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I’ll never forget the day Mable was sitting in my office crying. I asked her why she was crying, and she said it was because she was looking at my Bible on the desk. That was perplexing to me, so I asked, “When you look at my Bible, you cry. Why is that?”
She said, “You don’t understand. When I look at your Bible, I think about God. When I think about God, I think about God the Father. When I think about God being a Father, I think about my father, and when I think about my father, I cry.”
Mable had a kind of fear of the Lord. Sadly, her interpretation of the fear of God came from her personal experience with a cruel man, not from her understanding of God the Father. Because she had the wrong perception of God the Father, she did not have a pleasant experience with Him. Your understanding of God determines the kind of experience you will have with Him.
Frequently, some people use their personal life experiences as the benchmark and point-of-departure for what they believe to be true about God and His Word. This method of Bible interpretation—The Experiential Method—is not faithful to God’s Word but merely a person’s experience mapped over God’s Word, from which they get their understanding.
When you think about God and you, what do you think? How does God view you? How do you see God? These are perfect questions to ask yourself when thinking about what the fear of God means. Mable was afraid of God because she did not understand Him.
Perhaps you don’t have an excellent working definition of the fear of God. Perhaps it is more of an abstract term rather than a practical reality. Maybe, from your perspective, it’s a term for “smart” people to discern. Did you know even though you may not have a clear understanding of the fear of God, you do have a functioning experience with God based on your definition of the fear of God?
The term “fear of God” is one of those terms that suffers from language limitations. If you mix language limitations to bad experiences and allow those two things to become how you view God, one thing will happen: you will not accurately know and experience the true and living God.
I don’t think Mable is the minority report when it comes to an understanding of the fear of God. I suspect some Christians upload the term with something along the lines of being “afraid” of God. This misstep is the only point of reference they may have known when it comes to identifying a father.
The fear of the Lord described in Proverbs 1:7 is the fear of a converted person, a reverent love that understands God’s grace toward the sinner who trusts Christ and who wants to do what is pleasing to the Lord. This kind of fear recognizes the Lord’s character and His holy Love. – Sproul, The Fear of the Lord
The (Lord) is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work…provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. How this should be, I do not know. It surpasses reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. – Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain
To understand the fear of God, you must go back to the Garden in Eden, where we see humanity’s first experience with it, as seen in the story of Adam. After the fall of Adam, two things needed to happen to him for him to renew and experience a right relationship with God:
Adam’s initial response was to run away from God because he knew that God demanded justice for what he did. He knew someone had to pay for his actions. Adam sinned. Thinking he had to pay for his sin, which is correct, he ran and hid.
In a sense, Adam had a fear of God. The problem was how his fear of God was not a complete understanding of what the term meant. Adam ran and hid because he knew there must be punishment (justice) meted out for his behavior (Genesis 2:16-17).
Adam was not delusional. He did what you and I would do. Adam was terrified because he knew God and believed what the Lord said. Adam knew that he could not escape the wrath to come. God was to be feared (Genesis 3:10).
But if God’s justice was all that we knew about Him, the complete definition of the fear of God would be strictly along the lines of horror, terror, and dread. This perspective is how Mable saw God because this was her only experience with a father figure. It made complete sense to me how she would was terrified at the thought of having a relationship with any father, especially God the Father.
I have counseled many adopted kids who had similar interpretations as Mable, though it was caused by being rejected by their bio-dads. They were similarly tempted to live with a fear of being rejected by God the Father because they understood the painful rejection of their biological fathers.
This reality makes the role of an adoptive father all the more critical. The new dad has an incredible opportunity to redefine what a redemptive father is like while pointing the child to his ultimate redemption in God the Father.
The same is true for kids who have passive dads. In one sense, the stories are all the same: unkind, harsh, cruel, distant, inactive, passive, or unloving fathers have a role in shaping the definition and conclusions kids come to regarding the “fear of God.”
For example, if all these kids know is a punishing Father, they will not be able to have a healthy and biblical view of God the Father. A child who can only think in the “sin, punishment, justice construct” will have a hard time relating to God.
Fortunately, Adam’s experience with God did not end with his fearful understanding of God’s holy justice. Adam knew he had sinned, and he knew the Lord would keep His Word—there was hell to pay. God is holy, and He will punish sin. There is no escaping this truth. No sin will go unpunished. Adam knew this, which is why he was living in the dread and fear of the consequences of his sin.
What Adam (and Mable) was not calculating into the equation was how God, the holy Judge, was going to punish sin. Because there was no gospel in Adam’s frame of reference, the only thing he could do was pay for his crimes against a holy Creator. That is what one of his sons wrongly tried to do (Genesis 4:3-4). Cain offered a payment from the work of his hands to appease the offended Power. God unilaterally rejected it!
This rejection of personal sacrifice created a problem: if Adam or his children could not pay for their sins, who was going to pay for it? We know the answer to this question, and Adam eventually came to understand it too. God told him in Genesis 3:15 that the gospel was coming, and someone else would pay for sin ultimately.
All Adam had to do was accept the free gospel from God the Father. That was all Cain needed to do as well. And Mable too. Knowing the justice of God is a good start, but only when you know and experience the love of God through the gospel will you truly understand what the fear of God means.
You need to accept God’s payment (justice) for your sin, and that payment was made in full when God the Son died on the cross (love) as the God-man. A right understanding of the fear of God comprises two great truths about God: His holy justice and His holy love.
God’s holy justice plus His holy Love is what I call a complete understanding of God the Father (or a fuller understanding of what the fear of God means). When you have this right view of God the Father in your mind, you’ll have a good understanding of the fear of God.
To know God’s holy justice and holy love will usher you into greater depths of awe, astonishment, wonder, amazement, and inexplicable joy as you ponder the depths of the gospel. This worldview is what it means to have a comprehensive worship experience with God.
Mable knew she was a bad girl because she experienced the wrath of her father. She understood sin and punishment because she was forever paying for her sins. However, Mable never truly understood love and redemption. When her time came to think about God and enter into a relationship with Him, she entered into the relationship with a one-sided understanding of what it meant to be His child.
Though she was born again, she never fully came to terms with what it meant to live in the good of the gospel. Out of one side of her mouth, she would say God saved her because Christ died for her sins and out of the other side of her mouth, she had this uneasy dread of God.
A person who is afraid of our redemptive God may be a Christian, but they do not know Him as they should. Mable was trained to be frightened of her earthly father and her heavenly Father. Though the Lord saved her, Mable could never enter into an uninhibited relationship with Him because of her poor understanding of His justice and His love.
She had a “half understanding” of the fear of God. She lived in continual condemnation because that is all she knew. She needed to hear about the love of God as experienced through the gospel.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).