Life is full of ‘firsts.’ Relationships. Milestones. Defeats. Delights. I was admittedly caught off guard by encountering my last first– communal fear. Before it hit my own community, the fear phenomenon smacked more of rumor than reality. Fear – it’s an emotional response that can replicate itself uncontrollably alongside the physical contagion that it stems from. We feel uneasy when we hear words like pandemic and consider job insecurity, social distancing, and the vulnerable. What do we discover when we contrast biblical fear with viral fear?
There are many types of fear mentioned in the Bible but only one that births wisdom – holy fear. Holy fear is an outpouring of worship that occurs when we consider both the justice of God and our simultaneous rescue from it. To better understand how Holiness and Fear intersect together, we must first grasp each concept apart.
What does the Bible say about Fear?
‘Fearing God’ can be confusing because there are several types of fear described in Scripture. God can wield fear into hearts (Exodus 23:27-28). Fear can be a form of respect (1 Peter 2:18, Romans 13:7) or a type of anxiety about people (Numbers 14:9, Is 8:12). It can be a duty (Ecclesiastes 12:13) or characterize godliness (Prov 8:13). It’s a quality of Christ (Isaiah 11:2-3). There is also a type of fear that expects divine retribution for our sin (Genesis 3:10; Proverbs 28:1, 1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 11:3; Colossians 2:1; Deuteronomy 28:28).
What is Holiness?
To be holy means to be “set apart” or “marked off as different.”For instance, in the Old Testament, the Sabbath day was holy because it was set apart for rest. The priests were holy because they were set apart for special ministry for God. Priestly garments were holy because they were never duplicated for common use. For God’s people, anything that God deemed holy was to be treated differently from the ordinary way of doing things. For us today, God’s holiness not only reflects an absence of evil, but an active, continual, outworking of His perfect will. Holiness describes the ‘setting apart’ of our lives from sin to Christ-likeness.
Defining Holy Fear
In His perfection, God is set apart from evil which inextricably links His purity with His wrath and justice. The wrath and justice of God make some people uneasy because they might reason that God is cruel. Yet God’s justice is not a symptom of His horribleness but His holiness. The absence of evil is conditional upon evil being rightly paid for and holiness reigning free.
In books like Amos, God’s agenda was to awaken His people to this holy type of fear. Holy Fear is a two-fold response linking God’s judgment with His salvation, His justice with His relational love. We fall terrified before a holy God who wields certain wrath against our sin. Yet we also fall in love with a tender God who sacrificed His Son to save us from it. Holy fear is to stand in fear of God’s holiness and in relief of Jesus’ rescue. When a human heart is genuinely arrested by His supreme power and supreme tenderness, it bows.
Human fear may reflect a heart that is dethroning God. Human fear can doubt His goodness and sovereignty over earthly trials. Human fear focuses on what’s temporal and is preoccupied with what I can see. It inevitably leads to worry because it understands the reality of human frailty and failure. Holy fear focuses on what’s eternal and is preoccupied with the Divine. It ultimately leads to peace because it understands the reality of Jesus’ life and His victory.
Spiritually, there is no need to be terrified by a God whose wrath against our unholiness has been absorbed by His love. Circumstantially, there is no need to doubt a God whose entire essence and work never fails to be perfect. Personally, we can trust a good God who is sovereign over His creation and empowers us by His Spirit to overcome the fear that we cannot.
So now, when our minds fill up with worry, let’s meditate on His sovereignty. When our emotions cloud with communal panic, let’s lean into the certainty of His personal intimacy. When our world is crushed by the stress of the unknown, let’s ruminate on our heavenly home where victory will be certain. For every evil that enters our everyday lives, God simultaneously sends an opportunity for a redemptive message of hope and victory to outpour from its sting as well. The very virus that would seek to enslave us in fear can be the vehicle that testifies to the beauty of the One who bought our freedom.
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.” Psalm 103: 8-11
“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