I once climbed an indoor rock wall, and when I got to the top, I turned to look down, and I froze. Panic took over and I could not let go. I hung there, gripping the rope, terrified to release my hands, although I knew I couldn’t stay there forever.
What I felt at the top of that wall was fear. It wasn’t the first time I met fear. Fear and I are actually old friends. Like a shadow, fear accompanies me wherever I go. When I see spiders, I jump. When I see snakes, I run the other way. And when I think about the future, my stomach twists itself in knots.
Two Kinds of Fear
Fear is a common emotion. We might tease our friends for their fear of clowns or mice, but deep down, we all know that we have our own fears. It might not be furry creatures that startle us. Instead, we might fear being alone, or losing everything we’ve worked to gain, or being rejected. Whatever its form, fear is something we’ve all encountered at some point in our lives.
Scripture has a lot to say about fear. If we were to look up the word “fear” in our English Bibles, we’d find hundreds of occurrences. Yet in the Bible, not all fear is the same. There are two main ways that Scripture talks about it. First, there is the fear of God; second, there is the fear of everything else.
This second kind of fear that the Bible speaks of is about our desire to control the world around us. It’s the fear of losing what’s important to us, whether it be our job, our family, our reputation, our health, or our lives. Sometimes that means hiding from what we fear in the hopes that it can’t find us. Other times it means trying to control every detail of our lives, clinging tight to what matters most to us. This kind of fear pulls us away from God. It tells us that we are on our own and there is no one who cares to help us. It tells us that God is not really concerned about us. It makes giants out of what we fear, giants so big that we think even God can’t beat them.
When it comes to this kind of fear, the Bible says to abandon it. “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
A Holy Fear
Yet there’s another fear that the Bible speaks of, one that we must have. This kind of fear is good. It stands up to all our other fears. It brings wisdom, joy, rest, and life. It is a holy fear — the fear of God.
“Whoever fears the LORD has a secure fortress, and for their children it will be a refuge.” (Proverbs 14:26)
“The fear of the Lord leads to life; and he who has it rests satisfied.” (Proverbs 19:23)
“Praise the LORD! How joyful are those who fear the LORD and delight in obeying his commands.” (Psalm 112:1)
John Piper describes the fear of God as if we were caught in a terrible storm while exploring an Arctic glacier. The storm is so strong that you fear you’ll blow right over the side of the cliff. But then you discover a cleft in the ice where you can hide and find shelter. Even though you are safe, you watch the storm go past with a kind of “trembling pleasure.” He writes,
At first there was the fear that this terrible storm and awesome terrain might claim your life. But then you found a refuge and gained the hope that you would be safe. But not everything in the feeling called fear vanished from your heart. Only the life-threatening part. There remained the trembling, the awe, the wonder, the feeling that you would never want to tangle with such a storm or be the adversary of such power. . . . The fear of God is what is left of the storm when you have a safe place to watch right in the middle of it. . . . Oh, the thrill of being here in the center of the awful power of God, yet protected by God himself! (The Pleasures of God, 186–187)
To fear the Lord is to be like Moses and remove our shoes because we are standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:5). It is to be like the woman at the well who came face to face with the One who knew her so well. She encountered grace and left wonderstruck, running into the village to tell everyone, “He told me everything I ever did” (John 4:28–29). It is to be like the disciples who feared for their lives in the midst of a terrible storm at sea. But after seeing Jesus calm the storm with just his words, they stood in awe. “And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:41). As Mr. Beaver said of Aslan, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
This kind of fear is to grasp the wonder of the gospel that a holy and righteous God would take on flesh and enter into this sin-stained world to rescue us from the clutches of death. It is to be utterly blown away that, because of Jesus, we are children of God and we go freely before the throne of grace with complete confidence and without shame. It’s to see his work in our lives and be amazed at how he loves, provides, and cares for us.
Embracing the Fear of God
I hung onto that rope at the top of the rock wall as long as I could. “Just let go!” I heard a voice shout up at me. With my arms shaking and my breath coming in short gasps, I leaned back and let the auto-belay system take over. It slowly lowered me to the ground where my feet touched the ground, spent and exhausted.
I don’t want fears like that — fears that grip, paralyze, and control me. I want a fear that turns and runs to God, finding shelter in him. I want a fear that trusts him in the midst of storms, and stands in awe of his amazing grace. I want a fear that lets go of everything in my grip and trusts him to be everything I need. I want a right fear, the kind that chases away all other fears. I want the fear of God.