As a theologian, priest and preacher, I often get asked: “Why isn’t the Church preaching more fear of God any more? Why aren’t we preaching more about the dangers of going to hell? Why aren’t we preaching more about God’s anger and hellfire?”
It’s not hard to answer that. We aren’t preaching a lot about fear because to do so, unless we are extremely careful in our message, is simply wrong. Admittedly, fear can cause people to change their behaviour, but so can intimidation and brainwashing. Just because something is effective doesn’t mean it is right. Fear of God may only be preached within a context of love.
Scripture itself seemingly gives us a mixed message. On the one hand, it tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, even as it says that virtually every time God appears in human history, the first words from God are always: “Don’t be afraid!” That phrase, coming from the mouth of God, or from the mouth of God’s messenger, appears more than 300 times in Scripture. The first words we will hear every time God appears in our lives are: “Don’t be afraid!” So we must be careful when we preach fear of God. Fear of punishment is not the real message we hear when God enters our lives.
Then how is fear of God the beginning of wisdom? In our relationship with God, just as in our relationships with each other, there are both healthy and unhealthy fears.
What’s a healthy fear? Healthy fear is love’s fear. When we love someone our love will contain a number of healthy fears, a number of areas within which we will be healthily cautious and reticent. We will fear being disrespectful, fear despoiling the gift, fear being selfish, fear being irreverent. All healthy love contains the fear of not letting the other person be fully free.
Reverence, awe and respect are a form of fear. But that kind of fear is not to be confused with being frightened, intimidated or dreading some kind of punishment. Metaphorically, love’s fear is the fear that God challenges Moses with before the burning bush: take off your shoes because the ground you are standing on is holy ground.
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