Over the last thirty years, culture has been emboldening us to breakthrough our phobias to accomplish something of value. We internalized the message as we repeated the “Just do it” slogan and wore the “No Fear” clothing line that dominated the mid-nineties. However, not all fear is bad.
In the Bible “fear” even the fear of God is still fear. Often, in the New Testament the Greek word translated fear is phobeo, from which we get our English word “phobia.” Both in today’s usage and in the first century, it carries the idea of a pulse-quickening, mouth-drying, knee-weakening reaction to something we deem mightier than ourselves.
Fear based in the truth of scripture can help us to hold something or someone in high regard. It can keep us from trampling what is above and beyond us. This fear is akin to reverence—a deep respect for someone or something. Reverential fear helps us to avoid familiarity with something or someone such that we fail to see the chasm between our knowledge and theirs, our integrity and theirs, our responsibilities and theirs, our challenges and theirs.
Showing proper regard for right authority is a biblical virtue we cannot ignore. When it comes to human leaders—parents, statesmen, elders, pastors, mentors, and the like, we can give them reverence out of obedience to the Lord without assuming that they will never stumble (and without staying mute when offenses take place). In his first epistle, the apostle Peter instructs us, “Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king.”
Biblical fear also leads us to a deep reverence for God Almighty. Through that fear grounded in truth, we drop to our knees before God who cannot be fully known, who cannot be fooled, who is sovereign overall. He knows every word before we say it. He holds our life in his hands. He gives us the air we breathe. Like the apostle John on the island of Patmos, who fell like a dead man when he saw the glorified Lord, we are to bow before him. The Lord is not to be taken for granted or treated as part of creation but worshiped as creator. Yes, Jesus condescended to come as a human being out of love for us, but he is at all times deity. Reverential awe belongs to him.
Reverence of God leads us to obedience. Without godly fear, we trounce on what is holy. We treat his commands as optional. We allow personal reputation to be enthroned in our hearts. We begin to worship lesser things. Through deep reverence, we put our relationship with God in proper perspective: he is Lord and we are his people. Our awe demonstrates to the world his sovereignty and willingness to move mountains on our behalf.
It’s a good thing to overcome sweaty-palmed, irrational fears—especially about our worth—that emotionally suck us down a dank, dark hole. Fear is detrimental when it is based on false imaginations. But when our imaginations confirms the chasm between our knowledge and God’s, our integrity and God’s, our responsibilities and God’s, our power and God’s, we will rightly tremble with reverential fear and follow his ways instead of our own.
Cover image by Kasper Rasmussen.