Fear. One syllable word heavy with meaning.
As defined in my Webster’s Dictionary, fear is anxiety caused by real or possible danger, pain, etc.; fright.
Whether it is a real factor like the dread felt from being fired, or feeling afraid at the possibility of becoming unemployed, fear occupies a lot of head-space, usually in the form of worry. We are afraid of both real or possible hardship. Fear is an integral part of the human experience.
So many can be present in our everyday. Fear of the unknown when confronted with new information. Fear of looking ignorant, incompetent, or irresponsible. Fear of the wrong political party or politician being in power. Fear of not meeting budget and having to go into debt. These are all potential scenarios we entertain and house in our minds regularly.
What we fear colours what we think. And that in turn drives us to choose a course of action. Fear can be a useful driver. After all, it’s out of fear that we avoid walking down a dark alley at night. But it can also drive us crazy. Ask me how I know.
I think fear is such a natural part of being human, like sleep, that I’m sometimes confounded when I read in the Bible the words do not fear. Really? But how, Lord? How do I not fear?
We often use repetition to make a point. It says this is important, pay attention. The word fear is mentioned 353 times in the Bible. (It could be almost one mention per day for a year.) The exhortation “do not fear” appears 327 times. And almost 200 times in the variations “be not afraid” or “do not be afraid”.
Last week I was reading the first letter of Peter when a short sentence struck me. “Fear God. Honour the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17c ESV) Other versions use king instead of emperor, making the point that honour is to be given to government and figures of authority. But fear is reserved for God exclusively. The juxtaposition of those verbs made me think. Peter is telling first-century churches, and us 21st-century dwellers, to fear the right thing.
There are plenty of other places in the Bible where fear is in the affirmative voice. And it is always only in relation to God. What’s interesting in 1 Peter is that the mandate is sitting next to another one. We owe honour to the ruling authorities. But we fear God. Why is that? And more importantly, is that the same fear I have of an accident or of what others think? In a sense yes, because both fears produce a certain behaviour. We try to drive safely to avoid a car accident. And concern for the opinion of others may cause to modify our own.
Since being afraid drives us to choose to do or avoid something, I understand better when Scripture says to not be afraid. The words are not simply a command, distant from humanity’s reality. On the contrary. It’s because we are so susceptible to fear and anxiety that the words are recorded so often. In doing so it’s saying to not act out of fear. Because fear lives in our head feeding our thought life, the words “do not fear” are a call to not let that specific thing drive how you will think and feel. When the Bible calls to fear God, it is saying feed your thoughts awe, reverence, and wonder for God instead.
Our reverence for God becomes a compass to help navigate when we are afraid. It supersedes my fear of what others think, it puts in perspective how I act when feeling insecure. It is the tension I’m invited to sit in when I dread a hardship that makes me feel small. A reverence that acknowledges the presence of a much bigger being than me or the possibility causing the fear. I say this because I often feel very small vis-à-vis my fears. They seem bigger than me. Bigger than life. God is bigger. Infinitely so.
Some of our fears can often be found neatly tucked away under our insecurities. Afraid of not measuring up, I strive to more, to make up for the “not enough” I carry. Fearing others’ opinions, I try to hide behind perceived accomplishments. Or dreading a potential outcome, I let it design the mood of my day. It’s what we do. It’s human. And I think that’s why the word fear appears hundreds of times in the Bible. Because it is so common a struggle with such distressing effects, we need the Truth reminders often.
Finally, a closer look at the whole verse in 1 Peter evens the field and provides us with a right perspective: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17 ESV)
Honour is something we owe everyone, including those in authority. In a way, the verse is elevating everyone as it calls to give all the same respect owed to the emperor. The regard we have for God, however, is distinct from the regard we give others; even those in positions of authority. We can fill in the blank with those people or situations we give authority to in our minds.
What would it look like to fear the Lord more? If we feared His name more than not making a name for ourselves? If we regarded what He says more than we fear the opinions of others? If we trusted His sovereignty over any political party rather than make a person, the end all be all answer?
There are matters of discernment and conscience. We pray for discernment and act on faith. But when what we fear robs our peace and makes God small, we lack the right perspective. If all our contentment or discontent rests on an outcome, we are driven by fear, not faith. What we fear own us. Peter’s words slice me open. They confront me in the hardest and best possible way. Honour man and fear God. We usually do the opposite.
We genuinely want to honour God with our words and actions. While all along, we fear man. In the form of the attention we crave or the approval we seek from fellow broken limited humans with the same tendency to sin that we have.
Feelings are indicators, not dictators. They reveal our heart. As with our other emotions, fear is not wrong. Is what we do with it, that becomes an issue. In his book Take Heart, Matt Chandler shares this quote from James Neil Hollingworth: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important that one’s fear.”
God is infinitely so.