When we reflect on the Christian message, we often focus on the mercy and love of God, but overlook the call to fear Him. Yet, throughout the Bible, we are reminded to fear and tremble before the Lord. In this article, we will consider why we need to fear God, and how to manifest this attitude in our lives.
WHO OR WHAT DO WE FEAR?
It is part of the human condition that we are beset by a multitude of fears. These range from the rational to the irrational. Some individuals are scared of the smallest things, such as insects, which we have the power to control and destroy—surely, such fear is irrational. Others are afraid of the unknown things of the spiritual realm—of ghosts, in particular. In the Book of Job, Eliphaz claimed to have had an eerie encounter in the dead of night (Job 4:14–15), an experience which made him tremble and shake. In the New Testament, the disciples twice reacted in a similar way when they caught sight of the Lord Jesus—once, when He was walking on the water at night (Mt 14:25–26), and again on meeting Him after He resurrected (Lk 24:33–37). Both times, the disciples thought they had seen a ghost. But should we be afraid of ghosts?
The Bible indicates that there are only three types of spirits that a person will see or experience on earth: the Spirit of God, angels, and demons. Once a person passes away, his spirit does not remain in the world, nor can it return. Any ghosts people claim to see are nothing but the tricks of evil spirits.
Most of us would be terrified by an encounter with a demon. If we do not belong to God, as in the case of King Saul after he departed from God’s grace, the demon has the potential to harm or torment us. But, as children of God, we have nothing to fear—if we remain in the Lord and under His protection, we cannot be brought under the devil’s dominion.
It is clear, then, that God’s children have little to fear. So why should we fear our loving and merciful God?
We all know the story of Daniel, God’s faithful servant who continued to worship God despite the risk of death. After God delivered Daniel from the lions’ den, Darius—a Gentile king—magnified the Lord and commanded his subjects to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel:
I make a decree that in every dominion of my kingdom men must tremble and fear before the God of Daniel.
For He is the living God,
And steadfast forever;
His kingdom is the one which shall not be destroyed,
And His dominion shall endure to the end.
He delivers and rescues,
And He works signs and wonders
In heaven and on earth,
Who has delivered Daniel from the power of the lions. (Dan 6:26–27)
If we had been in Daniel’s shoes, who would we fear? Most humans would naturally fear the king who has the power to put a man to death, or the ferocious lions that could effortlessly rip a person to shreds. In the face of such danger, why did Daniel persist in his daily habit of praying to God in his upper room, with the windows open toward Jerusalem, in clear view of his enemies? Surely it was because he was not afraid of the king or the lions, but he feared and trembled before the Almighty God.
“Do you not fear Me?” says the LORD.
“Will you not tremble at My presence,
Who have placed the sand as the bound of the sea,
By a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass beyond it?
And though its waves toss to and fro,
Yet they cannot prevail;
Though they roar, yet they cannot pass over it.” (Jer 5:22)
Here, God asks the Israelites, “Do you not fear Me? Will you not tremble at My presence?” After all, He is the One who created the heavens and the earth, and has the power to set the boundary of the seas. These words echo those He spoke to Job:
“Or who shut in the sea with doors,
When it burst forth and issued from the womb;
When I made the clouds its garment,
And thick darkness its swaddling band;
When I fixed My limit for it,
And set bars and doors;
When I said,
‘This far you may come, but no farther,
And here your proud waves must stop!’ ” (Job 38:8–11)
God is to be feared because He controls the vast and tumultuous oceans with a wall of sand, and they stay within the boundaries He has set. In contrast, God’s people—the Israelites—refused to listen to their Creator. Indeed, they were a stubborn and rebellious nation who did not fear and tremble before God.
Are we like the Israelites? Or are we like the oceans, who acknowledge God’s sovereignty? Or Daniel, who feared God more than death itself?
WHY SHOULD WE FEAR GOD?
Sometimes we have a misconception, or, rather, we do not know enough about God. We focus solely on His goodness and mercy and forget about His righteousness. We assume that He will overlook any sins we commit, and so neglect to fully follow His will.
In Psalm 2, we learn that not only the Israelites rebelled against God’s command—the nations and the kings of the world were also averse to having God rule over them and placing restrictions on their lives. But could they really escape from the living God?
Now therefore, be wise, O kings;
Be instructed, you judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
And rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest He be angry,
And you perish in the way,
When His wrath is kindled but a little.
Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him. (Ps 2:10–12)
It is true that God is slow to anger, but to say that He will never be angry is untrue. Sometimes we behave like children, pushing the boundaries of our forbearing Father until His goodwill and patience expire. We see such an outcome in the Book of Acts, when Ananias and Sapphira experienced the swift and decisive judgment of God. Perhaps Ananais and Sapphira, who were Jewish believers, had forgotten that this God is the same God of righteousness and judgment they had feared in their recent past. Not surprisingly, after they died, fear and trembling came upon the church (Acts 5:11). Although the believers learned a tough lesson, the positive outcome was that they saw God in a more holistic light.
The Psalmist of Psalm 2 sings about rejoicing with trembling (Ps 2:11). How do these two seemingly contradictory emotional states coexist in our relationship with God? Of course, we rejoice in God because of His salvation. But we need to fear Him as well, to ensure that we conduct ourselves in such a way that does not anger our kind and forbearing God.
Work Out Our Salvation
In Philippians 2:12, Paul exhorts us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.” And yet, many writers in the wider Christian community conveniently ignore this teaching, choosing instead to emphasize God’s mercy. They believe that once a person is saved, he can never lose this entitlement. To them, fear is an emotion incompatible with the gospel and salvation. However, Paul is clear: salvation is a journey—one that needs to be embarked upon and continued with a lifelong attitude of fear and trembling.
There are also Christians who quote Elder John’s words: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment” (1 Jn 4: 18a). So is John contradicting Paul? Let us read carefully what John wrote:
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. (1 Jn 4:17–18)
John explains that this type of fear arises when we are not perfected in love and are, therefore, unprepared for the day of judgment. As the writer of Hebrews points out, all we can do in such a situation would be to wait for that day with a fearful expectation (Heb 10:27). This type of fear is different from the one that Paul refers to in Philippians. The fear Paul speaks of is godly fear, a positive force that motivates us to work on our salvation and to perfect our love. When we do this, we will not have the trepidation that John describes.
So what does godly fear look like? It is similar to being a conscientious student, who not only studies hard, but also constantly reviews his progress to see if there are any areas he needs to improve upon before the exam. If we know that we will stand before the judgment seat of God one day, would we not constantly review the state of our faith and ask for God’s help to become perfect and more like Him (Mt 5:48)?
For thus says the LORD:
“We have heard a voice of trembling,
Of fear, and not of peace.
Ask now, and see,
Whether a man is ever in labor with child?
So why do I see every man with his hands on his loins
Like a woman in labor,
And all faces turned pale?
Alas! For that day is great,
So that none is like it;
And it is the time of Jacob’s trouble,
But he shall be saved out of it.” (Jer 30:5–7)
Here, the prophet Jeremiah warns the Israelites of the impending judgment of God at the hands of the Babylonians. God describes how every man will grip his loins like a woman in labor, faces pale with fear. The effect of God’s judgment day in the end time will be like this, if we have not been perfected in love. Will we stand before God with confidence or with trepidation? It all depends on whether we fear and tremble before Him on our faith journey, as we work out our salvation.
HOW CAN WE MANIFEST OUR FEAR AND TREMBLING?
Aside from the exhortation to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, Paul mentions other areas of our faith and life where we need this attitude.
In the Ministry of Evangelism
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1–5)
We often associate preaching the gospel with attributes such as confidence and authority. But here, Paul says that when he was preaching to the Corinthians, he did so with fear and trembling. It indicates that he was aware of his inadequacy. However, when he ministered with such humility, God worked through him with great power. More importantly, it meant that the Corinthians could see that the message Paul delivered was divine, and they were able to place their faith in God and not on Paul.
When a person serves God, especially if he is eloquent, there is a danger that others will focus their attention and admiration on the worker rather than on God. Alert to such a risk, Paul took care to undertake his ministry with the right attitude, making sure that God would be given all the honor and glory. Do we fear and tremble when we preach the gospel?
In Showing Hospitality to God’s Workers
And his affections are greater for you as he remembers the obedience of you all, how with fear and trembling you received him. (2 Cor 7:15)
Here, Paul writes of how the Corinthians received Titus with fear and trembling. They understood that they were not merely receiving a friend, but a servant and ambassador of Jesus Christ (Mt 10:40; Jn 13:20).
In Submission to Our Employer
Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ. (Eph 6:5)
Employers come in all shapes and sizes: some are good and fair; others, harsh and unreasonable. Paul reminds all workers to serve and obey their superiors with fear and trembling. We may question why we should do this, and Paul’s answer is that the One we serve is not the person we see before us, but rather Jesus Christ. Knowing this, we should do our work with sincerity and with fear and trembling.
As a Christian, our life should have God at its center: from our personal salvation, to preaching the gospel, receiving a worker of God, and being a good employee in the workplace. Daniel and Paul knew how to conduct their lives with fear and trembling for the glory of God. Are we able to do the same?