Godly Fear vs. Worldly Fear
In a previous article, I explored the concept of worldly fear. Like the children of Israel, worldly fear leads us to fixate on what MIGHT happen rather than remember what God HAS done for us. Fear tells us to keep our sin secret and thereby keep ourselves safe. Worldly fear tells us we will always have time to confront our sins tomorrow. Worldly fear robs us of hope and tells us lies. These are the types of fears the Bible tells us to cast aside.
But there is a type of fear – the fear of the Lord or godly fear – that the Bible teaches is both virtuous and healthy.
Godly fear leads us to reject sin and evil.
This is one of the chief lessons Solomon drives home in Proverbs:
“By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil” (Proverbs 16:6)
Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, tells us why godly fear urges us away from sin:
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all.  For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil.”
After putting everything “under the sun” to the test in his search for meaning and purpose, Solomon arrives at a simple conclusion. A life led by obedience motivated by a fear of God gives us purpose. AND, God will hold us accountable for our actions one day.
It’s this second element – we will all be judged by God one day – that compels us to depart from evil. We depart from evil because we fear failing to meet God’s expectations.
The fear of failure
When I was in college, one of my professors became a full, tenured professor. For 10-15 years, he had worked very hard to achieve this distinction – he was an excellent teacher, highly respected by his colleagues and students. Upon obtaining tenure, he remarked, “I will no longer have to live in fear.” It was a passing, but insightful comment. What he feared was failure and all of the consequences that accompanied it.
A fear of missing the mark, of falling short of God’s expectations, a fear of failure is both natural AND helpful. Without question, none of us, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much energy we expend, no matter how many good things we do, none of us can be righteous in God’s eyes without the blood of Jesus Christ.
However, even though we only obtain perfection through Jesus Christ, God still expects us to, “work out (our) own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Remembering that “every knee will bow” before the Lord Jesus Christ should motivate us to live better.
Fearing God helps us to turn away from sin and evil. We know we will be held accountable one day and we fear falling short of the mark.
God blesses those with godly fear.
Solomon teaches in the book of Proverbs that the “fear of the Lord,” is where knowledge and wisdom begins.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)
But the fear of the Lord requires humility.
“The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate” (Proverbs 8:13).
Pride and arrogance are singled out as two things God hates. Therefore, if we fear him, we too should hate pride.
Pride is the biggest impediment to learning. Those who think they know all things cannot be taught. Those who are full of themselves have no room for God. The proud tend to be close-minded and self-satisfied and, therefore, unwilling to learn. Only the humble can be taught by God because the humble fear Him.
The fear of the Lord gives us confidence in the face of our enemies.
“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident” (Psalms 27:1-3).
Though all the hosts of evil men surround us, those who fear God can be confident that HE is their light and salvation and strength. When we fear God, we have no reason to fear man.
Remember the warning of Jesus to His apostles:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
When Paul reminds Timothy, “God has not given us a spirit of fear,” he couches the reminder in the context of suffering for the Lord Jesus. In the next verse he says,
“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God,” (2 Timothy 1:8).
Later in the book, he assures Timothy, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Fearing what man can do to us is a worldly fear; fearing God means we have no reason to fear what man can do.
Godly fear opens God’s ears to our prayers.
“Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.  Who is the man who desires life, And loves many days, that he may see good?  Keep your tongue from evil, And your lips from speaking deceit.  Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it.  The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, And His ears are open to their cry” (Psalms 34:11-15).
The fear of the Lord, David teaches, leads us to “depart from evil and do good.” When we fear God and embrace righteousness, God opens His ears to our prayers.
“The LORD is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth.  He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him; He also will hear their cry and save them” (Psalms 145:18-19).
“(Jesus), in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear” (Hebrews 5:7).
God inclines His ear to hear the prayers of those who fear Him.
And when we reject sin and evil out of godly fear, Scripture promises us life.
Remember from Psalm 34, David teaches us the fear of the Lord. He asks in verse 12, “Who is the man who desires life, And loves many days, that he may see good?” Fearing God compels us to live better and living better leads to life.
In Proverbs, Solomon observes how a righteousness rooted in the fear of the Lord extends one’s life.
“The fear of the LORD prolongs days,” he says in 10:27, “But the years of the wicked will be shortened.”
“The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, To turn one away from the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27).
In the case of Noah, godly fear literally saved his life and the lives of those in his household:
“By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (Hebrews 11:7).
And God gives US life if we fear Him: Hebrews 12 concludes with these words,
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (verses 28-29).
God blesses us when we fear Him. He:
- Teaches us.
- Emboldens us in the face of our enemies.
- Opens His ears to our prayers.
- And He pledges to give us life.
But what about the Scriptures that tell us to not fear?
How can God promise to bless those who fear Him AND tell them NOT to fear? Certainly, Scripture does command and encourage us to set aside fear. Over 300 times, God commands His people, “Do not be afraid,” and, “do not fear.” Here are a couple of examples:
Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.”
1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.”
Each of these passages presents fear as something to be cast aside, outgrown, put away. I believe this type of fear is worldly fear, the fear we examined in a previous study. Living with worldly fear is a relic of our lives before we came to Christ.
The message about fear in 1 John 4:18 is especially interesting to me.
It suggests that as we grow in our love for God and one another, our fear of punishment will grow less. We should not lose our respect, awe, or reverence for God.
Jesus does tell his apostles to “fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28). Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians, “we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:9-10). Bearing in mind that “we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” to account for our lives is both prudent and necessary.
However, I also would contend that as we mature in Christ, our fear of God’s condemnation should diminish. Sin, and the consequences that await unforgiven sin, is what causes us to fear God’s condemnation. But part of perfecting our love for God means we should sin less and less as we mature:
1 John 2:5, “But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.”
So as we grow in keeping the word of God – and thereby grow in our love for God – the cause for our fear, sin, diminishes. While I should never lose godly fear, John tells me that I can gradually grow out of my fear of eternal punishment by growing in my love for God.
Key Thoughts about Godly Fear
- Fearing God helps us to turn away from sin and evil; we know we will be held accountable one day and we fear falling short of the mark.
- God blesses us when we fear Him: He teaches us, He emboldens us in the face of our enemies, He opens His ears to our prayers, and He pledges to give us life.
- God tells us to not be afraid AND to fear Him.He wants us to cast out worldly fear while continuing to fear Him in healthy ways.And, as we grow in our love for Him, we will gradually lose our fear of eternal punishment.