“Fear” is not a word I had instinctively associated with any person of the Trinity (God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). How could a feeling that lends itself to an aversion toward its object be something that I feel toward God? I trust God the Father on a cognitive and affective level; I call Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Friend; and I see the Holy Spirit as a Counselor. When I think about what it means to fear something, nothing that I would associate immediately with the person and the goodness of God comes to mind.1
Then what, dear reader, are we to make of Deuteronomy 10:12 which reads, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul”?2 In the same sentence we have the existence of love and fear, but it seems contradictory to love what one fears, or vice versa. Furthermore, how are we to understand Proverbs 1:7 (“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”), or Ecclesiastes 12:13 (“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”)?3 The authors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes clearly imply some kind of link between knowledge, also translated as wisdom, duty, and fear. But I would wager that to most of us, fear isn’t a feeling we would readily associate with knowledge or wisdom, let alone perceive as our duty.
So what is going on? It seems as though many other people quoted in the Bible understood what “the fear of the Lord” meant perfectly clearly.4 It is perhaps more convenient to brush this curious phrase aside and focus instead on the love, goodness, kindness, mercy, and grace of God. Those epithets are ones that I understand immediately and know how to fit into my conceptualization of who the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to me.
But I submit to you, dear reader, that Christians lose out on a richness of communion – and arguably even a rightness of communion – in our relationship to and with the Trinity if we do not reflect critically on what many different people speaking at many different times said about “the fear of the Lord.” I want to make two points about this phrase which I hope will provoke you to think about Christian relationships with God in a more nuanced way.
Firstly, the fear of the Lord tells us something about the way that we should know God: knowledge in the relational sense. It is a relational claim upon the psychological attitude of the human toward God that is premised upon an ontological reality (who God is). The Hebrew word used for fear, יִרְאָה (yirah), means not only “fear” as we would use it in conversational English today, but also “reverence.” Furthermore, it communicates a sense of awe.5 Put differently, part of what it means to love God is to treat Him with the reverence and awe that He is due. Jesus called us friends, yes, but we should eventually come to a place where we do not treat God flippantly as we might our friends when we’re having a bad day or when they irritate us. Practically speaking, this means that we recognize God for who He is and treat Him as He deserves. This could look like showing up to Bible study on time, not using your phone to scroll through your social media feeds when listening to someone else share their faith journey, or not dozing off during prayer.6 The question to ask here is what it might mean for you to adopt a posture of yirah toward God in your daily life.
We are, after all, immensely privileged that the God and Creator of the universe desires to have an intimate personal relationship with us. For some, this journey into a posture of yirah might take longer than others. And that’s okay. God does not demand perfection from us from the moment we start, only that we recognize that it is our end goal and that it is something that we should be working toward: walking closer with Him, trusting Him more, and being more Christlike, day by day.7 What is important is that we take steps on the journey toward those relational states as part of a long obedience in the same direction.
Secondly, the fear of the Lord tells us something about the way that we should come to know about God: knowledge in the more traditional cognitive or propositional sense. As the wisdom literature from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes quoted earlier hints to us, the fear of the Lord moves beyond the aforementioned issue of what is lost in translation from Biblical Hebrew into English; it is also a claim about the context in which theological epistemology takes place. Put simply, when you come to learn about God, what kind of attitude do you have as you do so? Are you simply there for laughs and giggles, to fulfill a promise you made to your friend to turn up for a session of inductive Bible study, or because you had nothing better to do? Again, this is not to say that it is entirely wrong to learn about God in those situations. But our end goal, as part of what it means to cultivate a posture of yirah that leads to wisdom, has to move beyond learning about God solely because of those reasons.
The above is not to say that we put on hermeneutical blinders and cease to critically interrogate the Bible or other theological texts through which we are learning about God. It is not an excuse for dogmatic or sloppy exegesis. But it is to say that we embark on such an undertaking genuinely, desiring to learn just a little bit more about the God who loves the world in such a way as to send His Son to die for us.
I do not find either of the two points which I have discussed easy to live out. This is not the convenient thing to do, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article. This attitudinal shift is not merely a cognitive phenomenon that happens in your mind; it is an orientation that should also very much be expressed through concrete action.8 The second dimension to the meaning of the phrase “the fear of the Lord”, in particular, is far trickier for me. I sometimes find myself coasting through the motions and not being appropriately motivated when learning about God. As Christopher Woznicki, an instructor in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, eloquently puts it, “To fail to approach God with a sense of awe – being both elevated and humbled – would be inappropriate because it would mean that one is either being haughty before God or one is cowering in fear before God.”9 This mediation between the two poles of excessive pride and excessive self-abasement is critical.
But I do not think the difficulty of this task should prevent us from trying; do not let the desired end result stop you from taking the first step. If you do not already have the embers of such a desire within your heart that God can use to fan into flame, pray and ask God to place a spark within your heart, and think about what it might practically mean for you to approach God in a posture of yirah. Start small simply with a mustard seed – and come to realize what mountains that stand in your way may be cast into the ocean.
1 The goodness of God as expressed on an affective level from a human perspective (Psalm 34:8) and also on an ontological level from Jesus’ fully human and divine perspective (Mark 10:18).
2 ESV; See also Deuteronomy 6, where the commandment to love the Lord (verse 5) is framed by commandments to fear the Lord (verses 2 and 13).
3 ESV; ESV; See also Proverbs 10:27, 14:26, and 15:16.
4 Luke 18:2.; There are other examples: Mary says that “his [God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50, ESV), Job seems to perceive no contradiction in quoting God as telling man that the fear of the Lord is wisdom (Job 28:28).
5 https://biblehub.com/hebrew/3374.htm. The Greek word used in the New Testament is φοβέομαι (phobeó), which while is where phobia is derived from, also may contextually have the meaning of reverence (https://biblehub.com/greek/5399.htm).
6 This is not to say that having a posture of yirah must necessarily be constituted in such terms. I believe that whether something is respectful or not is ultimately something best evaluated with reference to its specific context. I am not willing to argue, for example, that being late for Bible study because you were helping a friend through a difficult time by listening to their struggles is necessarily an example of irreverence toward God.
7 Note that Matthew 5:48 does not demand the end result of perfection from the very beginning of one’s walk, but it does demand that we work toward it.
8 Woznicki himself notes that religious rituals—something that from my own experience Protestants have largely put aside—are a helpful way of cultivating a sense of awe for God both generally and as one learns about God (159).
9 Woznicki, Christopher. “The Awe of the Lord Is the Beginning of Knowledge: The Significance of Awe for Theological Epistemology.” The Expository Times, vol. 131, no. 4, 2019, pp. 159., doi:10.1177/0014524619883172.
Andre Hui ’21 is a Sociology, Religion and Anthropology major and Science and Technology Studies concentrator. He calls Singapore home. When not playing computer games, he enjoys going on culinary adventures, asking questions with no definite answers, and borrowing a dozen books from the library, none of which he finishes and half of which he starts.