“If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.” Genesis 31:42
God is love (1 John 4:8). If this is true, how does one enjoy His love while at the same time maintaining a healthy fear of God?
The Bible certainly affirms the reality of God’s love. It’s because of His love that He came to rescue sinners from eternal destruction (e.g. John 3:16; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:4-5; 1 John 4:9-10). As a result of God’s love, most specifically seen in Jesus Christ, the Bible states that we can take comfort in the reality that He cares for us (e.g. 1 Peter 5:6-7; 1 John 3:1). So, God is love.
However, the Bible also declares that God is worthy to be feared (e.g. Psalm 33:8; Matthew 10:28). In his exchange with Laban, Jacob swears by “the Fear of his father Isaac” (Genesis 31:53). Genesis 31 is the only chapter that this phrase, “the Fear of Isaac,” is found. What’s significant is that Jacob associates the word “fear” with God. No doubt, Jacob is making a point to Laban that he has fled in obedience to God and Laban is in no place to persuade Jacob out of obeying God’s command. Nonetheless, this is an example of more than just scare tactics on the part of Jacob.
He uses the word pachad (Hb. “fear”), which appears nearly 50 times in the Old Testament (Genesis 31 is the first). The word is used to describe a sense of great reverence or dread. Job’s friends describes this type of fear as a “trembling” that “seized me and made all my bones shake” (Job 4:14). Pachad, then, is a deep appreciation for something greater.
This type of fear is the recognition that we are not the main authority in the universe. There is something greater that occupies the space around us. A healthy fear of God, then, is the acknowledgement that God exists and you are not Him!
For Jacob, a fear of God meant that he was to obey God. This was the thing that mattered most. As Jacob contemplated fleeing Laban, his wife, Rachel, gave him the most pertinent advice, “Do whatever God has told you” (Genesis 31:16).
So, fear of God is motivation for obedience because God is sovereign. Simultaneously, though, a true fear of God also assures us that God is not abusive with His power. He is not a narcissistic dictator. He is a loving Father. His complete dominion over all things is a source of both reverence and comfort.
Alan Hirsh explains that both a healthy fear of God (he refers to as a “holy awe”) and a sense of God’s comfort are required elements of an authentic encounter with God:
All authentic God encounters should contain these two basic dimensions: holy awe (even terror) together with, and at the same time as, divine comfort and grace. While both elements must always be present to some degree, one will tend to predominate. If one of these elements is completely missing, then it’s not the biblical God one is encountering. (Hirsh, Untamed:Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship, 77)
God is sovereign. He is to be feared. God is also love and we can take comfort in His grace. As followers of Jesus Christ, the fear of God is not a burden, but a motivation for godly living.
Discipleship requires a healthy balance of both postures, fear and love. Fear without love leads to legalism. Love without fear leads to liberalism. Obey God because His character demands it. Obey God because we are assured of His love.