It is important not to domestic the fear of the Lord to merely a matter of avoiding punishment. Although correction is a rightful concern, a concern for correction alone leads to merely a slavish fear – or a desire to avoid punishment and manipulate the judge.
For correction’s sake, consider the following words of the Lord:
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. Luke 12:4–7 (ESV)
At one level, it sounds that the fear should be based upon a fear of punishment; God should be feared because he can cause you more pain than any man. However, Jesus is making a much more profound and fearful point. A man can merely cause you injury; there is no reason to be afraid of injury.
Yet, by casting one into Hell God is doing far more than inflicting pain. The power and right to determine one’s existence in bliss or woe is an existential power: Don’t be afraid of being hurt; rather, be afraid of a power which overrules and upholds your very existence. To drive that point home, Jesus notes that even sparrows are under the sovereign control of the Father. Their existence is a matter of his concern.
Thus, the power of judgment held by God is more than the ability and right to correct his children (which God does possess). The power of God is the power over existence itself. To know the power of God and to fear God is to be overwhelmed by the sense of dread and woe which strikes at one’s very existence: It is the immediate and complete recognition that one is a creature before the Creator: you exist merely because God wills it to still be so.
The power to cast into Hell is a power which belongs solely to the Creator. Creatures can hurt one-another; only the Creator has sovereign rights over the existence of each creature.
And yet that power is mixed with profound love: Jesus can simultaneously tell them to fear God and yet to not fear – because God has sovereign rights over his creatures.
The concept of the fear of the God cannot be reduced to any simple equation. Since it is ultimately unlike anything in creation, we can only approximate the elements in analogy – and we need to consider various aspects .
One important element is the matter of “numinous dread” (as Rudolph Otto called in The Idea of the Holy). C.S. Lewis explained it as follows:
Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a might spirit in the room” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.
A fear of punishment and desire for reward is far too little. A true fear of the Lord must entail something which shakes me to my very core existence. Yet it must be mixed with an unsurpassed beauty and awe: I may fear a mugger, but I am not in awe of his majesty. God is not a thug. The desire for God must be greater than desire for rest or ease or pleasure. The fear of God must be greater than a fear of punishment.
The German poet Rainer Marie Rilke tried to get at this idea in his first Duino Elegy:
Denn das Schöne ist nichts
Asl des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wer noch grade ertragen
Und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmät,
Uns zu zerstören.
For beauty is nothing
But the beginning of terror we can just barely endure,
And we admire it so because it calmly disdains
To destroy us. [Trans. C.F. MacIntyre]
Note how Jesus combines an existential threat (cast into Hell) with surpassing tenderness (he cares for sparrows!). The sheer power and right of God thus makes his kindness and love more surpassing in its greatness.
The creature who in a moment realizes that it is but a creature before profound beauty and power (power which could easily destroy, and yet is controlled and God-exalting) knows something of the fear of God.
Think of the sense of fear and beauty one may know at the edge of the ocean or in the mountains or gazing into a sky crammed with stars. We feel small, creaturely, overmastered – and yet overawed with beauty: it is a terrifying, joyful feeling.
The realization that I am a creature is one of the most basic and most important elements of knowledge which one can obtain. It is the most true fact of existence. That is why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (Prov. 1:7 & 9:10). That is why “reverence” is far too weak a word for the fear of the Lord.