off lions and bears by hand, he defied the giant when no one else would, he fled and hid in caves from his own king for years, he endured a betrayal and rebellion led by his own son. This man was well-acquainted with fear — with untamed, persistent, and desperate fears. And God used those fears to teach him, and us, the fear of God.
Teach Me to Fear
As David experienced freedom from his darker fears, he learned a deeper, sweeter fear. “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:11). The Christian life is filled with paradoxes, but is any more surprising than that we find freedom from fear by learning to fear?
The fear of God is a heart-level embrace of the intensity of his holy and sovereign authority over all. It is an admission that God is worthy of our admiration, devotion, reverence, and awe — but it is far more than an admission. It is a face-to-the-ground, trembling-in-the-soul, all-of-life submission to that God — a heart that senses how small, sinful, and undeserving we are next to him, and yet still dares, in Christ, to draw near to him. Those who fear God have received his grace and mercy without diminishing or marginalizing all that makes him terrifying to sinners.
In fact, the very things that would frighten us apart from grace only heighten our experience of his grace. Yes, the fear of God does humble us (Psalm 34:2), reminding us how low and sinful we are before him, but it also inspires us to seek him more. Verse 4: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” Verse 15: “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.” Verse 18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”
We can hardly conceive of a God who is both dreadful and yet compassionate, severe and yet gentle, just and yet forgiving, wrathful and yet approachable, exalted and yet available. The one who fears God refuses to forfeit what unsettles him about God, because he wants to know, enjoy, and serve the true God. He expects any God worthy of his devotion to unsettle him.
We Delight to Fear
This fear of God is not, as many wrongly assume, at odds with our joy in God, but is the weight and intensity of joy in its fullest, most beautiful bloom. Notice how closely Psalm 34 intertwines the fullness of happiness with the gravity of godly fear:
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints,
for those who fear him have no lack! (Psalm 34:8–9)
The man who fears the Lord does not find him unapproachable or unappealing. The Lord’s glory and power and wisdom and justice and mercy are all fearful to him — far above and beyond anyone or anything else in all creation — but they have also become sweet to him. All that makes God fearful now tastes and appears good, because the man trusts in him. He knows the fearful God fights for him. The fearful God protects him. The fearful God provides for him. The fearful God forgives him. The fearful God loves him. Faith has made the terrifying fearfulness of God lovely and safe.
“What if we haven’t experienced greater happiness in God because we’ve resisted anything that might make us fear him?”
This fear-filled joy and joy-filled fear is not isolated to just one psalm. Psalm 112:1 says, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!” Nehemiah prays, “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name” (Nehemiah 1:11). And Isaiah prophesies of Jesus, “his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3). And Jesus prayed that his delight would be in us, and that our delight would be full (John 15:11).
Most Intense Joy
We get to watch the apostle Peter learn this art of holy fear, after he caved more than once to the fear of man, even denying that he knew Jesus. Peter had himself “tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:3) — rejoicing with a joy that is “inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). And yet he charges the church, “Fear God” (1 Peter 2:17). And “conduct yourselves with fear” throughout your time here on earth (1 Peter 1:17). He had discovered that our joy in God and our fear of God are not only reconcilable, but inseparable.
We cannot experience fullness of joy and abundance of life if our hearts do not tremble before his greatness. Michael Reeves writes,
This right fear of God, then, is not the minor-key, gloomy flip side to proper joy in God. There is no tension between this fear and joy. Rather, this trembling “fear of God” is a way of speaking about the sheer intensity of the saints’ happiness in God. In other words, the biblical theme of the fear of God helps us to see the sort of joy that is most fitting for believers. (Rejoice & Tremble, 61)
What if we haven’t experienced greater happiness in God because we’ve resisted anything that might make us fear him? What if we have forfeited greater intensities of intimacy because we’ve shielded ourselves from aspects of him that make us uncomfortable? What if love has been harder and sanctification slower because we have subtly made God smaller, nicer, and more accommodating instead of approaching him as the consuming fire that he is?
The pathway to deeper joy and intimacy with God may be a surprising one: learn to fear him. As the prophet Isaiah says, “Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary” (Isaiah 8:13–14). Let him carry you as you wade deeper into the wild, overwhelming waves of what he has revealed to you.