There is something I have observed with myself and others when we start talking about the fear of God. We have this immediate impulse to try to clarify that this fear is not a feeling of terror or dread of God, and for good reason, as the whole scope of the Bible testifies to the loving kindness, mercy, and patience of God, even as there are episodes of judgement and wrath interspersed through it. For instance, in my last post on Psalm 2, I interpreted the description of fearing God in Psalm 2.10 to be some sort of awe-inspired reverence. I recently saw post elsewhere that distinguishes between the terror of God of those who do not know God’s nature and the fear of God that I do think is on the right track. We have this good and necessary impulse to make sure that the fear of God is not interpreted as some sort of slavish fear that haunts us the rest of our lives. To that end, I affirm that impulse both in myself and others.
However, I have been left thinking the past couple days: are we really getting to the root of what the fear of God is? By trying to distinguish it from dread, are we hindering our ability to make sense of the whole Biblical narrative together, of both God’s love, grace, and mercy and God’s judgment and wrath. We employ some sort of implicit binary logic that distinguishes the “fear of God” as entirely different from dread and terror before God.
Upon further reflection, I have come to this tentative conclusion: the way we think about our emotions in the present day world where we understand our emotions more so in terms of what we actively experientially feel in the emotions, then we are are the right track to make a distinction between the fear of God and the terror/dread of God. However, when it comes to understanding the Biblical narratives and expositions, they do not think of emotions in terms of an internal experience, but more so in terms of (1) how one acts and behaves with specific emotions and (2) what in the world, or from God, evokes emotions. In other words, emotions are understood externally, not internally.
How does this help us to make sense of the fear of God? When we see the first discussion of the fear of God in Exodus 20.18-20, we see these two types of ways of understanding emotions being manifest. After witnessing and hearing the thunder, lightening, a trumpet, and a smoking mountain, the Israelites are brought into a fear of God that was understood behaviorally: “the people were afraid, trembled, and stood from a distance” (Exo. 20.18). The two verbs (וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ) that followed the verb for fear (וַיַּ֤רְא) can be understood as expounded upon the nature of this fear. Something stirred within them that made them act in a way that they were visibly shaken and kept their distance. However, Moses tells them to not fear and that God has put the fear of him upon them (Exo. 20.20). Here, we see the other way that emotions were understood, by the perception and recognition of things that evoke those emotions. By God acting is such a grand, powerful manner, the Israelites would not begin to recognize the nature of God and their vulnerability before Him. The effect of what Moses is telling the Israelites is that they should not fear that God was going to harm them, but that they needed to understand that they are vulnerable to God.
Put differently, to have the fear of God put in you is not to enter into a specific emotional state of feeling terror, awe, etc. towards God, but it is more so to recognize something about God, that God is a powerful being before whose presence we are vulnerable. It is the recognition about what God can do.
In having the fear of God, the Israelites were being called to recognize the power of God that they are vulnerable to. This is instrumental in their not sinning, as recognizing their vulnerability to God would hold back any sense of rebellion against God, particularly in the form of idolatry and false worship, which Moses then discusses with them in the following verses. These were a people who were being taught about who God is and what a relationship with God will be like, although they have not yet become committed to this covenant relationship, as they do not commit until Exodus 24. God was, in a sense, showing His hand to them so that the Israelites knew the relationship they were being ask to commit themselves to.
Vulnerability is one of those feelings that, at least in my experience, has been hard to really define and understand. Part of the reason for this, however, is that vulnerability is not an isolated feeling by itself, but that vulnerability is conjoined to another feeling directed towards those people or things that make us feeling vulnerable: do we trust them? When we trust those whom we are vulnerable to, we do not experience a dread or terror. However, when we do not trust those whom we are vulnerable to, we are inclined to experience such dread and terror.
Imagine the stereotypical wonderful good guy, super hero like Superman. Most people in the fictional universe would have a sense of vulnerability before him in that they would not believe they would be any match with Superman if they were to get into a fight with him. However, because Superman had demonstrated His character by saving rather than harming, this sense of vulnerability with trust does not beget terror or dread. Nevertheless, this feeling of vulnerability would motivate people to not try to test or fight against Superman either.
For a real world example, most of us have a fear of moving cars built into us. When we see a car on the road, we have this deep sense of respect for the car and the damage it can do to the human body if someone steps in front of it. At the same time, most of us don’t actively live in fear of cars if we have some distance between us and the road, as we have a strong trust in the drivers that they will not veer entirely off the road to hit us. Nevertheless, this vulnerability to moving cars keeps most of us away from getting into the road when we see an oncoming automobile.
This is what I would liken to the fear of God to: a recognition of one’s vulnerability before God. It isn’t the belief that God is ready to smite you for the slightest infraction, but rather that God is not someone you want to try to rebel against. It is this basic sense of vulnerability that would prevent one from sinning in egregious ways. However, at the same time, coming to know God as a trustworthy, merciful, patient God, we join this sense of vulnerability to God with the trust of God, meaning that we, essentially, fear living in defiant sin rather than fear we are going to be crushed for the slightest offense if we aren’t careful.
We can distinguish this form of vulnerability and obedience from the feelings of vulnerability and conformity that are created by the direct threats of punishment. If someone readily threatens you with severe consequences if you do something they deem wrong and you feel vulnerable to them, this creates a psychological state of conformity. Here, the sense of vulnerability leads to readily experiencing terror and dread at the mere thought of crossing that people, which keeps people in line. However, this form of vulnerability doesn’t allow for trust to build, but it creates a bond of subservience.
There is, of course, “middle ground” between an obedient vulnerability and a conforming vulnerability that we see throughout the world. For instance, imagine an employer who keeps discussing with one of his employees a problematic behavior that they have and after various conversations with no direct threat to their career, they finally say “You need to stop or you may be fired.” Eventually, a threat of punishment is given, but it has not been brought to the table for the vast majority of the time. To most employees, a sense of “occupational fear” of the employer would have them willing to address the issue without coming into an immediate terror at the fear of being fired. However, for those who did not have a healthy fear of the employer, it is only towards the end where they come to realize they need to shape up or ship out. Both experiences of vulnerability are connected to the same thing, the potential loss of a job, but in the healthy version of vulnerability, it is a very distant thing that the employee needs not fear, which prevents them from coming into the direct fear of losing their job. This “middle ground,” however, is one where the the threat of punishment is a last, not a first, resort. This image is closer to what we see of God in the Bible and how fear is to be understood. It isn’t that there is never any place for punishment or wrath with God, but it is to be a distant, sparing thing among the lives of His people.
Contrast this with an employer who is inclined to exaggerate their employees behavior and quick to warn about consequences if they don’t get things correct. The employees do not live under a health occupational vulnerability to their employer, but they experience an immediate fear of being fired that can make them simply conform to the wishes of their employer. This is the image of God that gets often put out their under versions of Christian faith that have a “gospel” of behavior management through the fear of hell to keep you from sinning.
To that end, when we try to understanding the Biblical language about fear, it may be helpful for us to think about it in terms of vulnerability and trust. The fear of God is a trusting vulnerability that simultaneously recognizes that (1) we are vulnerable to God, who can and will act powerfully against real evil and (2) we can trust God, who actively seeks to bring and build life rather than to tear it down when evil and utter defiance is not afoot. It is this type of fear that simultaneously keeps us from sin but yet allows us to bind our lives with God’s purposes in love, rather that conforming in terror or dread.