In 1997, Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey published a book called The Gift of Pain. When I first picked up the book as a college student, I wondered if that title was an oxymoron. Pain was to be avoided—how could pain be a gift? However, as I read, it didn’t take long for me to accept Brand’s thesis. Paul Brand was a missionary doctor and pioneer in the area of leprosy research. He had discovered that leprosy was caused by a bacterium that deadened nerves. As a result, people with leprosy no longer felt pain, especially in their hands and feet. Small blisters or sores often went unnoticed and became infected, sometimes even to the point of requiring amputation. Dr. Brand concluded that pain is a gift; it alerts the body that something is wrong—making us stop, take stock, and avoid potentially damaging actions.
I admit, I find it difficult to understand how pain would have been part of God’s perfect creation. And of course, pain is not always a gift. In this fallen world, we all experience pain that does not seem to have a good purpose. Chronic pain, in particular, can be hard to bear.
Still, pain can be a gift. Fear, too, can be a gift. Fear can flood the body with adrenaline, enabling an individual to act quickly and avoid a potentially dangerous situation. This response to fear alerts us that a situation is not safe; similarly, our body’s response to pain alerts us that something is wrong.
However, much like chronic pain, chronic fear has negative effects. And we live in a culture of fear. The news and social media surround us with stories about public, physical dangers that cause us to fear: wildfires, bullies, hatred and bigotry, the threat of kidnappers, terrorism, the plight of refugees, political unrest, shootings.
We also face more private, personal fears. Perhaps it is an illness in the family. Maybe relationships are strained. Loved ones might be making poor life decisions that will have far-reaching consequences. Finances might be strained, making it difficult to make ends meet.
In our minds, we face even more fears. For example, we may face fear about the future, with its inevitable uncertainties.
What is a Christian response to fear? If we look in the Bible, we find that fear is not new. In particular, the Psalms contain honest, blunt expressions of fear: “Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me” (Psalm 55:5). The Psalms also contain beautiful statements of confidence in God: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Psalm 56:3).
While working on this article, I read many, many Bible verses about fear. Consistently, I read an admonishment or encouragement not to fear, paired with reassurance of God’s presence. Consider the following:
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
“Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
“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).
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (Psalm 46:1-2).
“The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Psalm 118:6).
“Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the Lord will be at your side and will keep your foot from being ensnared” (Proverbs 3:25-26).
When we fear something, it can gain a hold over us. It impacts the way we live and can direct our actions—often by causing us to withdraw or to feel anxious. This is one reason for the effectiveness of political rhetoric that uses fear as a tactic. In situations of injustice, we ought to experience righteous anger. In tragedy, we ought to mourn. But—and these are difficult words—we are not to fear.
The Bible also talks about a different, and better, kind of fear. We are to fear God rather than anything else:
“Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread” (Isaiah 8:12-13).
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
I am not a Bible scholar, and I do not pretend to totally understand the Bible’s use of the phrase, “the fear of the Lord.” Like me, you might recoil at the idea of fearing God. It does not seem to reconcile with what we read in 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
However, it seems clear that the “fear of the Lord” is different from what we usually associate with fear. It is not unmitigated terror or dread. It is a positive thing and includes elements of trust, joy, love, and a desire not to disappoint or betray the One who is love itself. At the same time, it includes trembling, (Psalm 2:11) reverence, (Psalm 33:8) and awe (Psalm 119:120). C.S. Lewis captures some of this paradox in his Narnia stories. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver describes the mighty lion Aslan as “good, but not safe.”1 In The Horse and His Boy, the horse Hwin trembles upon meeting Aslan but says to him, “Please, you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”2
Over and over, the Bible encourages the fear of God as something deeply valuable:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10).
“Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing” (Psalm 34:9).
Just as other kinds of fear affect our actions, the fear of God also impacts the way we live. It tempers rulers’ tendencies to tyrannize.3 It moves us to demonstrate kindness.4 It makes us humble.5 It moves us to obey God.6
Romans 8 describes a litany of fearful things, but they are in the context of God’s abiding love and presence. Paul concludes the chapter with these words: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”7
Fear can beat us down and make us turn inward. Fear can fill us with despair, anxiety, and hate.But the fear of the Lord can lift us up and turn us outward. It can restore our hope, peace, joy and love.
Lewis, C S, and Pauline Baynes. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York, NY: HarperTrophy, 1994. Print. ↩
Lewis, C S. The Horse and His Boy. London: G. Bles, 1954. Print. ↩
“Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God” (Leviticus 25:43). ↩
“Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty” (Job 6:14). ↩
“Humility is the fear of the Lord; its ways are riches and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4). ↩
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). ↩
Romans 8:38-39. ↩