A Holy Fear

Originally published Tuesday, 15 April 2014.

While on vacation recently, we decided to try out an indoor rock climbing facility. The kids were excited and I was too.

After going through training on the use of the facility and how the automatic belay works, we took turns helping each other click in and climb. I found a wall just right for me--with plenty of handholds--and proceeded the climb upward. Upon making it to the top, I looked around. When I looked below me, I froze. My grip tightened on the wall. My heart raced; I broke out into sweat. Panicked, I called out for my husband who was helping the kids on another wall. He didn't hear me but everyone else did.

I thought, "I can't let go and I can't stay here all day. What am I going to do?"

Someone yelled out below me, "Just sit back and let go!"

Two Kinds of Fear

Fear. Sometimes it makes sense. If I were out hiking and came upon a bear, I would feel fear and my instinct would be to run away. Other times, our fears are irrational. Climbing that rock wall, I knew that I wouldn't fall and that the auto belay system would deliver me to the ground, but I just couldn't do it. Fear took over and I was left paralyzed and shaking.

This kind of fear is about control. It's a fear of losing what is most important to us, whether it be our job, our family, our reputation, our health, or our lives. We fear the unknown future. We fear man and what others think of us or might do to us. So we cling tight to what matters to us. We do whatever it takes to protect what's ours. Sometimes that means hiding away in fear. Sometimes it means trying to control every detail of our lives.

Scripture has a lot to say about fear. Yet in the bible, not all fear is considered the same. There are two main ways that Scripture talks about fear: 1) fear of God and 2) fear of everything else.

When it comes to the second kind of fear, the Bible basically says, "Don't fear."

"So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." Isaiah 41:10

"For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'" Romans 8:15

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" 1 John 4:18

That's because this kind of fear pulls us away from God. It tells us that we are on our own and there is no one who cares to help us. It tells us that God is uncaring and unconcerned. It makes giants out of what we fear, giants so big, we think even God can't beat them. So we face our fears alone, depending on ourselves and our own strength.

Yet the Bible doesn't only tell us not to fear, rather it tells us that there is one type of fear we need to have and to get rid of all other fears. This kind of fear is good. It brings wisdom, joy, rest, and life. And this fear drives out all other fears: the fear of God.

"But the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love." Psalm 147:11

"Praise the LORD! How joyful are those who fear the LORD and delight in obeying his commands." Psalm 112:1

"Whoever fears the LORD has a secure fortress, and for their children it will be a refuge." Proverbs 14:26

"The fear of the Lord leads to life; and he who has it rests satisfied." Proverbs 19:23

Mark gives an account of a fearful storm at sea where we see both of these two types of fears. Jesus was asleep on the boat when a fierce storm came upon them. The disciples were terrified. The boat was half filled with water. Certain they would die, they woke Jesus and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:38-41)

The terrible fear of certain death they felt during the storm changed to a different kind of fear once they saw Jesus' awesome power in calming the storm with just his word. The fear they felt in the midst of a storm was a fear that did not trust in the One who created the wind and rain. But the fear they felt after was a holy fear.

A Holy Fear

John Piper describes the fear of God like being caught in an terrible storm while exploring an Arctic glacier. The storm is so strong that you fear you just might blow right over the side of the cliff. But then you discover a cleft in the ice where you can hide and find shelter. Yet even though you are safe, you watch the storm go past with a kind of "trembling pleasure." John Piper writes, "At first there was the fear that this terrible storm and awesome terrain might claim your life. But then you found a refuge and gained the hope that you would be safe. But not everything in the feeling called fear vanished from your heart. Only the life-threatening part. There remained the trembling, the awe, the wonder, the feeling that you would never want to tangle with such a storm or be the adversary of such power...The fear of God is what is left of the storm when you have a safe place to watch right in the middle of it....Oh, the thrill of being here in the center of the awful power of God, yet protected by God himself!" (p. 186-187 in The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God's Delight in Being God).

To fear the Lord is to be like Moses and remove our sandals because we realize we are standing on holy ground. It is to be like the woman at the well who came face to face with the One who knew everything about her (John 4). She had come to draw water from the well and instead got a taste of Living Water. She left wonderstruck, running into the village to tell everyone, "He told me everything I ever did."

It is to grasp the wonder of the gospel, that a holy and righteous God would take on flesh and enter into this sin stained world to rescue us from the clutches of sin and death. It's to see His work in our lives and be amazed at how He loves, provides, and cares for us. It is to be utterly blown away that because of Christ, we are children of God and can freely come into His presence without shame.

Letting Go of Fears and Embracing the Fear of God

"Just let go!" I heard a voice shout again.

I could barely hold on any longer. I leaned back and let myself slowly fall to the ground, spent and exhausted.

I don't want the kind of fear I felt at the top of the climbing wall. I want a fear that turns and runs to God, finding shelter in him. I want a fear that trusts him in the midst of storms and stands in awe of his amazing grace. I want a fear that lets go of everything in my grip and trusts him to be everything I need.

The fear of God is a good fear. A holy fear.

Do you know this fear?