The call to fear the Lord is found in many places throughout the Bible. "You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve him, and cleave to him, and you shall swear by his name" says Deuteronomy 10:20, for example. "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord" states Proverbs 9:10.
Our first impressions of the fear of the Lord are hardly positive. At first, this sounds like the Middle Ages, fear-filled religion, oppression and bondage. Fear is generally considered a bad guide. Who wants to be guided by fear? Doesn't this conjure up an image of a punitive heavenly ruler, an all-righteous petty-minded God watching my every move?
The Bible also tells us that God rejoices in us. So why does the Bible major on this word ‘fear’? Wouldn't a level partnership be better?
According to biblical understanding, the co-existence of God and humanity only works if the realities remain clear. "God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few" says Ecclesiastes 5:2. I believe that here it becomes clear what the Bible means by ‘fear of the Lord.’ The original Hebrew word means more than ‘fear’. It means the fear that does not spring from a frightful being, but from clear knowledge of that being.
If you stand on a high tower, you would be well advised to hold on. Anyone preparing to buy a house has every reason to have respect for the large sum of money involved. This kind of fear means I have an idea that I am dealing with something much more powerful than me. This is not self-deprecation, but a completely clear appraisal of one's own situation.
This feeling is the basis of all religion. We are not the author and centre of the universe. We are limited by lifetime, knowledge and power. The distance between God and humanity is insurmountable in the light of God’s greatness, and our own limitations. Anyone who underestimates the depth of the canyon whose edge they are standing on is not brave when they jump. They are foolish.
To know what it means as a human to face a God who is omnipotent, uncreated, eternal, and holy, is rightly inspiring fear. This is not the spawn of a frightened soul, but the clearly outlined reality. It’s the beginning of wisdom, the fear of God. Fear of God does not mean that he is less beautiful, that being near him is less wonderful, or that he thinks less of us. Fear of God is acknowledging that he is far greater than us.
So why is this fear of the Lord so uncomfortable for Christians? Because it presents a direct attack on the philosophy that is so prevalent in our culture – the self-glorification of the human ego.
The problem for us as humans is that God is so much greater than our self. We live in a society that is focused so much on the self to the point of obsession – it’s no coincidence that ‘selfie’ has become so much a part of our language. You see this all the time on social media – we take photos of the self in front of the canyon, rather than the canyon. Our society has lost sight of the canyon because we are too interested in ourselves. We are taught to better ourselves, care for ourselves, embrace ourselves – to be told otherwise makes us uncomfortable. When we put so much emphasis on loving our self and elevating our self, then God’s importance diminishes. We lose sight of him, we lose sight of those around us, and we lose sight of who God has made us to be.
This self-glorification of the human ego has permeated the Church world. A Church in which there is no longer a sense of the sacred resembles, in disturbingly precise detail, the culture of their time. Things are lost, dramatically, when the creature forgets that it is a creature and not a creator. When we lose the sense of the last and highest majesty. We don’t fear God because we don’t appreciate how incredible he is. Fear is a logical reaction to God. And that is uncomfortable, in a society that is so self-glorifying of the human ego. It’s uncomfortable for Christians to stand up for something – someone – greater. It’s offensive to our world.
As Christians, when society all around us is focusing on the self, ignoring those around them and ignoring God, we are wise to turn the camera lens away from themselves and point to God – his majesty, his glory, his beauty – and what an honour it is to be loved by him.
Johannes Hartl is the founder of the House of Prayer Augsburg and the author of a number of books, including the recently released God Untamed (Muddy Pearl)
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