Here’s a short test. What follows is a list of several words associated with fear. Which of these have to do with the fear of the Lord?
Horror, awe, terror, quiet, despair, seriousness, intimidation, dread, timidity, scariness, panic, astonishment, trepidation, anxiety, reverence. The exercise is not primarily to get it exactly “right”, for even these words carry connotations that will differ from person to person. Generally speaking, most thoughtful Christians will weed out the most negative and destructive of fears (despair, horror, panic) while retaining the ones that suggest seriousness.
Understanding the inner affection of reverence is as difficult as trying to define any human emotion. Our best chance of understanding it well is to begin negatively: eliminating the wrong kinds of fear on either end of the spectrum. From there, we will likely find the kind of fear the mixes elements of both sides.
What is the fear “spectrum”? On one extreme, we would have the kind of fear that a sinner would face should he experience the pure, unmitigated greatness of an infuriated omnipotent god, were that god his enemy. This fear would be terror and horror of the most agonising kind. Nothing except the despair of the sinner’s inevitable destruction looms over him. No hope is here, only panic, for there is nothing but threat to one’s being.
The opposite extreme would be the over-familiarity that a friend or relative might have with one in a position of authority. The position of authority is known to the friend, but the close relationship leads the friend to almost scoff at his position, as if it is an inside joke that such authority does not rule over friends. The ‘goodness’ of his friend, their relationship of friendship does not simply render his authority friendly; it neutralises it altogether.
Of these two, we know which is in the ascendancy today when it comes to worshipping God. God is spoken to, and about, in ways that downplay and dismiss His authority. His power and hatred of sin are explained away as irrelevant to the believer. God must be disrobed of His majesty for the modern believer to find “intimacy” with Him. God must be boiled down, and as His attributes of greatness evaporate, what remains is only goodness: love, mercy, grace, gentleness, meekness, patience. The resulting worship is predictably over-familiar: God the Pal, God the Boyfriend, God the Grandfather, God the Empathetic Therapist.
The other extreme on the spectrum has by no means disappeared. Whether in reaction to this sentimentality, or whether merely perpetuating the age-old legalistic misrepresentations of God, this portrayal of God hesitates to mention His goodness. It does not flinch to speak of God’s anger, God’s eternal wrath, God’s enmity of sin, and His power to judge. God is overwhelmingly a threat: the Ultimate Threat. This extreme believes sinners are not scared enough of God, and wish nothing more than to have sinners sense how dangerous God is. There is nothing better about this distortion of God, because both it and its opposite error lead to idolatry. One worships a god so good, he is not great. The other worships a god so great, he is not good. One mistakes sentimentality for love. The other mistakes brutality for respect.
In contrast to man-made extremes, the Bible effortlessly combines God’s goodness and greatness, and expects us to acknowledge and love both simultaneously. Notice these juxtapositions:
But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.(Psalm 130:4)
Serve the Lord with fear, And rejoice with trembling. (Psalm 2:11)
keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.(Exodus 34:7)
Put simply, the only way to find the right fear of God is through the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ is where majestic holiness and infinite mercy find their perfect conjunction as far as man is concerned. It is in the gospel that men can look at blinding holiness and glorious love and see them in light of each other. When the gospel is rightly taught, there is neither the dilution of God’s wrath, power and majesty, nor a grudging admission or dismissive assent to God’s love, grace, and mercy. As surely as the Incarnation requires belief that Christ is truly God and truly man, so the gospel (and the doctrine of simplicity) requires we believe that God is infinitely great and infinitely good. The sense of awe, wonder, smallness, gratitude, vulnerability, amazement, and admiration that wells up in response to simultaneously beholding and loving infinite goodness and infinite greatness is the true fear of God.