05 February 2013

Bible Q&A: What Does it Mean to "Fear God"?

Q: Throughout the Bible we are told to fear God. What does that mean? Can you give an example?

A: We need to make some important distinctions about the biblical meaning of "fearing" God. These distinctions can be helpful, but they can also be a little dangerous.

When [Martin] Luther struggled with that, he made this distinction, which has since become somewhat famous: He distinguished between what he called a servile fear and a filial fear. The servile fear is a kind of fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber has for his tormentor, the jailer, or the executioner. It's that kind of dreadful anxiety in which someone is frightened by the clear and present danger that is represented by another person. Or it's the kind of fear that a slave would have at the hands of a malicious master who would come with the whip and torment the slave. Servile refers to a posture of servitude toward a malevolent owner.

Luther distinguished between that and what he called filial fear, drawing from the Latin concept from which we get the idea of family. It refers to the fear that a child has for his father. In this regard, Luther is thinking of a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them. He has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves, not because he's afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he's afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child's world, the source of security and love.

I think this distinction is helpful because the basic meaning of fearing the Lord that we read about in Deuteronomy is also in the Wisdom Literature, where we're told that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." The focus here is on a sense of awe and respect for the majesty of God. That's often lacking in contemporary evangelical Christianity. We get very flippant and cavalier with God, as if we had a casual relationship with the Father. We are invited to call him Abba, Father, and to have the personal intimacy promised to us, but still we're not to be flippant with God. We're always to maintain a healthy respect and adoration for him.

One last point: If we really have a healthy adoration for God, we still should have an element of the knowledge that God can be frightening. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31). As sinful people, we have every reason to fear God's judgment; it is part of our motivation to be reconciled with God.

~ Excerpted from "Now That's a Good Question" by R.C. Sproul

13 comments:

ProudHillbilly said...

I think one of the worst things that our culture has done is confuse "Jesus our brother" with "Jesus our buddy". End result is that people think that "Jesus understands" is the same as "He's my pal and gives me a free pass".

Rev. Paul said...

PH, I couldn't agree more. Another mistake we've made is to elevate pastors & other pulpit ministries to somehow above the so-called laity.

A call to ministry is both a privilege and a grave responsibility. Assuming special privilege is an offense before Him; we're supposed to reflect His glory, not try to have our own.

OldAFSarge said...

Thanks for making that clear Rev. I kinda figured that's what it meant, but it's nice hearing it from someone else.

Rev. Paul said...

You're welcome, Sarge. I'm glad it helped.

Matt said...

+1 to PH and your reply to Ph. It does seem as though many confuse Jesus with Larry the cable guy.

I can't think of it off the top of my head, but somewhere I remember that the leadership is held to a higher responsibility and accountability.

Matt said...

heh.... sorry for the visual on Larry the cable guy. But since we're there.....

Can't imagine Jesus commanding us to go into all the world.... then ending it with "git 'er done!"

Rev. Paul said...

Thanks, Matt. You're recalling James 3:1, which says "Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." (NIV)

Rev. Paul said...

Matt, actually I can. God invented humor, after all. :^)

Matt said...

Well, it would at least still be scriptural. :^D

Six said...

Beautiful Rev. To the commenters as well. These kinds of discussions are so important, especially at the moment. Sides are being chosen and lines drawn...

Erin Pascal said...

Thank you for answering this question. The thought of God taking pleasure in His children fearing Him (as in Psalms 147:10-11) has somehow confused me.

armedlaughing said...

Thanks for the explanation. I never understood 'God fearing' as a positive thing.
Just understanding the relationship - my ego is not God.

gfa

Rev. Paul said...

I believe you're right, Six. Thanks.

Erin, nice to hear from you. You're welcome, and it's a common problem.

gfa, that's right; just loving Him so much that you're afraid only of disappointing Him is exactly correct.