Finding Freedom from fear in the fear of God
The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. (Pr 1:7)
When I was a kid, I read CS Lewis’ Narnia series from cover to cover many times. One of my favourite passages is the part in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the children first discover that ‘Aslan,’ the king of Narnia, is actually a lion:
“Ooh,” said Susan, “I though he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie.” said Mrs. Beaver. “And make no mistake, if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knee’s knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then isn’t he safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you!”
Mrs. Beaver’s wise words are a pretty good paraphrase (at least I think so) of Proverbs 1:7. It is silly not to fear God. When you consider that God created everything that is; that he is the most powerful being in the universe; that quite literally, whether we live or die depends upon his whim and pleasure, it is not difficult to see why fear is the proper disposition towards God, and indeed the only reasonable response.
But we have a problem, don’t we? Here it is, as simply as I can put it. Fear, at least as we understand it, is not a good thing. God is a good God. Why then would he want us to fear him? This is the core of it, but there are other problems too. We know from 1 John 4:18 that “there is no fear in love. . .perfect love drives out fear.” If love and fear are incompatible, how can God be simultaneously loving (not just ‘loving’ but Love itself) and fear inspiring? Furthermore, I have often heard that faith is the opposite of fear. Can we then have both faith in God and fear of God? In order to understand this, we need to understand a little bit more about what fear is and how it works.
First of all, we need to distinguish between fear as an experience and fear as a belief. All of us know what it is to experience fear. It is, first of all, an emotional reaction to certain stimuli. An example that I understand well is the fear of heights. When I stand near the edge of a cliff, or even look down out of the window of a very tall building I experience fear. For me, this goes beyond an emotional experience to a physical one. It is like a sudden churning on the inside that some describe as ‘butterflies.’ For some, this sensation can spiral out of control and lead to panic attacks. Many people experience a debilitating level of fear that prevents them from leading a normal life.
But behind the physical and emotional experience of fear is the substance of fear. This can be described as a belief that one is subject to the power of someone or something, a circumstance or person that is either bad or unpredictable. Think about it for a moment. My cliffside experience stems from my belief that I am subject to the force of gravity and that if I were to fall, this force, while utterly consistent, would not be acting in my best interest. This belief is actually correct and for that reason, it is called a ‘rational fear.’ However, my irrational and disproportionate reaction can best be explained by a traumatic event that I experience a long time ago when I fell from a flying fox (US: zipline) and was severely injured by the landing. There are, of course, also irrational fears, but my point is that a belief, whether conscious or subconscious always underlies the experience of fear. And that belief has to do with being subject to the power of somebody or something.
We may fear our financial future, but if we do, it is only because we believe that we are subject to the power of money. Many of us fear failure, but it is only because we believe that failure has the power to define who we are. Likewise many of us live in fear of the opinions of others. But this is because we believe that somehow our identity is subject to their judgment.
Seen in that way, fear is not the opposite to faith, but its complement. To fear something or someone means to believe that they are more powerful than us and we are subject to that power. And that is why every fear, (except one) is bad. Nothing and no-one is perfectly and consistently Good all the time. (Recall that gravity is consistent though not always, good, at least from the perspective of those who have fallen foul of it). And so to believe that we are subject to the power of anyone or anything except God, is a vulnerable and scary—even for some a debilitating—place to be.
But God is Good. And, what’s more he is consistently good. He is good, all the time. So to fear God is a radically different experience than fearing anything else. Because to fear God is to believe that we are subject to him, and that he may exercise power over us. And to be subject to the power of one who is Goodness, and Love personified, who is able to work all things together for the good of those who love him, is profoundly positive. The fear of God is simply faith in his character—the right belief about who and what he is. That is why I can say that while I fear God, I am not scared of him. But there’s more. When we properly fear God, that is, when we really believe that we are subject to God’s power and Goodness, then we are truly free, because it is impossible to fear God and to fear anything else at the same time. If I am subject to God’s approval, then nobody else’s opinion of me can possibly matter. If I am subject to God’s provision, then no financial setback has the power to deny me my destiny. If I am subject to God’s plan, I have nothing to fear from suffering or hardship or rejection—even death. I will finish soon, but on this last point, I think that the early Christian martyrs have a lot to teach us. They endured the cruelest torture (something which, if we are honest, most of us fear) without fear. Because they understood that they were subject to God’s power, their tormentors quickly realised that despite what they inflicted on them, they were powerless to change their resolve to confess Christ. This stubborn and fearless resolve led many who witnessed those barbaric events—even the perpetrators—to themselves profess faith in Christ.
So how can a loving God want us to fear him? How could a God of love want anything less? If we fear (believe that we are subject to the power of) Perfect Love, we will never be afraid, because his Perfect Love drives out every competing (and negative) fear. And that is true freedom.
© Clayton Coombs
Theology Matters is a ministry of David McCracken Ministries