Afraid of God?

For many years, one of my daily prayers has been:  “God, help me to be open to change in my understanding and attitudes about You, about your entire creationand especially toward other people.”  In light of that daily prayer, recently the following two incidents took place…

I’m extremely fortunate and blessed to have numerous friends and acquaintances around the world—from as far away as the nations of Belarus and China to those right here in my hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota, even including my neighbors on each side of where my wife Anne and I live. I like and love each of my friends for differing reasons.

I like and love one of my friends in particular for what I call a deep, spiritual trait he possesses and displays:  when he hears me speak, or reads what I’ve written, he is very open and frank with me about what he feels might be mistakes I’ve made or untruths I’ve expressed.  Sometimes it’s a bit painful and humbling to hear him out, but I love him dearly and know he’s only acting in my best interests when he shares with me something of that nature.

When he read this teaching, “Afraid of God,” he immediately telephoned me expressing some deep concern about it.  He said he agreed with the overall theme of this teaching, but he felt I was wrong in some of my exegetical paraphrases of various biblical texts, and I seemed to be making “pronouncements” of my own opinions as though they were facts, not opinions.  He said this was not a teaching he could recommend for others to read.

I listened carefully to what he was saying, took some notes, asked God about what my friend had said, decided he was correct about most of what he told me over the phone…and then completely revised this teaching!  What you will now read is a drastic revision of this entire teaching as contrasted with how it was originally written. 

Coincidentally (?), the day after my friend remonstrated me about this teaching, another friend telephoned me asking if he could come to my home to discuss one of my latest teachings.  I invited him over; he wanted to talk with me about this very teaching.  His background is very rigid and dogmatic about the Bible and spiritual matters.  Essentially, he told me that this teaching was false, and that is absolutely essential that people need to be afraid of God sending them to hell.  Further, he exclaimed:  “Bill, the essence of the true Gospel is to tell people about hell and how they need to get saved from hell!”  Before I could even respond, he threw his copy of this teaching on the floor, stomped on it, and stormed out of my house.

Oh well…

When I was a little boy growing up, there was an expression that was quite common—in my own life, in movies, and on the radio (before TV); the expression went something like this.  “I’m gonna put the fear of God in you!”  It was a threat often used when someone was going to be punished; it meant that the punishment was just a minor sampling of how terrible God’s punishment was going to be like. 

For me, when I had done something wrong and knew I was going to be spanked, it made me very terrified that God would also punish me or “spank” me some day, and his punishment would be far, far worse than the spanking I was going to receive.  That expression made me—and multitudes of other people—frightened of God!  Wow, I was very mistaken about what the fear of God means!

Are you frightened of God?  Many people are.  They feel that if they sin, do something wrong, or “mess up,” God is just waiting to harshly punish them in some manner, take something or someone away from them, somehow make their lives miserable, or—at the very worst—send them to be tormented forever in the fiery flames of hell.  Yes, unfortunately many people have that perception of God and punishment.

In the three languages in which the Bible was originally written there are about a dozen uses of the word fear.  Those words don’t seem to mean being afraid of God in the commonly accepted sense of being afraid of someone or something harming them.   Yes, some of those words are about being scared of other people, or being afraid of accidents, or natural disasters, or something similar…but none of them seem to carry the intent of  being frightened of God.

“The fear of God” as used in the Bible is not the English concept of fear as in being afraid, frightened, or terrified of God.  It means submission to God, awe, worship, and reverence for God. 

Of those dozen or so definitions of fear in the Bible, I will examine only five of them that relate to God.  The first use of the word is from the Hebrew word, morah, meaning to have awesome, reverential awe of God simply because He is God.  The second use of the word is from the Hebrew word, pachad, meaning to be startled by something one learns or experiences about God.  Awe means to have profound respect or wonder inspired by God’s greatness, grandeur, and majesty.  Reverence (reverential) means to have great respect, affection, and love for God. 

The third use of the word comes from the Greek word, phobeo, meaning to feel panic or alarm in God’s awesome presence or about something He does.  The fourth use of the word comes from the Greek word, phobos, meaning to flee from God’s overwhelming, awesome presence.

The fifth use of the English word, “fear,” is found in Proverbs 1: 7 (and elsewhere), and is translated from the Hebrew word, yirah.  It is found in the expression “The fear of the LORD,” and occurs many times throughout the Bible.  In fact, the words “fear” and all of its derivatives such as “fearful” or “fearfully” occurs over 500 times in the Bible!  Not all those appearances include the expression “the fear of the LORD,” but simply by virtue of how many times they occur in the Bible, “the fear of the LORD” is an important biblical expression. Let’s take a long look at that expression in this teaching and see what we come up with.

One basic principle of Bible study is to study all the occurrences of a certain word, topic, or subject before arriving at a conclusion; that way, one avoids picking out “proof texts” to prove what one has already concluded ahead of time.  That’s not only an important principle of Bible study; it’s an important principle for studying any literature.  

It has been said that when reading the Bible, believe what you read, not read what you believe!

Another principle of Bible study is that there is usually a certain text, chapter, or book that summarizes or encapsulates whatever subject one is studying.  For example, to study the subject of “love” in the Bible, 1 Corinthians chapter 13 summarizes that subject.  To study how God “speaks” to humans is summarized in John chapter 10, and so on for every subject or topic throughout the Bible.

As already noted, one specific reference in the Old Testament portion of the Bible that summarizes and encapsulates the matter of “the Fear of the LORD” is Proverbs 1: 7.  Here’s how that reads in English in most Bibles:  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

Here’s how that same reference reads in a modern language version of the Bible:  “How then does a person gain the essence of wisdom?  We cross the threshold of true knowledge when we live in obedient devotion to God.  Stubborn know-it-alls will never stop to do this, for they scorn true wisdom and knowledge.” [The Passion Translation]

Here’s one more modern language version:  “Start with God—the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their nose at such learning and wisdom.”  [The Message Translation]

And, finally, here’s how the Amplified Bible translates Proverbs 1: 7:  “The reverent and worshipful fear of the Lord is the beginning and the principal and choice part of knowledge [its starting point and its essence]; but fools despise skillful and godly Wisdom, instruction, and discipline.”

If a person has a healthy view of who God really is:  his love for his entire creation, his eternal and unchanging good character, and his altogether giving, kind, and benevolent nature, people might not be terrified of God as many of them seem to be!  Because God is love, He loves all humankind with ceaseless, measureless, limitless, eternal love; He is altogether good and absolutely everything He does is good (Psalm 119: 68 and related references).  God is always working out everything for the good of all humanity.  I encourage you:  Please, please do not be afraid of God in the generally accepted sense of being scared of something or someone.  It grieves God when people are scared of Him.

Here’s what the expression “the fear of the LORD” means in the original language in which it was written.  It means that “if one acknowledges the absolute power, authority, holiness, and majesty of God, that will result in a repugnance of evil and a desire to be good and do good.” 

As an aside, let’s examine the word, “fool,” that appears in that reference in Proverbs.  What does that word mean in the original language in which the Bible was written?  It doesn’t mean “someone of diminished intellectual capacity, nor a ‘court jester,’ but one who makes a quality choice or decision not to believe in God or follow God.

Another word to examine in Proverbs 1: 7 is knowledge; here’s the definition of that word:  “to acquire facts, data, and information and put them together into a meaningful whole.”  We all possess knowledge even if it’s limited in some way or even if we don’t put it together so it makes sense.  We begin to accumulate knowledge from the moment of conception, and continue to amass it until our final breath when our spirit leaves our body at the moment of death.

There are actually two types of knowledge:  1.  Knowledge we acquire through our five physical senses, and 2. Knowledge we acquire through our inner, spiritual senses, the latter usually revealed to us by God through the Bible and by direct revelation in our spirits by Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:  10 – 12).  The Bible and revelation by Holy Spirit will always be in agreement!

The final word in Proverbs 1: 7 I want us to examine is wisdom.  Here’s the Bible’s condensed definition of wisdom:  “Comprehensive insight into God’s purposes for the entire creation—including all humanity…AND making correct decisions and choices based on that comprehensive insight.”   

For more insight about wisdom, I invite you to read a companion teaching on this website titled Get Wisdom!

Someone has quipped: “Knowledge is knowing what to do; wisdom is knowing whether or not to do it.  Knowledge is knowing what to say; wisdom is knowing whether or not to say it..and when.”

Concerning knowledge of the Bible, it’s interesting to note that many people feel they know the Bible, but—in actuality—they often know so much that is not true.  Their greatest obstacle to knowing the Jesus of the Bible is not ignorance.  It’s their illusion of knowledge!   Yes, there is “false” knowledge about the Bible…and knowledge that is true.

Having defined each of those words in Proverbs 1: 7, now let’s take some time to examine some other key references in the Bible about “fearing God.”  I hope this will encourage you to make deliberate, quality choices and decisions to acknowledge God’s power, holiness, authority, and majesty and follow Him the remainder of your life (if you are not already a follower of Him at this time).  I am not selecting “proof texts”—as you will see, but am selecting texts that will reinforce what you now know about the fear of God.

Throughout much of the Bible, we read the expression “Fear not!”  This is often proclaimed by God when some major, supernatural event occurs or proclaimed by angels when they visit humans.  In those instances, they mean “Don’t be frightened!  When people encounter God or angels, they are afraid in the sense of being overwhelmed or apprehensive about what is occurring.  When people encounter God’s holiness, power, authority, and majesty—especially for the first time—yes, they are often fearful…and rightly so.  This type of fear is best understood as “reverential awe” or adoration of God. 

The first instance of this type of fear occurred when Abram (later named Abraham) had a vision about God.  (Genesis 15: 1)  The next occurrence of this type of fear occurred in the life of Abraham’s adult son, Isaac, as noted in Genesis 26: 24. Such occurrences are quite consistent throughout the Bible, ending with Revelation 19: 5 when people were in reverential awe when they heard a voice coming from God’s throne. 

A reference in the Old Testament Book of Job (Job 28: 28) confirms the meaning of “fear” in that basic text in Proverbs:  “Behold, the reverential and worshipful fear of the LORD—that is Wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”  Yes, A proper understanding of God’s majesty, power, authority, and holiness results in a repugnance of evil and a desire to do good. 

Also, the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament is full of numerous instances where if a person fears the LORD (not as in being scared of God), then God causes people to be secure in their relationship with Him, He abundantly provides for them, He freely gives them his own righteousness, and in some cases God even prolongs a person’s life, He saves them from sin and wrongdoing, and—ultimately—all people on earth  will come to know God. 

We also find additional references in the Book of Proverbs about the fear of the LORD.  For example, Proverbs 3: 7 states “Be not wise in your own eyes; reverently fear and worship the LORD and turn entirely away from evil.”   This statement is about our being humble in God’s presence, not thinking of ourselves with inordinate pride or with false humility.

In the four Gospels in the New Testament, Jesus (and angels) used the expression, “Fear not!” when Jesus talked about God the Father or when angels would instantly appear to various people.   Matthew 10: 31 and Luke 1: 30 are clear examples of the use of “fear” in the sense of reverential awe of God.

In the Book of Acts following the four Gospels, again the use of the word “fear” is generally about reverential awe of God—recognizing and acknowledging his authority, power, and majesty, resulting in a repugnance of evil and a desire to be good and to do good.  Acts 5: 11, and 9: 31 are examples. 

There is a specific incident in the 5th chapter of Book of Acts that might, at first glance, seem to contradict what I have written about fearing God.  Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold some land they owned and lied about its selling price.  Holy Spirit informed Peter of their deception and Peter exposed the matter to the entire church in Jerusalem; Ananias and Sapphira died as a result of their deception.  The incident caused many of the new followers of Jesus to be filled with “dread and terror.”  Verse 12 states that this incident was among many “startling signs and wonders” performed by God through the apostles.  It’s my own view that the onlookers to this incident were not so much terrified of God by what they saw, but that they were alarmed, startled, in awe, and in shock caused by what they observed.

In the remainder of the New Testament that type of the “fear of God” also remains consistent—except for a few instances when people are warned to fear what other people might do to them.  2 Timothy 1: 7 is a key reference in this regard:  “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity (of cowardice, of craven and fawning fear), but [He has given us the spirit] of power and of love and of calm and well-balanced mind and discipline and self-control.”  (The Amplified Bible)

Hebrews 12: 28 tells us this:  “Therefore, since we are receiving a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us live by grace in order to serve God properly with reverence and awe.”

Someone might bring up the matter of Hebrews 10: 31 that proclaims “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.”  In this reference, the word “fearful” means to be astonished and in awe of God. Yes, it is astonishing and awesome to be in the hands of the Living God!  That reference is also in the overall context of God rewarding his people when Jesus returns if they have lived a life of faithful service to Him.

1 John 4: 15 – 19 provides us with an overall view of fear in the context of God’s love for us:  “We have come into an intimate experience with God’s love, and we trust in the love He lavishes upon us.  God is love!  Those who are living in love are living in God, and God lives his own eternal LIFE through them.  By living in God, love has been brought to its full expression in us so that we may fearlessly face the day of judgment, because all that Jesus now is, so are we in this world; our standing before God is identical with Jesus’ standing before Him.  Love never brings fear, for fear is always related to punishment.  Understanding and embracing God’s perfect love drives the fear of punishment from our hearts.  Whoever lives constantly afraid of punishment has not come to embrace and live in God’s perfect love.”

I want to examine in more detail one specific verse within 1 John 4: 15 – 19:  verse 18.  After examining it, I want to ask a question.  It’s a question, not an answer…

The Amplified Bible states it this way:  “There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror!  For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].”  

Based on this, my question is:  “God alone is fully mature love; He is love Personified, and through Jesus we experience that “level” of his love.  If his love banishes being scared of Him, why would He then turn around and deliberately cause us to be scared of Him—as many have understood this reference to mean?” Again, that’s a question, not an answer, but it certainly bears consideration.  I hope you can answer the question to your own satisfaction.

Revelation 14: 7 and 15: 4 summarize our standing before God:  “You must reverence God and glorify Him, for the time has come for Him to judge our works in serving Him.  Worship at the feet of the One who created all that exists!  Mighty and marvelous are your miracles, God Almighty!  Righteous and true are your ways, always flowing from your overflowing and unstoppable love, O Sovereign King of the ages.  Who will not reverence You with awe, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?  For You alone are holy, and all nations will come and bow in worship before You, as your blessings are revealed.”

I am very much aware that I have only “scratched the surface” of the subject, the fear of God.  My understanding is very limited; I have shared my thoughts with you only from my current state of awareness and present level of understanding about the fear of God; there is still much I have yet to learn about this important biblical subject.

Bill Boylan
Life Enrichment Services, Inc.
Updated and Revised December 2022

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