There are two claims made by Christians that seem mutually exclusive. Christians claim that God is Love. And they claim that we should fear God. Wait. Why should fear God if God is so kind? What is there to be afraid of? How to find the answer to our questions?
A lot of people believe that ‘fear’ in these passages should be understood in the sense of awe. But in this post, I am going to use the term fear in its contemporary classic sense. It seems clear to me that in many passages in Scripture this sense of fear is the natural one to invoke (e.g., Exodus.) In this post I argue that one would be crazy *not* to fear God. Once we understand what God is, any sane person would respond with at least some measure of fear.
Because God has three features which taken together produce reasonable fear in people:
(i) God has absolute control over our lives
(ii) but He cannot be manipulated or controlled in any way, and
(iii) He cannot be fully understood by us.
These three facts when put together make it reasonable to fear God. Because when it comes to God we are absolutely subject to a power that we can neither control nor even fully understand. To not be at least somewhat afraid would mean that you don’t really get it. You are entirely and absolutely subject to this power and you have no idea what He is going to do with you.
But what about all of that God is Love stuff?
The message that God is infinitely loving and benevolent is, frankly, surprising to us. We would not know this from nature as it currently is. There is a lot of suffering along with the wonderful beauty. When prophets tell us not to fear and to trust that God is infinitely loving and has a greater plan that we cannot see it is a hard message. It sure doesn’t seem that way. But, of course, things are not always as they seem. Julian of Norwich was told by God that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well (Revelations of Divine Love.) She found this message hard to believe and meditated about it for the rest of her life. She worried about where the idea of hell fit in. She became convinced both that hell is real and that all will truly be well. She considered this unsurprisingly! a deep mystery.
Faith or trust in God is required because we cannot understand or control him. This faith or trust, I think, ultimately arises as a response to reasonable fear. We are afraid of our dependence and unknown future so we choose to trust. We trust that God is loving and that all will work out in some unexpected way. It seems to me as though real faith cannot exist except along side real fear. Or as they say, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).