Many believers today are driven by fear—especially in very theologically conservative groups. Leaders in those groups teach that God is often angry, harsh, and vindictive. And this is easy to believe when we read certain Old Testament stories; for these reasons many believers do have a strong fear of God. And from this misunderstanding of God flow other great fears: the fear of hell, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of being wrong, and the fear of being rejected by God and the church.
When I was part of those groups I had considerable fear, too. But I have since learned there is no reason a believer should ever fear at all and that overcoming fear begins by better understanding God’s character.
There is No Need to Fear God at All
Parts of the Old Testament can really strike the fear of God into you! We read that God destroyed the entire world population in a flood (except Noah’s family) because he was upset with them. We read about strict laws from God that required death for those who did not observe them. Then there are the stories of God ordering the Israelites to exterminate entire nations including women, infants, and livestock.
God did not spare his own people, either. He swallowed Korah’s followers into the depths of the earth, struck Uzzah dead for steadying the ark of the covenant, and heavily punished Israelite kings who displeased him. All this should put the fear of God in us for sure! Except…
Except that God did not do any of these things. Yes, those who wrote the books of the Old Testament said he did, but often they were just trying to explain calamities that occurred or even creating stories about God. They assumed that their God did all these things based on his displeasure. However, their ideas arose from the limitations of their eras and cultures and from their limited understandings of God.
Jesus gives us a much better understanding of God. He taught that God is not angry and vindictive but is instead like a loving Father/Mother. One of Jesus’ followers captures his teaching very well. In 1 John 4 he writes:
If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love.
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.
His point is that God really loves us and there is no fear in love; this is our true relationship with the Father. Believers should never have a fear of God who loves us.
But Didn’t Jesus Warn Us Specifically to ‘Fear God’?
This common assertion is based on something Jesus said that is found in both Luke 12 and Matthew 10. Luke 12 reports Jesus as saying:
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell [Gehenna]. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
Jesus is talking to his friends (disciples) and warns them about the Pharisees. A moment later he tells them not to fear those who can kill them—probably still having the Pharisees in mind; and, as we know, many of Jesus’ earliest followers were indeed killed by authorities. Jesus says don’t be afraid of them; don’t be intimidated by them; don’t regard them to the extent that you stop sharing the good news.
He goes on to say who they should really ‘fear’ instead of those who threaten them—and that is God. But I don’t think he meant for them to be ‘afraid’ of God but to regard God’s work above the concerns of human threats and intimidation. While the authorities are indeed capable of killing Jesus’ followers, God is able to totally destroy people in Gehenna (hell). Jesus’ does not envision an eternal burning hell but an image of total physical destruction found in the Old Testament that he often uses in hyperbole.
Actually, the charge to ‘fear God’ doesn’t seem to apply so much to the disciples as to the Pharisees themselves. In fact, Jesus immediately tells the disciples of the Father’s tremendous care for them and uses the words ‘Don’t be afraid‘:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
So I don’t think this passage should be stripped of its context to teach believers that they should ‘fear God’. This is my message to believers today: There is no need at all for us to fear the Father who loves us.
But What about those Other Four Great Fears?
You might recall that, in addition to fear of God, there are four other great and common fears believers should never have: the fear of hell, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of being wrong, and the fear of being rejected by God and the church. You might well ask, ‘What about those fears?’ Well in this post I have focused on the fear of God because it is the foundation for the other four fears. But they do deserve their own investigations. We will do that next time.
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