What does it mean to fear God?

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The Bible is filled with commands to fear God. But what does it mean to fear the Lord when you are a Christian? Why should we fear God if He is love? How should we fear God? Can we fear Him too much?

Many Christians struggle with questions like these. And I used to be one of them. I had been trying to wrap my head around what it means to fear God, ever since I was a little child. But the more I grew to love God, the more I began to see, hear, feel, and understand what fearing God means.

And as I was gradually uncovering the answers to these questions about fear, I began to realize how tremendously important they are for our relationship with God and vice versa.

What I mean by that, is that if we fear God the wrong way, or worse, if we don’t fear Him at all, it ends up hurting our relationship with God. But the opposite is true too: If our relationship with God is bad, we will fear Him the wrong way, or worse, we won’t fear Him at all.

But let me start at the beginning.

How only the fear of God leads to life

Unbelievers have many rational and irrational fears. Examples are fear of dying, fear of punishment, fear of losing someone they love, fear of other people’s opinions, fear of spiders, fear of losing money or other treasured possessions, and so on. But there is one fear they absolutely do not have: The fear of God.

Whereas they should have fear for God, as one day they will encounter the wrath of God if they don’t repent and turn to Him. That should literally scare the hell out of them.

But for Christians the opposite is true: They only fear God or at least strive to only fear God.

As you most likely know, fear can lead to a flight, fight, or freeze response.

Now, let’s take the fear of death as an example:

  • No human can fight death and win, we will all die eventually.
  • We cannot flee from death and escape. It will always catch up with us one day.
  • And freezing up and doing nothing also doesn’t change the fact that one day we will die.

There is One Person Who has overcome death though. And that Person is Jesus, Who is Life (John 14:6). So, running to Him in response to a fear of death is a sure way to have victory over death, through Him.

And this is true for every fear you might have: The most effective and most efficient response is running to God.

That is equally true for any fear you feel for God Himself.

  • Fleeing from God, whether physically, mentally, or spiritually, will lead to your destruction (Hebrews 10:39, Hosea 7:13). And technically, fleeing isn’t even possible. God is always there and He is everywhere. Just think about Jonah, and what happened to him when he tried to flee from God. He almost drowned and was swallowed by a fish for three days until he repented and turned back to God (Jonah 1 and 2).
  • Fighting against God is just as foolish, for how will you win a battle against the Great I AM, the Creator of heaven and earth? There is no way you can survive that.
  • The third option, freezing, is bad too, as we can read in Jesus’ parable of the talents, or bags of gold, in Matthew 25:14-28. The servant who was too afraid of His master to do anything with his talents was thrown into hell!

In a moment we will look at what a healthy fear of God looks like, and how we can cultivate it. But whatever your fear looks like right now, the only correct response to feeling any type of fear of God is fleeing into His arms.

It might sound counterintuitive to run towards the very thing you are afraid of, and in many cases that would be foolish indeed. But in the case of God, it is the wisest thing you can do.

Because God is the only One Who can protect you against anything, including His Own wrath.

That is what Jesus died for. So that through Him we can freely enter the presence of the Lord without being destroyed.

So, for Christians, fearing God actually leads to not having to be afraid that God will destroy you: In His mercy, He already gave His life to protect you.

Good fear and bad fear

The Bible also contains many commands to not be afraid. Is fear a bad thing?

We’ve seen in the examples of Jonah and the servants with the talents, that fear and the other feelings and actions that fear produces, can hinder progress in many ways.

Any fear that steers you away from God or from obeying God is bad. That kind of fear might be caused by:

  1. A feeling that God, for some reason, is not able to protect you from harm, or help you in other ways. In other words, you lack trust in the power of God. This signifies a lack of faith (Matthew 8:26).
  2. Or the idea that He is able to do so, but unwilling because He wants to punish you. That is a sign that you have not yet been made perfect in love (1 John 4:18).
  3. Another reason, one that links closely to the previous two, could be that your fear of something else is so consuming that it distracts you from God. For example when experiencing or reliving traumatic events. In that case, we believe (or a part of us believes) that we are powerless against something harmful. Although we might feel this way, these feelings don’t reflect the Truth that Christ gives us all the power, security, and freedom we need to rise above that fear (Psalm 107:13-14, Psalm 34:4, Psalm 91:4-6, 2 Timothy 1:7, Isaiah 54:4).

For example, if you fully trust God, other people’s opinions cannot destabilize you. Because you will know and feel with every fiber of your being, that God intends good for your life (Jeremiah 29:11).

Of course, I am very aware that that is often easier said than done.

I am sometimes afraid of not expressing myself well enough in the defense of the Gospel. That fear can be unhealthy if it is motivated by not wanting to lose face, rather than pleasing God even if people will hate me for it.

Or it can be unhealthy because it is motivated by a lack of faith in the fact that God can use anything to speak through, even a donkey (Numbers 22:28). And He can use even my mistakes to bring someone to Christ. I’m just the messenger, and He is the one with the power to use that message for His glory.

But there is also such a thing as good fear.

That kind of fear is what saved the lives of Noah and his family. You might think that fear of the floodwaters coming in and killing everybody would be a good reason to start building an ark. But, no: The Bible says that Noah built the ark because he feared God, the One Who had power over the flood (Hebrews 11:7).

While he was building, there was no sign of any flood. What he needed was faith to start building for a future event, while everybody else was cluelessly living life as usual (Matthew 24:38), not yielding to any fear he might have had of those people’s opinions.

Ultimately it wasn’t his fear of the flood that saved him and his family. What saved them was his obedience to God as a result of the reverent fear, the deep respect, he had for God.

So, this kind of fear does not stand in the way of loving God perfectly, on the contrary: it perfects your love for God by shaping and molding you in your obedience. And therefore, perfect Love does not drive out this type of fear, but it nurtures and celebrates it (Isaiah 11:3).

And that is the kind of fear we should be looking for.

Why should we fear God?

Running into God’s arms because you fear God, is how this single fear drives out all other fears. For in His loving arms, nothing can truly harm you. You are loved, safe, comforted, protected, and alive. You are surrounded by His awesome power, and His immeasurable love. You are free from all condemnation; you don’t have to be afraid of punishment anymore. (Psalms 91:4-6, Romans 8:1, 1 John 4:18.)

So, if you fear God supremely, you won’t have to really fear anything else ever again. You can feel peace in any storm. That is quite a benefit, isn’t it?

Jesus also told His disciples to fear God. He said: 

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4-7, NIV)

I’m always amazed by the poetically symbolic way in which Jesus expresses Himself. That is one thing I love about Scripture. See how connects the commands “don’t be afraid” to repeating that we should fear God three times? This is what the Holy Spirit showed me about that:

He says that we should not be afraid of people, or even death. And by fearing God completely, we don’t have to be afraid because He will take care of us.

In other words: The key to not being afraid, is to fear God.

Or as expressed in the well-known verses of Psalm 56:3-4 (NIV): “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise— in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

But there is another reason why it is important to fear God. The Bible teaches us over and over again that the fear of the Lord and wisdom go hand in hand. For example in Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10, and Micah 6:9. Many verses even say that knowledge and wisdom start with the fear of the Lord.

And that makes sense. Because it is that fear, that deep respect for God, that causes us to look to Him for instruction. Us realizing that He is all-knowing and all-powerful, makes us go to Him for advice through prayer and through examining His Word.

How do we start fearing God?

We can only fear God if we see a reason to fear Him. That means that if we don’t know who God is, and how awesome and powerful He is, we most definitely will not fear Him.

If you truly know Who God is, and have seen His power and might, you can only be in awe. You will understand how infinitesimally small any human is in comparison to the Great I AM, Who is bigger and more powerful than the time and space that He created.

But you can only see and savor God like that after being born again (1 Peter 1:23-25).

The perfect answer to the question of how we will start fearing God lies within the same words Jesus spoke in Luke 12:4-7: “I will show you Whom you should fear.”

So, our fear of God comes through Jesus, through His Word, and through His Spirit within us. He will show us that God is to be feared and why. That is why before you can fear the Lord, you need faith.

Faith opens your eyes to see God’s hand in everything (Hebrews 11:3). Not only do you need faith to believe the miracles you read about in the Bible, but you also need it to see God’s providence in your daily life. And seeing God’s providence clearly, makes you realize how powerful, faithful, true, and loving He is.

In that sense, there is not such a thing as fearing Him too much. But there is such a thing as fearing Him in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Let’s look at what the Bible teaches us about that.

woman jumping over a wide cliff fearlessly

How should Christians fear God?

We can fear God in two main ways:

  1. We can be frightened of his wrath.
  2. We can be in reverent awe of His greatness and power.

The first makes people feel afraid of punishment, and the second makes us fall flat on our faces in awe, wonder, and adoration. I noticed that for many Christians, it’s a bit of both. And I believe that that is a good thing, as long as the latter is dominant and we are not enslaved by the first type of fear (Romans 8:15).

For a long time, I was enslaved by the first type of fear, without even realizing it. I think the reason for that has to do with my past experiences.

My father had two faces, like Jekyll and Hyde. One outside the home and one behind closed doors. Nobody knew the depth of that transformation and the fear that it caused, not even close family members. As a child, being at home did not mean safety. Harsh, abusive punishments came even when I had done nothing wrong. So, I feared my father greatly, and I was always in a watchful, anxious state.

That fear had, and has, a tremendous impact on my adult life. But it had also been impacting the way I saw God.

I knew that God is love from the moment I was born again and He filled me with His love until my cup overflowed. But I was always afraid that one day He would stop loving me, or that He would love me less. I felt that if I did not follow every command in His Word to the letter, He would pull away from me. That led to unhealthy perfectionism, and to a legalistic attitude, trying to earn His love. And if I suffered, I wondered if maybe He was punishing me for something I had done wrong. It was a real battle to learn that that was absolutely not true.

Father God is not like that at all!

Several passages in the Bible teach us why what I was feeling is not the right type of fear. For example in 1 John 4: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:15-18, NIV)

This passage reminds me of these 5 liberating truths:

  1. When we have Christ’s Spirit living in us, we are not supposed to fear God’s punishment anymore. When God does allow suffering to come near you, it is not to punish you, but to mold you into the perfect shape of His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus already took all the punishment we deserved upon Himself. God has no punishment for us anymore, just love! And if we doubt that, we are basically saying that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough for us.
  2. Loving God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind (Matt 22:37), means that there is no room for fear that is not an expression of that love. As a matter of fact, any fear that does not cause you to flee toward God, stands in the way of your relationship with God, and so cannot be loving.
  3. Because the Spirit of God’s Son lives in us, we have been transformed and are being transformed. We went from being a sinner who deserved punishment to being a saint who sometimes sins in the process of becoming more and more like Christ. When we sin, we should be shaken – as if awakened from sleep – by a fear of God’s wrath. Because if we are startled in that way, it will cause us to repent and show us that we still have imperfections that need to be made perfect in love. If we do something about that by the Holy Spirit, we are being made perfect in love again. And remember: God is love. Which by implication means that we are being made perfect in God.
  4. If God Himself indeed lives in us, and He does, why then would He punish us and, in the process, punish Himself (since He is part of us)? He already punished Himself in our place once. And that punishment was enough, once for all (Hebrews 7:27, 10:10).
  5. By His sacrifice, Christ has written His commandments on our hearts (Hebrews 10:15-17), and therefore we are fulfilling the following: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” (Psalm 103:17-18, ESV). That means that we who love and respect God (because we are His children) are eager to do the right things for Him from the inside out. The Holy Spirit will remind us of His will. And on top of that, it means that He has loved you before the creation of the earth, with a love that will never fade. Isn’t that amazing beyond comprehension?

So, the fear of God should motivate us to keep in step with the Holy Spirit, to be humble, repent of our sins, and let God transform us (Philippians 2:12).

When we do this from the heart, it is a sign that we fear God indeed:

  • If we humbly realize that in contrast with God, humans are nothing but dust and that without God we are weak, we fear God supremely.
  • If we fear God, we will want to repent since we don’t want to sin against God. We just want to be made perfect in love.
  • And we acknowledge and respect God’s power if we know that He has the power to save and transform us.

God is a good Father. He is loving, patient, and kind to us who are His children (Psalm 103:8-14).

So, rejoice that you can safely crawl into the lap of our good Father, without being consumed by His fire, because of His Son. Instead of consuming us, His fire purifies us. That is a tremendous privilege. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29, ESV).

If you’re looking for Bible verses to meditate on in your battle against fear, you might like this collection of phone wallpapers: