Several Mondays ago, when I went to the basilica in Washington, DC, and sat in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, I read Psalm 19:9 which says, “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.” You cannot understand this verse unless you understand that there are two kinds of fear that are the opposite of one another even though both kinds use the word yore in Hebrew and phobos in Greek.What we are used to understanding as “fear” when it relates to God is the kind of fear that 1 John 4:18 describes: “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.” One of American Christianity’s basic problems is a widespread conflation of these two fears: the fear that is awed reverence and the fear that is cowardly fright.
The fear of punishment is what causes people to “love darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19). It’s the kind of fear that makes us perpetually anxious and self-conscious. It’s the kind of fear that used to make me qualify everything I said with maybes. That kind of fear is the fear that is behind hate, because anxiety and shame create mistrust. If we are hiding things about ourselves because we’re afraid of what others will say, then it makes us edgy and resentful. So it is absolutely the case that perfect love drives out the 1 John 4:18 kind of fear because in a room full of love, we have the safety to be vulnerable.
The second kind of fear, the fear of the Lord, is “the beginning of all wisdom,” according to Proverbs 9:10. A lot of Christians unfortunately think that the fear of the Lord is the same as the fear of punishment. A perverse understanding of Proverbs 9:10 would be to say that you would be “wise” to be very afraid of God because He’s going to pummel you unless you follow all of His “rules” (the beauty-free word for the harmonic principles of Torah). In such a reading, we either have to ignore 1 John 4:18 or try to play the Old Testament “law” against the New Testament “gospel,” because clearly something that is “the beginning of wisdom” should not be “driven out by love.” That’s incoherent.
However, we can’t play that duality game anyway because Acts 9:31 says, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and the confidence of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” So there’s a good fear of the Lord in the New Testament. Now some people are still going to try to make the fear in this passage into that fear of punishment again. And to be honest, the ultra-authoritarian churches out there that have their members on lock-down seem to combine a real fear of punishment with a facade of confidence, kind of like a bunch of North Korean soldiers clapping enthusiastically for Kim Jong Un. But that is exactly the opposite of what fear and confidence mean in this context!
The confidence in the Holy Spirit that Acts 9:31 describes is real and absolutely genuine. The fear of the Lord is what creates the confidence in the Holy Spirit. Proverbs 14:26 says, “In the fear of the Lord is strong confidence.” This is because the fear of the Lord is the opposite of being driven into hiding by a fear of God’s punishment. The fear of the Lord happens when you have been compelled into intimacy with a ridiculously powerful and amazing infinite God through a radical trust in His mercy. The fear of the Lord seizes you when you see that God is really there, and this isn’t just a story that we’re telling so that society will be orderly and kids will get raised right while their parents have wholesome friends to sit in the bleachers with. When you have the fear of the Lord, you recognize that the God you are facing is an infinite being who can accomplish anything through you, which is the basis for your confidence in the power that He offers you. You also respect the fact that this infinite God is necessarily beyond your full comprehension, which shapes how you approach the task of interpreting His revelation through the Bible.
People who truly fear the Lord believe that the Bible is “God breathed” because they have seen God breathe through it. They know that a living Word can speak through the same written words in different ways at different points, which means that they don’t have a single, static meaning. An infinite God who is worthy of our awed reverence cannot be represented by a flat, perfectly self-explanatory, mystery-free text. The fact that there is a gap between the Bible’s divine revelation and our limited ability to interpret it is what creates the rich desire that keeps us in love with God’s Word. We must go back to it again and again, because we will never grasp it until we are in the glorified kingdom. This is why Jesus spoke in parables, because anything that you “understand” immediately upon “hearing” it cannot change your life (Mark 4:12); it doesn’t create metanoia; it doesn’t make you fear the Lord.
It’s not the fear of the Lord that causes many Christians to reduce the full measure of God’s beautiful testimony to a set of seven fundamentals or four spiritual laws. The fear of punishment is what makes Christians paranoid that unless they get their doctrine exactly right, they’re going to fry, so they try to make the gospel as simple and formulaic as possible. It has to be perfectly clear or else all is lost, even though Paul wrote very clearly, “Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Christians who want to know exactly what they need to do to get into heaven so they can do it and be done with it are like that miserly little servant who buries his master’s talent in the mud in Jesus’ parable; he figured he couldn’t be judged for giving his master back exactly what he owed him so he went with the safest option possible because he was afraid of his master and had no respect for him. That kind of miserly fear says to God, “You are a hard man and you reap where you don’t sow” (Matthew 25:24). It needs to know that God hates somebody else like gays, illegal aliens, or Palestinians in order to have the fleeting comfort of saying, “I thank you, God, that I am not like those people” (Luke 18:11). That kind of fearful Christianity hates mystery not because it loves truth but because it wants to have a God that it can control — a God simple enough to be made into an acronym.
God wants Christians who are willing to tremble before His perplexing infinite fullness, rather than cowering behind a fake puppet acronym idol that we’ve created to worship. He is absolutely someone who will make us quake in our boots just like He did to Isaiah and Jeremiah when they received their calls to be prophets. But we can “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). Jesus’ sacrifice rescues us from the cowardly kind of fear by proving God’s love for us so that we can stand before what would otherwise be terrifying and experience ecstatic joy instead. So let us fear God with the “confidence [we have received] to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19) instead of cowering in fear with a wasted talent that we are ready to hand back to the Master who is not a hard man, but an infinitely generous and loving Father.