The Fear of the Lord
Leaning into a posture that recognizes God as both personal and powerful.
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”—Acts 9:31
In the 2010 film The King’s Speech, Colin Firth portrays the future King George VI who, struggling to overcome a stammer, turns to Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue, a self-taught speech therapist who learned his trade by treating soldiers during The Great War. As a condition for treating the King, Lionel is sworn to keep his sessions with George a secret.
About halfway through the film, King George and his wife come to see Lionel at his home while Mrs. Logue is away. Up to this point, Lionel had hid the fact that he was treating the king from his wife, but this time Mrs. Logue returned home early enough to unexpectedly find herself in the presence of royalty. Shocked and amazed, she nervously (but politely) asks the Royal Family to stay for dinner. Little did she know that she might be cooking dinner for someone so great!
The experience of Mrs. Logue, while certainly being special in its specific details, is actually quite an ordinary experience. All of us have, from time to time, experienced the shock and thrill of unexpected circumstances that have been thrust upon us: an unanticipated bill we must pay, a surprising phone call, some sort of news that we were not prepared to hear. Life is, in truth, full of these shocking, unplanned circumstances.
Occurrences like these also adequately describe the experience of fear, because we are frightened by what we do not know or cannot control. We like things to be predictable and manageable, ordered and regulated. Indeed, we like to know who is coming to dinner before they arrive! But isn’t this what is at the root of all our fears? We’re simply scared to death that we will leave ourselves vulnerable to the unknown, the unanticipated, the unplanned for. And so we seek to get a handle on things by controlling our life as best we can. If we’re honest, much of the work we do in life is aimed at eliminating fear through control.
As Christians, this presents us with a dilemma of sorts, because fear is commonly associated with God. Fear is, for example, the most frequently mentioned response to Jesus’s resurrection (Matthew 28:4, 8; Mark 16:8; Luke 24:4-5). Fear is what Moses felt when he encountered God in the burning bush (Exodus 3:6). A constant calling throughout the Bible is to “fear the Lord,” which some of the psalms and proverbs tell us is “the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). What are we to make of this “fear-of-the-Lord”?
The Fear-of-the-Lord is a posture towards God that recognizes His grandeur and power; it’s an awareness that God is far more powerful, uncontrollable, and more unpredictable than we can comprehend. Like Mrs Logue, we become afraid when we are caught off guard, when things are more than they seem, or when we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen next. Yet these are exactly the kinds of traits that the Bible describes God as having: God is inexplicable and incomprehensible in His very nature. He is not tame, nor is He passive. We are in the presence of immense royal power, whether we perceive it or not.
When we become more aware of this we will undoubtedly become fearful. But it will be a different kind of fear, for God’s presence in the Bible is also frequently accompanied by the reassuring words “fear not.” As Eugene Peterson once wrote, “Fear-of-the-Lord is fear with the scary element deleted.” In other words, a proper Fear-of-the-Lord is not to be in a state of panic but in a state of wonder, mystery, and, in truth, disorientation. It’s an expectation that God is up to something that will catch you by surprise, because that’s just the sort of person He is. When people encounter God in Scripture, it’s never what they expected. So it is with us.
Of course, fear itself is very common today. Lots of people worry about the condition of our world and society. Christians, likewise, often worry about shifting cultural norms and beliefs, and about the state of the Church. Many people struggle with fear and anxiety in their personal lives. Fear is everywhere these days. What is less common is the Fear-of-the-Lord.
According to Acts 9:31, the first Christian Church “had peace” and was “being built up” because it was “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” Among those very first Christians, there was an awareness and an anticipation of God’s power and action. There was “fear with the scary element deleted.” They did not know what God was going to do next, but they were excited to find out.
This is what we Christians need today as well. We need to remind ourselves that God is “able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). We need to sing in anticipation of all the great things God will do. While we try to tidy up and organize our personal lives, we need to be aware that we cannot control God nor can we ever be sure that we’ve got Him all figured out. We never know exactly what He is up to, but we can be sure that He is up to something great.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.