What does it mean to fear the Lord?
Okay brother, first of all: I laughed really hard at your avatar picture. It just makes me so happy, and now it’s hard to look away.
So I’ve seen two camps on this “fear of God” thing.
1) The fear of the Lord is a face-melting shake-in-your-boots kind of terror that is some real serious business, because God is so holy He will blast your face off. The go-to passages on this are often Isaiah 6, Philippians 2:12, or Proverbs 1:7. Not to mention all that scary-movie stuff in Genesis 35 and Exodus 23.
2) The fear of the Lord actually means “awe” in the original Hebrew language and is like the reverence we have for a beautiful sculpture or a majestic castle or a sweeping landscape. Everyone’s go-to verse for this is 1 John 4:18.
I’ve really been back and forth on this between Fear #1 and #2.
My thoughts now —
Honestly: I don’t think we mortal humans have a clue about the fear of the Lord. That’s not a cop-out. I just think it’s both the most horrifying AND beautiful truth about God’s nature, and our minds are simply too small to comprehend it with our foolish language.
We sometimes try to box up God into these neat clean categories, and while we can really come to know God, He is not about to be reduced to a landscape. He’s not a painting or a sunset. For that matter, He’s also not a fear-mongering petty parole officer who holds the lever to Hell under your feet.
The fear of the Lord is such an otherworldly supernatural concept that I don’t think anything on earth could come close to describing it. It’s neither solely the terror-fear nor the awe-fear, but some mix of both that gives rise to a third unknown. You’ve probably felt this special type of fear during worship, which C.S. Lewis aptly calls the “numinous awe.”
It’s still insufficient to fully convey such an extreme truth. I mean If God ripped the roof off your house right now and looked at you, your jaw would drop at the utter beauty of God and your body would burst into flames at His holiness. Because God is wonderfully divine, but also ferociously fearsome, and to behold Him is violently rapturous.
I just don’t want to us to stretch Hebrew words into our safe Westernized culture by saying fear is simply “reverence,” when the Bible writers actually meant to say that God is gloriously powerful and should scare us by His very nature. We play too loose with Scripture sometimes, and people forget that God is ridiculously more mighty than we could ever dare conceive.
Now God does mean for us to have a relationship with Him based on love — but the only reason we’re even able to be near Him is because He allows it. He is so powerful that He can protect us from His explosive universe-ripping presence. Just let that sink in for two seconds.
God is certainly our friend, but He’s also the ultimate authority. His Law is absolute. He is totally gracious and compassionate and slow to anger, but He’s also full of rage at sin and injustice and oppression. You can’t say God is love unless He is also angry at our extinction.
What’s so cool though is that when I know God in His pure form could melt me into a quivering puddle, then I can be in more awe of God that He would even allow me to approach Him. So then Fear #1 actually supports Fear #2, and vice versa. I’m thankful for both. God really is that good, and our human categories can’t contain Him.
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
— Hebrews 4:16