The Gift of Fear

The Oldsmobile was an American automobile icon. First built in 1897, it sold more than 35 million automobiles over its 107-year history. During the 1980s Olds tried to recapture its declining market by reinventing itself. In 1988 it came out with the slogan, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.” The company tried to reposition the elegant Olds as something different from what it was. It was the beginning of the end. The Oldsmobile was phased out in 2004.

Could it be that in the church today, in order to recapture a declining market we have copied the Oldsmobile strategy by trying to reinvent God? In our attempt to market God to a declining audience, are we in danger of domesticating the Lion of Judah and emasculating the King of Kings?

Our culture has lost the fear of the Lord. It is largely absent in Hollywood, schools, government, and in many homes. It’s not that God is absent, but rather that God is whatever we want Him to be. He is a convenient icon to be made and used at our discretion. He is a P.S. to our history, an appendix to our essay, and only a conclusion to our speeches. The critical question for the church today is, “Have we corporately and individually lost the fear of God?” 

The fear of God is not an outdated, primitive view held by unenlightened and superstitious people who were just too ignorant to know better. It is a theme that runs throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Moses taught it (Deuteronomy 10:12, 20-21). The Psalmist reflected on it (Psalm 103:13), Jesus stressed it (Matthew 10:28), Paul preached it (Philippians 2:12), and the early church got it (Acts 9:31). But somewhere along the line we have lost it, to our shame and detriment.

What Is the Fear of God?
Fear is a broad term that can mean anything from fright and terror to reverence and veneration. We often use it to refer to our phobias, which run into the hundreds.  It seems new ones are being discovered every day. Daily news and advertising continually prey on our fears, whether real or imaginary. At one time or another, we are given the impression that just about everything in our lives is a threat or unsafe. Hollywood feeds our fear with its love affair with disaster and end-of-the-world movies.

But fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It is actually a gift from God. When our lives are threatened, we feel fear. Healthy fear moves us to take protective action. Fear also keeps us (most of us) from taking risks beyond our ability. Parents wisely keep close tabs on young children near cliffs because they know that the “fear factor” is not fully developed. (Someone also needs to keep tabs on senior men who climb ladders for the same reason!)

Some, like Timothy Treadwell, pay the ultimate price when they lose their healthy gift of fear. Mr. Treadwell lived among grizzly bears in Alaska for a number of years, assuming they were his friends. One day in 2003, Mr. Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by the grizzly bears he was no longer afraid of. Fear is a gift.

But the term “fear of God” is not about feeling terror that causes us to shrink from His presence. Rather it is a reverential fear that is described in Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words as the “controlling motive of the life, in matters spiritual and moral, not a mere 'fear' of His power and righteous retribution, but a wholesome dread of displeasing Him.” The fear of God is based on His power and holiness as revealed in Scripture, rightly leading to the question, “How can we ever be right with God or live in His presence? Does our current gospel message of the love of God adequately reflect the fear of God?”

The good news is that when we come to God by grace through faith, the fear of condemnation is eliminated, so we no longer shrink from His presence. Jesus Christ is now our high priest, making it possible to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, NASB). Therefore, we can approach Him confidently, but we should also approach Him with reverence, awe, and gratitude. This reverent fear of God is the platform for our entire journey of faith.

I wonder how well we are teaching the fear of God to the next generation. I know there has been a strong reaction to previous generations that presented God as stern, angry, vengeful, and usually unapproachable. That view of God is not accurate but neither is the one that makes God our “buddy.”

I would suggest one contributor to this loss of reverence is the changing style of worship. Many of our worship services promote entertainment and a casual “coffee house” atmosphere rather than humility, reverence, and awe before God. I am not suggesting we go back to the cold, sterile, and formal days of the past. Styles must and will change, but can we stay relevant and yet maintain that which is critical to our understanding of God?

Questions for reflection:

  • In what ways are we modeling an attitude of awe, reverence, and respect for God?
  • How might we teach the reverent wonder of God to the next generation?

Ron Bennett, senior staff with The Navigators, has led discipleship ministries in many settings in the United States. He and his wife, Mary, are currently serving with Navigators Encore in Raymore, Missouri. While on the national leadership team of Navigator Church Ministries he wrote Intentional Disciplemaking and coauthored The Adventure of Discipling Others and Beginning the Walk (NavPress). This article is adapted from his blog The Adventure of Discipleship, October 8, 2018. 

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