Fear can be a negative word. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger,” such as being afraid for our lives or being afraid to do something or go somewhere because of a threat or alarming situation.
Many people fear spiders and snakes, terrified they will attack and hurt them. Others fear public speaking, dreading the awkward, anxious moment when all eyes will be on them and they will crumble, stutter, or otherwise fail.
But fear has another meaning, one of profound reverence and awe, of full respect and deep adoration.
We hear the term “fear the Lord” or be “God-fearing,” and it can be confusing for people to reconcile a loving, fatherly God with the notion of being afraid.
At the same time, the Bible is filled with stories of this same God wiping out the earth with floodwaters or burning alive those who disobeyed Him.
As Christians, we know God gives us all eternal life when we believe in His Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16). We know we don’t deserve this gift, there’s nothing we can do to earn it, and it comes only from God’s great love, compassion, and mercy for us. It’s an extravagant, generous blessing.
Yet we know we also are to “fear” God, for Scripture tells us this, too. Given all this, what does it mean to be a God-fearing Christian?
What Does it Mean to Fear God?
Fearing God means both bowing in utter reverence and respect before the One who created the world and all things in it and cowering on trembling knees at the prospect that He could if He so chose, destroy us all in a moment.
But God is a good Father, filled with love for us, so we trust His promises. We believe if we have faith, if we follow Him and obey His commands, He will bless us, not destroy us.
As discussed above, fear is rooted both in awe and in terror, and this is not a bad thing. God, the almighty ruler of the universe, is indeed all-powerful. He can create heaven and earth, and we certainly are no match for Him.
As the Apostle James writes, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14, NIV).
And as God Himself acknowledges in Revelation 1:8, “I am the Alpha and the Omega … who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Of course, we would fear — respect, worship, bow before, even be afraid of — the immense magnitude of the Lord.
Where Does Scripture Tell Us We Are to Fear God?
And Scripture tells us we are supposed to fear God. The Old Testament is peppered with directives about this. Proverbs 28:14 says, “Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.”
God says in Isaiah 66:2, “Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being? ... These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.”
Ecclesiastes ends with a warning to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14).
And as God told the people through Moses in the desert, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).
But the command to fear God is also in the New Testament. Hebrews 12 urges us to see to it that we do not refuse the Lord, for, “If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?” (12:25)
And lest we not understand, the writer continues on, urging us to “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (28).
And in Romans 11, we’re told how branches were “broken off” to make a place for new believers to be grafted in, and we should remember what a gift this is. Therefore, “Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either” (11:20-21).
And Philippians 2:12-13 encourages us to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
Why Are We Supposed to Fear a Loving God?
God is a loving God — this is the full truth. But He’s all-powerful. Romans 12:22 tells us to consider the “kindness and sternness” of God, for He is kind to those He loves, who are on His team and who obey His commands.
But to those who oppose Him, God’s sternness is not to be challenged. He will prevail.
How Can We Show Proper Fear of God?
As humans, we can be selfish creatures, and we often do not naturally pursue the honor and respect we should when it comes to revering the Lord. But we can work at cultivating proper fear.
First, we can know in our hearts that God is Lord and entirely in control. As Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Knowing this fully in our souls is important when it comes to the reverence and respect God is due.
Second, we can read and respect God’s Word. Reading the Bible is a good way to know God’s heart, and the Holy Spirit is able to drive His meaning deep into the core of our being.
And when we read the Bible, we also see the importance of following God’s rules — and what happens when we do not. We understand the consequences of disobedience. We also discover biblical role models, real examples of men and women who walked with God.
Third, we can worship God. Both in a church setting and by spending time in nature, we can strive to draw closer to God. We can sing praises to Him and invite the Holy Spirit to move and work within us as God’s people.
Fourth, we can develop a relationship with God by talking to Him in prayer. In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, the Apostle Paul tells us to “rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Continually means nonstop, regularly, constantly, without interruption, for the good and the bad, the big and the small, the dramatic and the mundane, and everything in between.
And finally, we can tell others about God, for this is the greatest form of love and respect. Jesus commands us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Sharing that Good News is not only respecting God but showing love, for we are magnifying His power and love through others.
So, embrace your fear, knowing it is good and right. Proclaim that God is Lord of all, and Lord of your heart. And rest in the truth that you are part of His family — now and forever.
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.