People tend to bridle at the oft-repeated biblical injunction to ‘fear God.’
‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’ (Proverbs 9:10) we are told, but we imagine ‘God-fearing’ people as narrow, constricted, exclusive, and anti-intellectual. The psalmist tells us to ‘Fear the Lord, you that are his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.’ Yet if anyone were to say to our kids the verse that appears two verses later, ‘Come, children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord,’ we might drag them away before this fanatic filled them up with nightmare visions of a vengeful bronze-age deity. God is loving, not frightening, we’d say; we don’t want our kids to have a fearful posture toward the world!
But we fail to notice what else scripture says—and doesn’t say—about fear. What if we could teach love at the very moment we taught fear? What if we were to turn the whole thing around like this:
Do not fear the teenager at your front door.
Do not fear the cheerleader who mistakes your car for hers.
Do not fear the kids playing hide and seek on your property.
Do not fear the door-dash driver in your driveway.
Do not fear drag queens.
Do not fear the LGBTQIA+ community.
Do not fear the unsheltered.
Do not fear Black and brown bodies.
Do not fear powerful women.
Do not fear that equal rights for others means fewer rights for you.
Do not fear renewable energy.
Do not fear Muslims.
Do not fear science.
Do not fear history.
Do not fear the poor.
Fear nothing and no one in the world BUT God.
This is how we learn to love. And ‘there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18).
My elder daughter returned from her first summer of wilderness search-and-rescue training in the Grand Tetons and told us, ‘You can’t be out there and think it’s all just about us.’ Some stirring of primal awe amongst those ‘purple mountain majesties’, bristling with hazards from glaciers to grizzly bears to lightning strikes, whispers to her of the “mighty power of God that made the mountains rise” (Isaac Watts).
She has also, since pre-kindergarten, always been the first in her class to learn everyone’s names. She is as fearless of people as she is of rappelling into a gorge. As our children face a new school year, full of new teachers, new classmates, new laws, and new challenges, may they have that deep knowledge of the God ‘who is worthy to be feared’ (Psalm 76:11), who also ‘did not create the world a chaos, but a place to be lived in’ (Isaiah 45:18).
In a country with more guns than people, a culture that equates aggression with courage, urging us to ‘stand our ground’ in the face of any perceived threat, however tenuous, it seems downright incongruous to hear people describe themselves as ‘God-fearing.’ If we really fear God, why are we so afraid of each other?
‘The Lord is my light and my salvation,’ said the psalmist. ‘Whom, then, shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom, then, shall I be afraid?’