Fear. It’s one of the most powerful emotions humans are capable of experiencing. We’ve created a whole language around “fight or flight” and the body and mind’s reactions to fearsome events. As I’m writing this in late October we’re subjecting ourselves by the thousands to haunted houses that feature every type of fear inducing scenario imaginable.
In 1985 or 86 I was just five or six and I was playing hide and seek with a few of my cousins, all around the same age as me. We were at my great grandparent’s house and it had this enormous window unit air conditioner in the front room. This thing was so big it required two large wooden poles on the outside to hold it up. That’s where I decided to hide, because at that age I didn’t understand how hiding works, apparently. As soon as I got under there and got still I had this feeling like a thousand spiders were crawling all over my body. Naturally, I reacted with reason and tact and basically lost my mind. This quickly became a family affair and there were lots of questions. At least that’s now I remember it, and it’s why my breath catches in my throat whenever i see the smallest spider. It’s also why, for years, I have a consistently recurring nightmare about having a Tarantula in my house so big that it fills up the entire living room. I always awake as it’s about to squeeze its entire head through the door to kill me where I stand. That’s a proper phobia.
So what about fearing God? Does it make sense to apply any of our experiences of fear in this natural world to the God of this world? Surely not. Whenever the Bible says to fear God we can just substitute words or phrases like “revere”, “respect”, or “stand in awe”, right? I think a lot of the time that is maybe even the most faithful way to interpret those scriptures, but try a thought experiment with me, if you will, and every time you read the word fear in the following verses just read it as, well, fear and let’s think together about the implications.
Let’s begin in the Old Testament where God was at His most stereo-typically frightful.
“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’” Exodus 20:18-20 NIV
Moses and God’s people had come out of Egypt and were camping near a mountain called Sinai when God spoke to Moses and told him to speak to the people. His words were incredibly affirming to them, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:5&6). And the people agreed that they would do all God asked. Sounds like wins all around. It’s at this point that God reveals His presence powerfully atop the mountain. He tells Moses that no one but him is to approach, that for anyone else even to touch the foot of the mountain would mean death. When the people see fire and lightning emanating from the thick darkness at the top of the mountain they were very afraid.
God had just told them, through Moses, what He’d make of them if they obeyed him, why be afraid? If i had to guess, and I do because it’s not explicitly stated here, I’d guess that being that close to the presence of God triggered doubts in their minds about the promise they had just made to Him. They didn’t promise to do their best and see how it works out they promised to obey Him fully. Now they’re seeing the effects God has when He just shows up, what would happen when He confronted promise breakers? Maybe some of them were coming to realize something I have realized in my own life, that promise to obey is broken before I’m done making it.
Despite the display and the fear it induced the people soon became comfortable in their relationship with God. It’s the way it goes sometimes that you get away with something small (or think you have) and so you do it again, because so far there’s no consequence, then the third time maybe you take it a little farther than you did before, and again the next time. Before long you’re getting fired from a job, or losing a house, or a marriage because you went from being surprised at no consequence to believing there never would be one. God’s people were no different in those days. It wasn’t long after the day they were trembling in fear at the foot of Mount Sinai that they were breaking the first two commandments God had given them right there.
So exasperated was Moses at finding the people worshiping the golden calf that he threw down the tablets that God had written upon with His own finger the Commandments that were the law of His covenant. Moses says he spent another forty days and nights fasting and praying to God on his face in His presence that He would not destroy the people for their disobedience. Then, in one of the most underrated second chance stories in history God tells Moses if he’ll carve out two more tablets He’ll rewrite the Commandments on them! What!? Not only is God willing to hold back His holy judgement but He’ll redo work that man destroyed!? Then He says to His people,
“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, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today.” Deuteronomy 10:12-15 NIV
I’m not a bible scholar, nor a scholar of any kind, but it sounds to me like the Lord is warning His people in a very fatherly way that second chances aren’t guaranteed and they shouldn’t take this one for granted.
But what about Jesus? He came to bring us all lollipops and sunshine, right? His life and ministry was all about love and peace, wasn’t it? Seriously, don’t some of us go about our days thinking that He came to this earth to win a victory for us so that we could have our “best life now”? Interestingly I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind for even His closest followers. In the book of Matthew chapter ten we are told of a moment in Jesus’ ministry where He would begin to delegate some of His power and authority to His disciples. They were being given authority to drive out demons and heal the sick, and Jesus told them that as they went about using these powers in His name that they were to tell the people, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” (v.7). The local rulers wouldn’t like this, He told them, it would be seen as a threat to their power over the people. They would be jailed and beaten, Jesus told them, but he admonished them with this warning,
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28
Jesus is warning His closest followers that there is nothing men can do to them for obeying God on this earth that can be worse than God’s judgement after this life for disobedience. This one verse of scripture is also the best biblical evidence in my opinion for the existence of a real physical Hell, because Jesus was God and Jesus talked about it like it was a real place.
Christians are often criticized, and rightfully so, for using Hell to scare people into making a decision about Jesus, but it’s worth noting that Jesus wanted His very closest followers to have a healthy fear of Hell. And maybe this is the key to the whole thing. Jesus wasn’t sending His messengers out to the world with a “Turn or Burn” message on His behalf, but He was telling them that they should keep that message in their heart. They should remember that whatever punishment or persecution they might receive in the here and now for telling the truth about God’s son, it would be far less that the righteous justice of God apart from Him.
And so Jesus said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”(John 3:16 NIV) The automatic implication is that whoever does not believe in Him shall perish and not have eternal life. Are these not fear inducing concepts? They seem to be given to us as believers much more frequently and much more stridently than to unbelievers. Why?
The fire of Hell is a fire that should burn in the belly of the believer impelling them to seek the lost and tell them about Jesus. The fear of a Hell that we’ve escaped is why we can not be silent in a world that would use all kinds of subtle and forthright means to shame or punish us into silence.
Don’t be afraid to be afraid of God! It’s an integral part of His plan. Have a healthy fear, borne of understanding that Jesus didn’t come just to win a victory for you so that you could experience His blessings on your life, He came to win THE victory for God so that we all could live in restored relationship with Him.
And if you don’t already know Jesus as your savior it’s so simple to avoid this fearsome Hell and to have a relationship with this awesome God. It’s simple but it’s not easy. You must do only three things, turn from your sinful ways, acknowledge that Jesus is the son of God and that He died and rose again for the redemption of your sins, follow Him for the rest of your life. Know that in doing these things there is the Holy Spirit of God that assists you always and leads you on the right path through the scriptures. He’s the one that brought you to this moment where you’re even now choosing to follow Him. Find a good church where people will come alongside you and hold your head up through the inevitable struggles, and come back here and tell us your story so that we can pray for and with you as you go along your way.