Read Psalm 111.
Just the other day, my three-year-old, Jude, decided that all of the warnings he’d heard about getting too close to a hot stove were nonsense. He reached out his hand to touch the magical blue flame he saw under a pot of boiling pasta. Thankfully, his mother grabbed him just in time, but the little guy did get a superficial burn on one of his fingers, just enough that he now has more respect for the stove.
Healthy fear is a good thing, but I think we’d all agree that it would be altogether better to live in a world without burns—or broken bones, or post-traumatic stress. There is no comfort or joy in fear. Maybe that’s why the angel who appeared to the shepherds in that field outside of Bethlehem all those years ago had to say, “Do not be afraid,” before getting to the part about “good news that will cause great joy” (Luke 2:10).
And yet, despite all the negative connotations associated with fear, the Bible teaches that the fear of God is a good thing. Psalm 111 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (v. 10), echoing statements found in books like Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (see Job 28:28; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; and Ecclesiastes 12:13). Apparently, God wants us to fear Him.
At the most basic level, this doesn’t make sense to me. If I were God, I think I’d rather be loved than feared. As a father, I’d prefer it if my kids obeyed me out of love for their dad rather than out of fear of punishment. I agree with Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s character from The Office, who once said, “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”
God certainly wants us to love Him, but it’s impossible to deny the biblical commands to fear Him. In Psalm 111, the fear of the Lord is tied to God’s character and what He has done for the people of Israel: “Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever” (v. 3).
Those deeds? Well, God had rescued His people from Egypt through ten miraculous plagues. He brought them across the Red Sea on dry land, fed them in the wilderness with manna, satisfied their thirst with water from a rock, and supernaturally kept their clothes from wearing out. Then He fought for them as they took possession of the promised land. And those are only a few of the highlights from Exodus through Joshua.
In all of these events, it was the presence of God that made the difference. His goodness and His faithfulness to Israel combined to bless His people. But having the presence of almighty God in your midst is nothing to be trifled with.
Just ask Nadab and Abihu. They were priests who offered “unauthorized fire” before the Lord, and “fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them” (Leviticus 10:2).
Or you could check with Uzzah. While helping to transport the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, he reached out his hand to stop the ark from falling. “God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:7).
We need a healthy fear of the Lord. God makes Himself known to human beings in order to invite us into a new way of living. In His Word, He reveals a path that echoes His good heart. The commandments in Scripture are there to show us what it looks like to live free from sin, wholly devoted to the God we were made to worship.
This path is not optional. No one gets to become a Christian without recognizing Jesus as Lord. In giving ourselves to God, then, we must take up our cross daily and follow Him. That doesn’t mean we’ll nail it every day or that we won’t stumble and fall. It doesn’t mean that we should necessarily expect to wind up like Nadab and Abihu if we mess up either. There’s still room for grace. But it does mean that we must begin living as people who carry within themselves the very presence of God. With that comes a healthy fear.
God is holy, and we are made of dust. Yet because of a miracle poured out for us when the blood of Jesus was spilled, we have become vessels of the Holy Spirit. We live with the fullness of God’s presence at work within us. That’s an awe-inspiring thought on its own.
When we look back on redemption history, as the author of Psalm 111 does, and see the power and unshakable goodness of God, we should remember that we are part of that story. We are blessed because God’s power and goodness worked together to bring us home to our Father, but reading these accounts ought to fill us with holy fear too. It would be a terrible thing to be on the wrong side of that power and goodness.
When you stop and think about what God has done for you, don’t be surprised at the emotions that well up: joy, love, peace, wonder, gratitude—and yes, holy fear.