The unthinkable has happened.
One hundred million Americans are on lockdown—ordered to stay home. Fifty-five million American school children are at home—as states have cancelled classes for who knows how long. Non-essential businesses are shuttered everywhere. All mass gatherings have been cancelled or postponed—even, God forbid, sporting spectaculars such as March Madness and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Yes, the whole world is under quarantine. Meanwhile, the healthcare systems everywhere are frenetically preparing to be completely overwhelmed by the seriously-ill patients who may be flocking to hospitals in the weeks and months to come.
It’s Apocalypse Now!
A local TV News Station has coined a catchy phrase to summarize the reason for its coverage of the current crisis: “Facts, Not Fear.”
Yes, its catchy, but somewhat illogical. It seems to me that knowing the facts only feeds the fear.
Our nation, even the world, has been invaded by an invisible killer. It’s extremely contagious, 20% of the people who get sick with it will be hospitalized, and 10 percent of those will die. And absolutely every extreme pre-caution that has been undertaken has been motivated by fear—the fear that if we don’t do everything we can now, the contagion will spread exponentially. Italy’s experience will be repeated here, and maybe millions will die.
I’m surprised, under the circumstances, that fear gets such a bad rap. Sure, it’s a bad feeling. But it seems to me that on many occasions, fear serves us well. When we avoid certain high-risk behaviors, we often save ourselves a lot of grief. We sometimes save our own lives and the lives of those whom we love.
So, just exactly what role should fear play in a Christian’s life, according to Scripture.
By far, the most well-known verse in the Bible with respect to fear has to be Proverbs 1:7—Solomon’s admonition to his son that really establishes the theme of this entire book regarding godly wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
Christians in our culture have often had a hard time with the notion that we need to “fear” the Lord. Love, yes; fear, no. We often balk at the idea of presenting our God as even potentially wrathful. The image of fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone preachers from our nation’s past still embarrasses us. So when the subject of idea of “fearing the Lord” is brought up, we feel the need to cover up. When this verse is cited, we are quick to remember it’s from the Old Testament, and that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ in the New Testament. And we are often found re-defining the fear of God as something more palatable, both for ourselves and those we seek to win to the love of Christ. What “fear” really means, we tell ourselves and them, is reverence, maybe even reverential awe.
But if the New Testament and Jesus more fully defined what the fear of God really means, wouldn’t it make sense to check our preferred definition of fear against what He specifically had to say about the subject?
At this juncture, Matthew 10:28 comes to mind. Jesus, as he sends his disciples off on their first missions trip, instructs them, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Now read this verse, but replace the word fear with our preferred definition—reverence—as in
“Do not reverence those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul, but rather reverence Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
It doesn’t quite work, does it? I doubt that anyone would willingly reverence someone who is about murder him. Nor does reverence completely cover the attitude anyone is likely to have as he contemplates eternal destruction in hell. Nope, unless, we’re totally, flat-out afraid; if there is not some aspect of sheer terror in of our understanding of what it means to fear God, there’s something definitely missing from our understanding of even what Jesus says about how we are to relate to Almighty God.
The New Testament book of Hebrews supports Jesus’ definition of fear, as if He needs any support. As Hebrews warns believers against the prospect of falling away from the faith, it says, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. . . . It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:27, 31).
Now, granted, all this needs to be balanced with the love, grace and forgiveness offered to us by Jesus Christ. God’s love expressed through Jesus death for our sins is expressly designed to prevent us from ever experiencing His wrath. Once we have come to repentant faith in Christ, we are assured that such a terrifying judgment will not be part of our future experience, as Romans 8:1 promises: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And I John 4:18 does tell us “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”
On the other hand, how many of us are actually perfected in His love?
The casual approach of many “obedience-optional” Christians in America today, whose born-again life-styles are no different from their unbelieving neighbors’, suggests that many professing believers may have missed that mark completely.
It also tells us that a good dose of the outright fear of God might just be the right medicine.
Otherwise, why would Jesus have concluded His greatest sermon with these words: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23).
Yes, fear can be a good thing, but mostly when applied to the proper object—our Lord God Almighty. And once we fear Him, ultimately, there is little else to be fearful of.
For, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, And rescues them.” (Psalm 34:7).