The Bible talks a lot about fear. Unfortunately, when scholars translate verses relating to fear, they seem to be lacking in imagination.
In the Hebrew Scriptures the most common words translated into English as “fear” share a connection with the Hebrew root yirah.
Yirah has two distinct connotations. It can refer to the paralyzing terror that comes from knowing our lives are seriously threatened. It can also refer to the respect, reverence, and awe that are rightly due to a great and benevolent power.
It is essential in reading biblical texts to be mindful of the context in which yirah is used in order to determine which of these senses is appropriate.
When yirah is used to refer to the human relationship to God it should be understood to imply respect, reverence, and awe. When we are encouraged to yirah God, we are being instructed to live our lives with awe in the face of the deep mystery and Power that brought all creation into existence and that sustains all of life. It is the kind of feeling we might have when we see the extraordinary awe-inspiring beauty of God’s creation, or when we are present at the birth of a baby. It has nothing to do with feeling frightened.
The distinction between fear as respect, and fear as terror is important in thinking about our relationship to God. As a father, I hope I have my children’s respect. I never want them to experience terror in my presence.
So, when the writer of Proverbs says,
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight (Proverbs 9:10)
he is not encouraging us to be scared of God. He is saying that wisdom starts when we have deep respect, reverence, and awe in the face of the deep wonder and mystery of life.
The Bible constantly counsels against the kind of quaking fear that we associate with finding ourselves in a threatening situation:
David said further to his son Solomon, ‘Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished. (I Chronicles 28:20)
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold* of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)
O Most High, when I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid;
what can flesh do to me? (Psalm 56:3,4)
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, ‘You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off ’;
do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
For I, the Lord your God,
hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear,
I will help you.’ (Isaiah 41:9,10,13)
Eugene Peterson in The Message beautifully captures the Bible’s message about fear when he paraphrases I John 4:18 to read,
There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life – fear of death, fear of judgment – is one not yet fully formed in love.
If God is real, if God’s love for all humanity is true, what can there possibly be in this world that we need to fear?
Certainly bad things happen. There are painful realities in life. People suffer terrible, heart-breaking tragedies. But in the midst of the worst that can take place, we are not alone. We have not been abandoned. There is a permanent, eternal reality that dwells at the heart of our being giving us strength and peace that transcend all the terrors of this life.
The purpose of Bible study, like the purpose of all spiritual practice, is to open our hearts to that place within ourselves where we touch the eternal reality of God’s presence and find that we need not be afraid.
I have been reading the Book of Revelation with a group of guys on Thursday mornings. When we try too hard to understand this complex text we run into pretty dry parched places. But, when we allow the power of the words to break our hearts open, we connect with the real and abiding presence of God in our hearts. This is a reality that nothing can take away from us.
In Romans Paul asks,
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
Then he answers his own question saying,
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:35,37)
There is no force on earth that has the power to separate us from “the love of Christ.” Therefore, there is no terror that can overwhelm us. There is no circumstance that can finally destroy the force of life and love that flows through all existence.
There is nothing to fear because, no matter what may occur, we can always trust the presence of goodness and love that sustains us for all eternity.