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The phrase the fear of the Lord is often misinterpreted as a negative, cowering response of an intimidated creature towards his ominous Creator. This is not what God is talking about when He complains in the Bible that people have no fear of Him. The fear of the Lord is better translated as reverence—another term which we are bad at understanding. When we think of reverence, we think of respect, but we cannot stop there for God demands much more than respect from us.
Like every language, English overuses certain words. We say “I love my mom” and “I love pizza.” Love is one of our workhorse words that is applied in a whole range of situations from casual and flippant to deeply heartfelt. The same goes for the word respect.
When it comes to respecting the law, most Americans apply a very casual, self-serving meaning to the word. We fly down highways at well over the posted speed limit with a thousand justifications in our minds. If a cop comes into view, we instantly apply the brakes, thus demonstrating respect for the law only when a law enforcement officer is watching.
It’s easy and dangerous to apply this same mindset to God. For the most part, we ignore Him, but when a loved one is sick or we get in a financial crisis, we’re suddenly attending church regularly and belting out those praise songs with more sincerity than usual, hoping to earn some brownie points with Him. We express more respect for God when we need His superpowers to get us out of a jam. Yet this self-serving hypocrisy is not what God wants from us.
Everything about God–His perfection, power, holiness, and righteousness—demands the highest form of reverence from everything He has brought into existence. So what exactly is reverence and why is it described as “fearing the Lord?”
Suppose you had a friend who calls you up one day and invites you over to see her new pet lion. The lion is a large adult male. She got the lion through a nature organization which cautioned her to remember that “he is wild at heart.” Naturally you’re quite nervous when you arrive at your friend’s house and sit down in the same room as the huge beast. You’re disturbed to notice his razor sharp claws, huge fangs, and lack of any restraining collar. After much persuasion, you finally get up the nerve to pet the lion and he seems to like it. But you jump when he makes any sudden moves and your pulse quickens whenever you hear his low rumbling growl. After all, he is a lion. You have no idea how his mind works. You can’t read his body language and you’re not sure why he suddenly growls. No way would you be left alone in the room with such a beast, nor would you turn your back on him. All you can think about is how easily that lion could kill you and how defenseless you would be if his mood suddenly turned aggressive. Your respect for the lion’s superior strength and power over unarmed, nervous you is a fear-based respect. It isn’t based on bad history between you and the lion, for the animal hasn’t done anything to you personally. Your fear isn’t associated with painful memories, it is solely based on an awareness of the animal’s superior strength and independent will. You know that you can’t overpower or influence the lion, so you feel weak and vulnerable in his presence.
Now think of some person from history that you greatly admire. Perhaps an explorer or a writer or someone from the Bible. Suppose you got to spend one day with them. Let’s say it’s Jesus’ disciple, John. As soon as you stood in his presence, you’d feel a great sense of respect come over you. This would be admiration-based respect. After all, this man walked with Jesus on earth, wrote five books in the Bible, including the famous Revelation. No doubt you’d have a million questions to ask him and you’d hang on his every word. If he gave you advice, you’d want to remember it for all time because you’d consider him much wiser than yourself given all his experience and time with God.
The respect you feel for both John and the lion are equally strong, yet very different types of respect. One is founded on fear, the other on great admiration. If we put both of these concepts into a blender and intensify the results, we will end up with reverence.
When we speak of revering God, we mean a very deep, strong sense of respect which wells up from the core of our being and includes both great admiration and sobering fear. God does not want Christians to cower in His Presence, or to feel negatively intimidated by Him. But at the same time, we must not view the Almighty Lord as some law enforcement officer who we can placate with temporary adjustments of behavior. Proper reverence for God must include an element of fear—a strong, sobering sense of respect for His unfathomable power, His total independence, and His alien characteristics which we can’t identify with as human beings. We must remember that God sustains everything in existence, He open and closes eternal dimensions, and He created Hell. We must remember that God could uncreate us anytime He wants. God doesn’t want us living in fear of this possibility, but being in the presence of such great power should trigger an automatic sense of submission and servitude. A strong awareness of God’s fearful awesomeness will ensure our treatment of Him is what it should be.
Because we view fear as a negative thing, we often teach each other to merely respect God, not revere Him. This is where we get into trouble. None of us would try to wrestle with a wild lion, but we feel quite free to fight against God, who is infinitely more dangerous. The difference is a lack of healthy fear. In the Bible, God tells us that reverence, or “the fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom. When we lose our fear of God, we become great fools who sin without remorse and end up suffering harsh discipline. To merely respect God is not enough. We will end up respecting Him the same as we do our parents, bosses, coworkers, and friends: smiling to their faces and then snickering behind their backs; doing what they want when it suits us but feeling free to rebel other times.
In other civilizations, reverence is a much more familiar concept than it is in America. In a monarchy or tyranny situation, one approaches the ruler with a heavy dose of fearful respect, knowing that person has the power to incarcerate or execute without any trial. In America, our democratic style of government with its division of power prevents one individual from being all-powerful in the eyes of the people. President is the highest office we have and our presidents are mocked and criticized every day without consequence. This makes it particularly difficult for American Christians to grasp what it means to reverentially fear the Lord, but it is a concept we cannot afford to ignore. God demands reverence from us, and we cannot please Him without it. To help us with this, God has provided many accounts in the Old Testament which demonstrate His absolute power over humanity. The plagues and traumas He inflicted on people back then serve to remind us that when we approach God, we are not approaching anything human. While Christians needn’t fear eternal torment in Hell thanks to the work of Jesus on the cross, we still must retain a fearful respect for God in our everyday lives. While we are on earth, we do not exist in a sheltered bubble where nothing is required of us. If we persist in holding irreverent attitudes towards God, treating Him no better than we treat other human beings, He will discipline us. He can make our lives quite miserable if need be, and there is no pain He will spare us if it means reviving our sense of reverence. Along with joy, rest, peace, and admiration, we must have fearful respect. Without it, we will inevitably fall into thinking we can dominate, manipulate and control God.
FURTHER READING: How to Recognize a Destructive Fear of God