Posted by Andrew Wilson on 1 April 2013

How on earth are we supposed to fear our heavenly Father?

For some of us, because of our own experience of authority figures, ‘the fear of God’ suggests cowering in terror before an unpredictable, vindictive and potentially abusive authority figure. Even when we don’t consciously think like that, we can still understand ‘the fear of God’ to imply running away and hiding.

Others of us, on the other hand, will do the opposite. Because we understand, rightly, that the God revealed in the scriptures is not a capricious bully, and that fearing God is connected with joy, delight, grace, wisdom and mercy (see Psalm 111), we screen out references to ‘fearing’ God altogether. Some of us do this by drawing a big fat line between the God of the Old and God of the New Testament; others may be more subtle, and say that God is the same, but fearing God is ‘old covenant’. But neither of these work, because the New Testament repeatedly urges us to fear our heavenly Father (Matt 10:28; 2 Cor 7:1; Php 2:12; 1 Pet 2:17; etc). Tricky, isn’t it?

It’s really important we get this right, though. If we end up with a church where everyone is cowering under the bed, and not delighting in the love of their Father, then we’ve forgotten what the gospel is. But if we end up with a church where nobody fears God any more, then we’ve forgotten who God is. So how do we do it?

There are two observations that I’ve found helpful on this. The first is that it’s perfectly possible to fear something and delight in it at the same time. My friend Tom loves dams, and recently, he drove to the base of one to look more closely. Despite marvelling at the structure, engineering and sheer magnitude of the dam, Tom said he found standing at the base, staring up and up at this massive wall behind which was an untold mass of water that could crush him in an instant, dizzying and very frightening. The dam was powerful, beautiful, and it was protecting him – but he was terrified of it anyway. Delight and fear can go together.

The other is that there’s a big difference between fearing someone who’s against you, and fearing someone who’s for you. When the T-Rex eats the Velociraptors at the end of Jurassic Park, you’re more scared of him than you are of them (because he’s more powerful), but you fear him in a good way, because he’s on your side. Aslan is far scarier than the White Witch, because he could crush her in an instant, but you fear him differently, because he’s for you.

Remember when Jesus calms the storm in Mark 4:35-41? The disciples, Mark says, were ‘afraid’ of the storm. But when Jesus rolled out of bed, looked at the waves sternly, and silenced them with a simple ‘Ssssh!’, the disciples were ‘alarmed with a great fear’. They were scared of the waves, but they were terrified of Jesus. But their fear of Jesus was totally different, because he was completely and utterly for them.

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