“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” This famous phrase had its genesis in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933. As FDR uttered these words, several people at the event reportedly muttered, “I was afraid he would say that.”
Fear is a funny world in the English language, conjuring up many images. For children, fear can mean apprehension the “boogeyman” might suddenly pop out of a closet or from under the bed. Or that mommy or daddy might abandon them at the mall. As we get older, an expanding array of other fears supplant the boogeyman.
It’s a word we attribute to a dog cowering in a corner, tail between its legs, hoping to avoid another blow from its abusive owner. Or employees who arrive at work wary of their tyrannical boss’s unpredictable behavior.
We use a convenient word of Greek and Latin origin – “phobia” – to describe fears, often irrational, of virtually everything, including heights, spiders, snakes, crowds, enclosed places, flying, specific colors, black cats, the number 13, and red-headed people. (Is there a phobia of red-headed woodpeckers?) Politically correctness has led to the creation of new terms, like homophobia and Islamophobia.
But when you hear the phrase, “fearing God,” what comes to mind? That’s a legitimate question, since numerous verses talk about the fear of the Lord. The book of Proverbs, for instance, gives an admonition, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). Similarly, Psalm 111:10 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
For some, to fear God suggests being prepared to duck, hoping to dodge a bolt from Heaven the Lord might choose to throw down if He catches us doing something wrong. Is that what it really means to fear God – anticipating divine zapping when He feels inclined to do so?
Tame that down a notch, and some people regard fearing God as always being at risk of becoming the object of His displeasure and impatience as we repeatedly fail to meet His perfect, righteous, never-changing standards.
However, not long ago I talked with someone who expressed an opposite opinion. He posited there’s no reason to fear God at all, since He’s so loving that He’ll accept whatever we do. This makes Him sound like the parent who never corrects or disciplines her child, or the grandparent who delights in doting on the grandkids, knowing before long they’ll be going home with their parents to deal with the fruit of their spoiling. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Kids do the darnedest things!”
A definition of the “fear of God” favored by many is “reverent awe” or “admiring submission.” This involves understanding that while He is accessible – “Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16) – the Lord is, after all, Creator not only of this planet but also the entire universe. That’s not something we should take lightly, with a casual shrug. He made everything and can do whatever He chooses with what He’s made.
The foreboding image of the Lord lurking nearby, poised to yell, “Gotcha! I knew it!” is unfortunate and stands at odds with the concept of grace – God’s unconditional favor we could never merit or earn. We’re told, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Titus 3:5 seconds this motion by declaring, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy.”
Nevertheless, this doesn’t justify an attitude by which we might regard God as “Bro,” or as our good buddy.
We “fear” law enforcement officers, not because we suspect they might harm us, but because they have the power to enforce laws if we break them. I remember when I was in school, we also “feared” the teacher, knowing she or he had authority to discipline us or reduce our grades if we misbehaved or violated classroom rules.
God is Creator of all we see – as well as everything we can’t. It reminds me of the parent who, in a peak of frustration, said, “Son, I brought you into this world – and I can take you out!”
In most cases, because of His love, grace and mercy, God doesn’t act in a similar way. However, we know He can, and sometimes has done so. Think of those who perished in The Flood except for Noah and his family, or the residents of the sin-riddled cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Egyptian army as they pursued the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Ananias and Sapphira, members of the early Church, thought they could get away with misrepresenting their generosity. They greatly underestimated how much God values integrity.
So we worship a God fully capable of doing fearsome things. But If we truly know Him, and have an accurate, honest appraisal of ourselves, He deserves our reverent awe and wholehearted worship, praise and gratitude. As Psalm 34:9-10 tells us, “Oh, fear the Lord, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him…those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing.”
- - - -
Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, former newspaper editor and magazine editor. Bob has written hundreds of magazine articles, and authored, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include the newly re-published, “Business At Its Best,” “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” He edits a weekly business meditation, “Monday Manna,” which is translated into more than 20 languages and distributed via email around the world by CBMC International. To read more of Bob Tamasy’s writings, you can visit his blog, www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com
, or his website (now being completed), www.bobtamasy-readywriterink.com
. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.