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Fear of God

The fear of God leads us to his mercy.


A few summers ago, my family took a family trip to Toronto. We'd never been there before, so we didn't know what to see. But all the guidebooks said you have to go up the CN Tower, the world's tallest building and freestanding structure. I didn't think that was such a good idea, because I have a real fear of heights. Just looking at 1,815 feet in the guidebook gave me a bad feeling. But the kids insisted, "Come on, Dad! We have to go!" So against my better judgment, we went.

When we got there, I was the last one into the elevator. Following the universal law of elevators, I turned around and faced the door. It was only as we started up that I realized the door of this elevator was made of glass, and we were affixed to the outside of the CN Tower. So as we were racing up this tower, Toronto was falling away at our feet. My palms started to sweat. My throat tightened up, and I began breathing harder. I told myself, It's going to be okay. Pretty soon, we're going to be on the observation floor, and we're going to be okay.

I was the first one off the elevator, thankfully. I got onto the observation floor, and there I discovered some sadist had installed a glass floor so you could walk around and look down. The kids were saying, "Come on, Dad!" They were out there jumping up and down on it, lying on this glass floor. I could not do it; I could not look all the way down. 

That same year we went to the Grand Canyon. At the Grand Canyon, you stand at the south rim and you peer 6,000 feet down to the bottom. Unlike the CN Tower, there are no solid blocks of glass separating you from your doom. As the guidebook states, every year, on average, four or five people die at the Grand Canyon—some from "overly zealous photographic endeavors." The painful fact is over 50 people have fallen to their death at the Grand Canyon—and yet I could not stay away. It's so beautiful. It's so awe-inspiring that I felt I had to get near it. I knew I couldn't get too close or do anything too foolish near the edge, but I had to see it. I was captured and drawn in by the Grand Canyon.

What does it mean to fear God?

When the Bible tells us to fear God—as it does multiple times—what does it mean? Does it mean the kind of fear I had at the CN Tower, or does it mean the kind of fear I had at the Grand Canyon? For most of my Christian life, people have told me it's like the CN Tower. They said, "When the Bible says, 'Fear God,' it doesn't really mean 'fear.' It means, 'awe and reverence.' You may have a thrill of reverence. You may have a sense that you should respect God—and you should. But there's no reason whatsoever to fear God. It's like you're standing on the glass floor in the CN Tower—it may give you a quick thrill, but there's absolutely no reason to be afraid. So if you feel fear around God, that's irrational."

But then I made the mistake of reading my Bible. You start reading your Bible, and in the first few pages you run into Adam. Adam is the first human being to encounter God, and Adam says, "I heard the sound of you in the garden and I hid because I was afraid." Then you flip over a few pages to Moses. Moses sees this bush that's on fire, and he hears God's voice speaking to him from out of the bush. Scripture says: Moses fell on his face and hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. Go a little further. The people gather at Mount Sinai, God comes down, and the mountain is covered in smoke and the ground is rumbling underneath their feet. God speaks and his voice is so shattering, so awesome, that the people beg Moses. They say: Don't let God keep talking to us, or we're going to die! You figure out what God wants, Moses, and just send us the memo!

Job flat out says, "I am terrified at God's presence. I am in dread of him." While Isaiah is praying in the temple, his prayer gets interrupted by a vision of God in his glory. Isaiah says, "Doom! It's Doomsday! I'm as good as dead! Every word I've ever spoken is tainted—blasphemous even! And the people I live with talk the same way, using words that corrupt and desecrate. And here I've looked God in the face! The King! God-of-the-Angel-Armies!"

You may be thinking, Well, okay. Some people actually did feel fear—real fear—around God. But God is good, and he would not want us to feel that way. But Isaiah prophesies under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: "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." Or maybe you're thinking, That is true, but that is the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus is revealed to us as "full of grace." That's true. Jesus is full of grace. And here's what Jesus said: Dear friends, don't be afraid of those who want to kill your body. They cannot do anymore to you after that. But I'll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he's the one to fear.

Fear of God is more than just awe and reverence.

I could go on with more examples, but I think you can see that when the Bible talks about fearing God, it's not just talking about a sense of awe. It's not just talking about a little bit of reverence. It is talking about fear.

I call A. W. Tozer as my final witness—the writer who pastored a church on the south side of Chicago in the 1960s. Tozer says:

In the old days, people of faith were said to walk in the fear of God and to serve the Lord with fear. However intimate their communion with God, however bold their prayers, at the base of their religious life was the conception of God as awesome and dreadful. Wherever God appeared to people in Bible times, the results were the same—an overwhelming sense of terror and dismay, a wrenching sensation of sinfulness and guilt.

Of course, we've long since grown out of that primitive emotion. Here's what Tozer has to say about that. He says:

The self-assurance of modern Christians, the basic levity present in so many of our religious gatherings, the shocking disrespect shown for the Person of God, are evidence enough of deep blindness of heart. Oh, many call themselves by the name of Christ, talk much about God, and pray to him sometimes, but evidently do not know who he is. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, but this healing fear is today hardly found among Christian people.

When the Bible talks about the fear of God, it's talking about the fear I felt at the Grand Canyon, in which there is realistic danger. People who act foolishly and get near the edge can die. And yet it is such a beauty, such an awesome grandeur, that you are drawn to it. As Aaron Damiani says, "The fear of God is not a fear that drives you away; it's a fear that beckons you."

We don't like the fact that God is scary. The Bible pictures Jesus as both lion and lamb. We like the friendly, wooly, little lamb, but we can never forget that Jesus is also a lion who can tear limb from limb.

Fear of God is healthy and restraining.

Why does the Bible tell us to fear God? The answer is captured in Exodus 20. Moses tells the people, "The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."

Let's face it: there is something inside us that will always try to get away with as much as we can. If your workday starts at 8:30, but you can come in at 8:45 and pay no penalty for that, you're likely to come in at 8:45. Suppose your brother-in-law was a high ranking official in the state police, and you knew no matter how fast you drove, if you got a ticket, your ticket could be adjusted and dropped. Essentially, as long as you're on a highway in the state of Illinois, you can't get a ticket. How fast would you drive? It's when you fear authority that you act the way you should. It's when you fear authority that your best self comes out.

My dad used to say, "If one of you kids gets picked up for shoplifting, you can just save that one free phone call from the police, because I'm not coming to get you out." And you know what? I knew he was absolutely serious. Plus, it was much safer to stay inside a jail cell—where the police have to read your Miranda rights—than go home and face Dad. So I didn't shoplift. It wasn't because I didn't think about it; it was because I knew I had to deal with him. I knew my dad loved me, but I also knew not to mess with him.

The Bible sees the fear of God in that same way. It is a healthy, restraining fear and force in your life. Psalm 103:17 says, "The merciful goodness of the Lord endures forever on those who fear him." Then it completes the idea in verse 18: "on those who keep his covenant and remember his commandments and do them." That's a parallelism. It means, "fear God; do his commandments." In other words, people who fear God do what he says. The person who does not fear God thinks, I know this isn't really right. I probably shouldn't be doing this. But I know God will forgive me, and it will be okay. He's full of mercy. It's true that God is full of mercy. It's absolutely right that God will forgive you. But the moment you use his grace to excuse or allow your sin, you are deluding yourself, because you are no longer relating to the real God—the God who inspires fear.

Fear of God leads us to mercy.

Even though we'd all admit a healthy fear of God can keep us from sinning, from hurting other people, from even ruining our lives, our hearts have to ask a question that directly affects the kind of relationship you and I can have with God. If God is so "fear-inspiring," why would I ever want to draw near to him? Why would I even want to get remotely close to a God of that nature?

That's a very good question. The answer comes in the psalm. This psalm clearly tells us what you and I can expect if we draw near to God in fear and trembling: "He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities. He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and lovingkindness. He satisfies you with good things, and your youth is renewed like an eagle's."

Does that surprise you? This is not what you would expect from a God who inspires fear and who could strike you dead. When you come to him humbly, and when you come before him knowing you don't deserve anything, all of a sudden you find, "He is showering me with benefits! He is showering me with things I could not have asked for or dared to expect. And yet here they are!" He forgives all your sins. Isn't that amazing?

If you're ever having trouble with humility, you can do what I call "the Jumbotron test." What you do is imagine you're in the United Center, and up there on the Jumbotron, in the center of the arena, is a rolling film clip of what you've thought and done in the past week; things you've said to people about other people. All of that's up there, being played back in public on the giant screen.

How long could the film roll before something would appear that you'd feel an absolute sense of shame and embarrassment and actual horror about? God sees all of that in your life. He is the Jumbotron. And yet he forgives all your sins.

This realization of God's great mercy caused a Christian in the 600s, Marterius, to say this:

Let us just ponder this, how we who are mortal beings, continually bespotted with the mud of sins, have been held worthy to stand before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who dwells in the resplendent light that none can approach, to whose honor thousands upon thousands and myriads and myriads of angels and archangels minister as they stand before him in fear and trembling, before whom even the heavens are not pure. Even though he strikes wonder in his angels, yet he condescends to speak with weak and wretched human beings who have rendered themselves unclean by sin.

No wonder the psalmist says, "Bless the Lord, O my soul!" What have you done that you know was wrong and you can't let it go and you can't even believe you did it? You ought to bless the Lord that though the Lord is holy, though the Lord is absolutely terrifying and fear-inspiring, he has chosen out of his tender mercy and goodness to forgive all your sins. That "thing" is gone.

In verses 8–12, the psalmist keeps repeating the word mercy. "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. He crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness." And who is this mercy for? "His mercy is great upon those who fear him." If you fear God, there's this waterfall of mercy pouring down from God, over you. The psalmist is drenched in God's mercy, and he can't believe it. He's dancing in this waterfall, saying: Wow, God. You forgave my sins! You forgive them all! Lord, you heal my infirmities and you give me eternal life and you crown me with mercy and goodness and all this stuff I couldn't expect and I didn't dare to ask for! And it's all flowing to me from your throne!

"God forgives all my sins and he heals all my infirmities." It's talking about those infirmities of the soul. It's talking about those twisted places in your life that you don't like and you wish weren't there, but they keep you from your full potential in God. How many of you could testify, "God has shown his power to heal those kinds of diseases in my soul"? I know I can. When you realize God heals that junk in your soul, you have to rise up and say, "Bless the Lord, O my soul. I don't have to live with that for the rest of my life. God can heal me. I can be a healthier person. I can love in a new way."

"Bless the Lord and forget not all his benefits." Suddenly, you realize all those good things in your life—they're all from God. You don't think you're a self-made person anymore. You don't even know what that means! You just stand under the waterfall of God's mercy, and your heart lifts up and your soul lifts up and you say, "Bless the Lord, O my soul!"


Friends, on a day that we do not know and when we least expect it, Jesus Christ will return in absolute triumph. It will be the royal Christ—Christ the imperial. He will come, Revelation says, as a mighty conqueror on a white horse. And when he returns, every knee will bow to him in awe and reverence and—yes—fear. Then a voice will issue from the throne of God, declaring, "Praise him! Praise your God, all you his servants, all you who fear him, both small and great!" And your heart will lift up and your soul will lift up and you will say, "Bless the Lord, O my soul! Bless the Lord, all you angels of his! Bless the Lord, all you works of his! Bless the Lord, O my soul!" Amen.

For the outline of this sermon, go to "Fear of God."

Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,

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Sermon Outline:


I. What does it mean to fear God?

II. Fear of God is more than just awe and reverence.

III. Fear of God is healthy and restraining.

IV. Fear of God leads us to mercy.