The Fear Of God
By Cindy Baker
Fear--a being afraid, a feeling that danger is near; to regard with fear, to feel concern of or about; an anxious thought, concern; awe, dread or terror
Reverence--a feeling of deep respect, mixed with wonder, awe and love.
There is clearly a difference between fearing, respecting and reverencing. But which are we to do with regard to God? The Scriptures say we should both reverence and fear God.
In Psalm 76:11 we are told that God is the one who "ought to be feared." The original Hebrew word for "fear" in this Scripture is "morah," and means to dread or be terrified. There is no hint of a softening of the word.
Hebrews 12:28 states to serve God with "reverence and godly fear." Reverence we understand, but what is meant by "godly fear"?
Godly fear is different than reverence, for if the two were synonyms, using both of them in the Scripture quoted above, Hebrews 12:28, (serve God with "reverence and godly fear") would be repetitive. Furthermore, the fact that this verse is followed by the statement, "For our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29) shows that the word "fear" means exactly what it says--fear. A "consuming fire" is something that one ought to fear.
Throughout the Bible, the word "fear" repeatedly is both defined and demonstrated as meaning "to dread, or to have terror toward." Moses at the burning bush "hid his face for he was afraid to look on God" (Ex. 3:6). After talking about the judgment seat of Christ, Paul writes, "knowing the terror of the Lord..." (2 Cor. 5:11). In Isaiah 8:13 we are told, "Let [God] be your fear and let him be your dread." Not only are we outright told to dread God, but the original word for "fear" here is "moraw" which Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance says means terror.
The Comforts and Mercies of God Do Not Diminish the Fear of Him
When God brings to someone news of mercy and salvation, even that visit, that presence of God is fearful. When Jacob went from Beersheba on his way toward Haran, and met with God in the famous dream of "Jacob’s ladder," God spoke to him not threateningly, not as having His fury come up into his face, but in the most sweet and gracious manner, saluting him with promise of goodness after goodness, multiplied eight or nine times (Gen. 28:10-17).
Part of God’s promise to Jacob was "...And behold, I am with thee and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee..." (Gen. 28:15). Not one word of rebuke or judgment did God speak to Jacob. Yet, when Jacob awoke, the Scripture says, "...he was afraid, and said, ‘How dreadful is this place!...’" (Gen. 28:17a).
Later, when Jacob had the memorable encounter with God where God gave him power as a prince to prevail with Him, and gave Jacob a name so that by his remembering it he might call God’s favor better to mind--even then and there such dread of the majesty of God was upon him that he went away wondering that his life was preserved (Gen. 32:30).
When Job had God present with him making known to him the goodness of His heart, how did Job respond? "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6).
Continuing, the apostle John was known as the disciple "whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23). Surely he, if anyone, knew the comforts and mercies of God, and was confident of God’s love toward him. Furthermore, John was under the New Covenant, not the law--a distinction some people act as if does away with the need and injunction to fear God. Yet, despite this confidence in God’s grace and love, when John saw the glorified Jesus (Rev. 1:12-17), he "fell at His feet as dead."
We should approach Him who holds the universe in His hand as the "Dread Supreme," in the words of the famous preacher, Charles Spurgeon.
How to Grow in the Fear of God
The great Puritan writer and preacher, John Bunyan, gives ten ways to grow in this grace.
1. First, he says, learn to distinguish between the different types of fear--godly fear vs. natural and dispensational.
"Natural" fear--Even unregenerate people do all sorts of things because of a fear of God when they act one toward another in reasonable and honest ways. It is this type of fear of God that Abraham referred to when he lied to Abimelech and said Sarah was his sister because, he "thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place, and they will slay me for my wife’s sake" (Gen. 20:11). This is linked to the knowledge of God revealed to mankind through nature (Rom. 1:19-20). Men see nature and believe in and learn enough about God to have a natural fear. This fear is not necessarily saving but can lead to a saving fear.
"Dispensational" fear--This fear is a dread of God in His workings or dispensations, to deal with them for their sins, and yet by this they have no change of heart to submit to Him. This is a slavish fear. It is the type of fear that possessed Adam’s heart after he ate the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:10). It makes us hide from God because it confines one’s conscience to only the justice of God and not the mercy or grace, and thus leads to despair.
One of the responses of men who are under this type of fear, is to flee conviction and so not be able to abide godly preaching or the Word. But there are others who have this same fear yet manifest it, or at least to all outward appearances seem to do so, in the exact opposite way. These people do not cast off the hearing, reading or discoursing of the Word, nor do they forsake the exercise of other religious duties, for they are convinced this is the right thing to do. Instead they don’t pray in private and don’t have a zeal for His name in public. There are many professing Christians whose hearts are possessed with this type of fear.
Because the presence of this fear indicates a person is not truly in a right relationship with God, it is important to here elaborate on this point. These professing Christians are represented by the slothful servant in Luke. This man was a servant of God, and had gifts and abilities given him whereby to serve Christ the same as his fellow men, and he was commanded to occupy until his master came. But what did he do? He took his talent and hid it in the ground.
Why did he do this? In his own words, "For I fear Thee." He was afraid that Christ was a hard man, reaping where He sowed not, and gathering where He had not strewn. His fear made him view Jesus in a manner contrary to the goodness of His nature, and so took away his motivation and zeal from doing that which was pleasing in His sight (Luke 19:20-26). Such people have the form of godliness, while denying the power of it (2 Tim. 3:5).
None of these fears is the kind God commands of His people.
Good and Godly Fear
There is a good and godly fear. This fear is the effect of the awakening in the soul by the word of God which tells the sinner of His wrath, and which shows the person his right to eternal damnation. This is the fear which made the three thousand cry out, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37).
This fear is wrought in the heart by the Spirit of God working there, to purposely put us in fear (Rom. 8:15). Like the song says, "’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear...."
By the law God shows us that we are in bondage to the law, the devil, death and damnation. This is our state by nature. We do not see it until the Spirit of God comes to reveal our state of bondage revealing to us our sins and this by the law. "For by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). It is the Spirit of God, even the Holy Ghost, who convinces us of sin, and of our damnable state before God (John 16:8-9).
This godly fear is not to last always with us, but rather is replaced by the sweet and peaceable tidings of salvation in Christ in the gospel. This fear does not go away until the Spirit of God changes His working from bringing the law with conviction, to the bringing to the soul of the word of salvation by Jesus Christ.
One further note on this working of God: Bunyan says that though the God-wrought fear of damnation goes away (based on the acceptance of the work of Christ), "the seed and essence of the fear of God remains and afterward shall grow up into a higher degree, and into a fruitful working in every area of the believer’s life."
So distinguishing between types of fear in general, and a godly fear is the first way we grow in the fear of God.
2. The second way we grow in the good fear of God is to meditate on the person and majesty of God. This begets, maintains and increases this fear. Hence, it is called the "fear of God," that is, the holy and awful dread and reverence for God. Admonitions such as "fear God," "Fear the Lord," "Fear your God," and "You shall fear your God, I am the Lord," are put in the Bible not only to tell us whom we should fear, but to sow, maintain, and increase that fear in us that is due from us to that glorious and fearful name, the Lord our God.
3. Would you grow in the good fear of God? Then fear the Word of God as a commandment of a God who is both mighty and glorious, and of a Father, both loving and full of pity.
4. A fourth way we grow in the good fear of God, is to watch out for a hard heart which hinders the grace of fear of the Lord. "Why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear?" (Isa. 63:17). The hard heart is barren ground for any grace to grow and is the great enemy of godly fear.
The way to stay clear of a hard heart is not to let sin grow, but rather to stop it at the start before it multiplies. "A little leaven leavens the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6). David took one look at Bathsheba, a small thing, yet it led him to commit adultery, lie, and even murder. Also, when you sin do not even go to sleep without repenting. A lack of repentance makes the heart harder and harder. To get rid of a hard heart, meditate often on Christ on the cross. This will soften your heart. "They will look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn" (Zech. 12:10).
5. If you would have the godly fear of God grow in you, then take heed of a prayerless heart, for this is not a place for godly fear to grow. He who does not pray is said to cast off fear: "Thou castest off fear," said Job’s friend. How does one cast off fear? The very next words of the verse tell us, "Thou restrainest prayer before God" (Job 15:4).
6. A sixth way of developing a godly fear is to guard your heart against covetousness. Covetousness and the fear of God are in opposition to one another, according to Scripture. "Such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness" (Exodus 18:21). The reason why covetousness is such an obstacle to the fear of God growing in the heart is that this vice casts out those things which alone can nourish this fear--the Word and love of God.
7. Yet another way of growing in godly fear is to keep watch for an unbelieving heart. An unbelieving heart is called in Hebrews 3:12 "an evil heart" for from it flows all manner of sin that is committed in the world. It is faith which nourishes fear of God because faith causes one to consider God, heaven and hell.
8. Would you grow in this fear of God? Then avoid a forgetful heart. "When I remember I am afraid, and trembling taketh hold on my flesh" (Job 21:6). A remedy to forgetfulness is to remember God’s kindness, patience and mercy to us who don’t deserve these things. This will make fear to grow in your heart.
But forgetfulness of these benefits, or of any other of God’s judgments, weakens godly fear. Remembering God’s judgments and viewing them as a great and deep mystery--that makes a man fear. See Job who said, "Therefore, am I troubled at His presence; when I consider, I am afraid of Him" (Job 23:15).
9. Would you grow in this fear of God? Then take heed of a murmuring and repining heart. Murmuring and repining when God’s judgments and dispensations overtake you tend to destroy fear; for murmuring is a form of correcting God and finding fault with His workings.
10. If you want to develop godly fear, take heed of hardening your heart against conviction. I said before to beware of a hard heart, but now I exhort you to beware of hardening a soft heart. Convictions on the heart, like rain upon the soil, tend to soften it. Rebelling against these convictions can only harden the heart.
Benefits of Fearing God
1. John Bunyan also gives several benefits to fearing God taken from Scripture. The first is God’s provisions--"He gives meat to them that fear Him" (Psa. 111:5).
2. Second, a granting of the heart’s desires--"God fulfills the desires of those that fear him" (Psa. 145:19).
3. Blessing on your work and life. "Everyone that fears the Lord...shall eat the labor of his hands...and it shall be well with you" (Psa. 128:1-2).
4. The wife of the man who properly fears God will be fruitful and his children will be wise. "His wife shall be like a fruitful vine by the sides of his house, and his children will be like olive plants" (an olive plant bears oil which is a symbol of wisdom) (Psa. 128:3).
5. Long life--"Everyone that feareth the Lord...shall see his children’s children" (Psa. 128:6).
6. Spiritual success of your children--"Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord...His seed shall be mighty on the earth" (Psa. 112:1-2).
7. God’s mercy is granted to those who fear him. "The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him" (Psa. 103:17--see also Psa. 103:11).
The fear which results in mercy also produces hope. If, therefore, you know you are one who possesses this fear of God, allow yourself to be persuaded therefore to hope in the mercy of God for salvation; for the Lord takes pleasure in you, and it delights Him to see you hope in His mercy (Psa. 147:11).
8. Godly fear causes a man to stand when tried. "The man that feareth the Lord...his heart is fixed...he shall not be afraid" (Psa. 112:1,7-8).
9. Watchfulness--Solomon’s servants watched in the night "because of fear in the night" (Song of Solomon 3:8). Likewise, the Christian "watches in the night" because of all the spiritual enemies.
Godly fear brings this about, first, in that it makes Christians watch so that some temptation should not enter into their heart to destroy them. It also makes them watch their mouths, so that they offend not with their tongue, knowing that the tongue is full of evil and apt to defile the whole body (James 3:2-10). It thirdly makes them watch over their ways, look well to their goings, and make straight paths for their feet (Psa. 39:1; Heb. 12:13).
In short, "Godly fear puts the soul upon watch toward the heart within, from the devil without and from the world or some other temptation," says John Bunyan.
10. Godly fear brings about fellowship with all its beneficial results. "Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another" (Mal. 3:16). The fear of God does not force saints to fellowship out of a legalistic sense of duty, but rather naturally leads to this.
11. There flows from this fear of God hearty, fervent and constant prayer. This is seen in Cornelius: he "feared God." And what was the result? "He...prayed to God always" (Acts 10:2). If the prayer life is not managed with fear of God, it profits nothing at all.
It is said of the Lord Jesus Himself that "He was heard in that He feared" (Heb. 5:7). Jesus prayed because He feared God, and His prayer was accepted because He feared. Godly fear is so essential to right prayer, and right prayer is such an inseparable effect and fruit of this fear, that one must have both or none.
12. There flows from this godly fear self-denial. Take Nehemiah and the apostle Paul as examples of this. Nehemiah 5:15 says, "The former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bore rule over the people; but so did not I because of the fear of the Lord."
This sounds at first glance, like legalism. Nehemiah could have taken charge (fees) of the people; there was no prohibition against this. But he denied himself for the benefit of his brethren who were under him, that God would not be despised. He acted in love toward his fellow Jews. Why did he do this? Because he feared God.
Likewise the apostle Paul told the Thessalonians that though he had a right to be supported by them, he was not "chargeable unto any of you" because he did not want to give any occasion for accusation (1 Thess. 2:9). Another example was Paul’s commitment not to eat meat while the world stands if it caused a brother to stumble (1 Cor. 8:13).
This fear of God will cause a person to deny himself or herself not only in what is prohibited, but also in what is not expedient. Men who are in this fear of God will, out of love for God and the good of the weak, be tender toward others and consider that it is far better for their profession of faith to be of a self-denying life style and temperament than to insist strongly on their own liberty in things inexpedient, no matter whether the thing in question is technically allowed or not.
13. Next, there flows from this fear of God, "singleness of heart" toward both man and God. Singleness of heart is called in another place "sincerity" and "godly simplicity." It is when our obedience to God is done simply for Him and His Word’s sake, without any regard to this or that purpose or personal benefit, "not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but with singleness of heart, fearing God" (Col. 3:22).
Fear of God brings about singleness of heart--an understanding of the dreadful majesty and all-seeing eye of God. It also keeps before one a due consideration of the day of judgment. This view of the day of accounting fills him with "terror" (2 Cor. 5:11), makes his service sweet and pleasing, and fortifies the soul against all discouragements.
Singleness of heart in the service of God is of such absolute necessity that without it nothing can be accepted, because where this sincerity is wanting there wants love for God and lack of true holiness (See 3 John 5). According to Bunyan, a man is more subject to swerve from singleness of heart than anything else in his service to God and obedience to His will. The fear of God keeps a man from this swerving.
14. A right fear of God will be marked by charity toward those saints who are distressed. Obadiah hid a hundred prophets in caves and fed them in the days when Jezebel sought to slay them. And why did he do this? The Bible says that it was because Obadiah "...feared the Lord greatly" (1 Kings 18:3-4).
15. There flows from this godly fear a great delight in obeying the commands of God. "Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord, that delighteth greatly in His commandments" (Psa. 112:1).
This confirms what was said earlier, namely that this fear provokes us to a holy and reverent use of the means of salvation (faith, hope in God’s mercy). This fear makes the sinner hate that which is sin because it is contrary to the object of his delight, God’s law. Therefore, if a man delights himself in the commandment, he hates that which is opposite, which is sin.
This holy fear of God turns the heart and affections away from sin, and turns them onto the holy commandment; therefore such a man is rightly esteemed to be blessed (Psa. 112:1) No profession makes a man blessed but that which is accompanied with an alienation of the heart from sin.
16. There results from this godly fear humility of mind. This is evident because when the apostle Paul cautioned the Romans against the poison of spiritual pride, he points them to the exercise of fear as its antidote. "Be not high-minded," he said, "but fear" (Rom. 11:20). Fear God, or in other words, be continually afraid and jealous of yourselves, and of your own naughty hearts; also fear lest, at some time or other, the devil, your adversary, should get an advantage over you. From the virtue of fear, then, comes this thing known as humility.
Humility also is maintained by this fear. Fear keeps a man from trusting in himself; it makes him try all things; it puts him in the way of desiring counsel and help from heaven; it makes a man ready and willing to hear instruction, and makes a man walk lowly and thus securely in the way.
Consequences of Not Fearing God
1. Those who do not fear God fall into many hurtful lusts and troubles. A child can be able bodied with healthy limbs, but if he is careless he will fall into many hurtful things--the path of a speeding car, falling down steps, etc. Likewise, the child of God who casts off fear is equipped with a "healthy body"--the blessings and dispositions to stay safe--yet falls into many hurtful things for lack of that fear.
2. A man cannot watch as he should if he is destitute of godly fear. To keep a good watch is a wonderful safety to a place that is in continual danger because of the enemy. But let him be confident, and he sleeps and lets the enemy in unawares.
Christians are in continual danger, even mortal danger, from the world, the flesh and the devil. They need to keep watch lest they fall into some temptation or snare of the devil, yet will not do this without the fear of God. Some Christians keep watch half-heartedly or to a lesser extent than they should. This is because they are not in the full sway of godly fear.
3. Many are the temptations, difficulties, snares, trials and troubles that the man of God encounters, and without the fear of God he shall not escape them. "[Only] he that feareth God shall come forth of them all" (Ecclesiastes 7:18, brackets added).
4. Without the fear of God, you can’t have wisdom--"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10). This is important because wisdom is what leads us to the knowledge of God and not only salvation, but true happiness and success both in this life and the next.
– Cindy Baker is a freelance writer living in Annapolis, Maryland.