The Bible makes it very clear that humans are intended to fear God – in fact, there are over three hundred instances of the concept in the Old and New Testaments (Ecclesiastes 12:13, Matthew 10:28, etc.). However, a proper understanding of the concept of godly fear can sometimes be difficult to grasp.
The difficulty comes from the fact that many people only see half of what is involved in fearing God. For them, such fear appears to be a purely negative thing. Like a sign saying “beware of the dog” or “danger, minefield,” the statement “fear God” elicits only negative emotional responses.
But there is a scripture that gives us the other half of the equation and helps us to see the fear of God much more accurately, as we should. That scripture is Exodus 20:20 – the verse quoted above. I think of Exodus 20:20 as my spiritual eyesight verse – it’s the “20/20” eye check report we all need if we are to see this aspect of our relationship with God clearly.
Notice that in speaking these words, Moses told the ancient Israelites three important things:
1. “God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you”: These words make it clear that God wants to be sure that we do have the proper fear of him.
2. “that you may not sin” or “to keep you from sinning” (NIV): The clear purpose of that fear is to protect us from hurting ourselves or others through wrongdoing.
3. “Do not fear”: Even though God wants us to fear to do evil so that we do not receive punishment from him, he actually commands us not to fear him for any other reason.
When we see the balance of this verse, we see that God treats his human children as we should treat ours – he encourages proper respect for the protection of the children themselves, but does not instill fear in any negative sense. The morbid concept of a stern and judgmental God demanding abject fear is a figment of human imagination, as we read in Isaiah: “… their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13b).
In the New Testament we see that Christ also reiterated fear of God in proper context: “Don't be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). These words are followed immediately by the affirmation of godly love: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:29).
That kind of fear is analogous to the healthy respect of a child who hesitates to disobey its parent, yet who feels secure in the parent’s love and who knows it need not fear the parent in any other way.
When we see the true parental love of God in our lives, it should not be difficult to see the fear of God correctly – to realize that we can fear God positively without fearing him negatively at all.