A Healthy Fear of God

I’ve noticed over the years that when my kids don’t take my words of safety seriously, I get quickly and deeply frustrated. For example, we stepped off the train into Chicago at midnight last night and I struggled to get them to keep up with me and pay attention to the busy streets around them. In order for them to be safe, they needed to listen to me and obey—something of which they were not showing much urgency in doing.

My frustration was built out of my fears, but these particular fears were good. They were there to keep my kids safe and on track. I don’t want them to get hit by a car, but to pay attention to the crosswalk timer. I don’t want them to walk with their heads staring at the ground, but to look around them and notice where the sidewalk meets the road and where cars are coming out of secret driveways. I want them to be alert, smart, and safe. I don’t want them to have anxiety about walking in a busy city, but I do want them to have enough fear to be smart about walking in a busy city.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all live our lives around fear. This can get out of control and give way to anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, and a million other unhealthy dysfunctions where fear becomes king. But when fear is positioned rightly within us, it protects us. For example, I prepare food a certain way, because if I don’t, there’s the fear that everyone will get food poisoning. I call a professional when pipes break in my house, because if I don’t, there’s the fear that it will create an unhealthy living environment for my family or ruin my house. I look both ways when I cross the street, because if I don’t, there’s the fear that I could die.

This kind of sensical, rightly ordered fear is what you might call, “wisdom.” It’s the kind of fear I hope to pass onto my children and it’s the reason I become quickly frustrated when I’ve had to repeat such wisdom for the tenth time in three minutes. Such fears are trying to keep them safe and instill in them practical, everyday wisdom.

And this is where the popular Proverbs 9:10 comes in: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The fear of the Lord (which is a characteristic of God endorsed all throughout the Bible), is a fear that we often try to theologize away these days. “God is a loving Father,” we say. “We have no reason to be afraid of him.” I understand this sentiment, but what’s the problem with finding both love and fear in God? Why do we think we can only have one and not the other? Are they mutual exclusive?

I’d say no. Indeed, I’ve met many Christians who could use more of the fear of God in their life—for a healthy Biblical fear of God subjects our lives more deeply to him. For example, my fear of sinning against God leads me to care about making the right moral choice in the first place. My fear of wanting to do what God wants leads me to work hard to listen to the Holy Spirit for direction. My fear of not making an impact for the Kingdom of God where I live, work, and play, causes me to live missionally. My fear of Jesus telling me I didn’t feed him because I didn’t feed the hungry around me causes me to pursue issues of justice. My fear of what might not happen in someone’s life if I don’t speak that prophetic word or pray for healing causes me to stop and practice the gifts of the Spirit. This kind of fear isn’t condemnation, it’s conviction and wisdom.

We all align our everyday life choices around our fears—some fears creating healthy and right wisdom, while others create unhealthy and false wisdom more akin to anxiety. True wisdom is a person (cf. Luke 11:49, Matthew 23:34), and we can live in a loving relationship with him and balance our fears upon him at the same time. There’s no need to theologize fear away. Those who have no fear of God often carry great apathy in living out their faith, and those who have too much fear of God are often caught up in a spirit of religion, not wisdom. We need to learn how to rightly balance our fears on God and that takes time and often requires the input of others.

May we find our fears rightly organized in God, giving birth to the wisdom and life decisions we desperately need.

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