Words by Adéle Deysel | Illustrations by Marie Warner Preston
Throughout Scripture we are continually exhorted to "fear the Lord". But what does this mean? Genesis 20 gives us some insight, inviting us to embrace reverent awe and break free from the fear of punishment.
The first decade of my Christian walk was dominated by a fear of God’s judgement. I was that person, raising my hand at every altar call. When it came to counting salvations each Sunday, I was a sure thing—they could ‘count me in’ the moment I walked through the door. With the stories of God’s wrath echoing in my mind, I would sit and analyse every choice I had made that week. Filled with fear, shame, and condemnation, I was left wondering if something was wrong with me. Everyone else appeared to have their life together, but walking the ‘straight and narrow’ seemed impossible to me.
If God is so loving, why was I so afraid? I needed to understand what it actually means to fear the Lord.
Most of the words used in Scripture to describe fear carry a dual meaning: They can mean both ‘to be afraid or terrified’ and ‘to reverence.’ We see these different responses play out in Genesis 20.
Here, Abraham has been up to his old tricks—lying to kings by saying his wife is only his sister. Consequently, Sarah has been taken into Abimelek’s harem. God warns Abimelek in a dream that he will die if Sarah is not returned to her husband. When he informs his officials of this, they are understandably afraid (v.8). In their day, a punitive deity causing ruthless fear amongst their subjects was the commonly-held belief; a God of love and grace was unheard of. And so the word to describe their fear, yārē, here conveys the terror of their impending judgement.
Abimelek confronts Abraham about his deceit, and ironically, Abraham tries to justify his actions by saying, “I thought surely there is no fear of God in this place” (v. 11). But in this context, ‘fear’ (yir'â’) means something different; it is describing moral, reverent awe and respect for God—something Abraham had no expectation of finding in Gerar.
Abimelek meets God in a dream and then acts out of a fear of condemnation, not conviction. For the unbeliever, fear of God means being afraid of His wrath and judgment. God is the author of morality and has the authority to execute judgement, and when we are not reconciled to Him through Christ, we will live in fear of His holiness and righteousness revealed to us through His wrath.
My own fearful response was caused by being insecure in my salvation. I had a lack of biblical understanding, and the enemy used this to isolate me and hold me hostage; his accusations made me reluctant to freely approach God. Only fearing punishment leads to isolation and losing objectivity and perspective, which leads to faithless responses. If the enemy succeeds in making us scared of God, he removes our dependence on Him; instead of living in God’s love, we end up living in fear.
Yes, I was afraid, but facing my fear of judgement guided me towards understanding the hope of my salvation through Christ. God takes our mistakes and turns them into a masterpiece for His glory, using sinful humans to accomplish His purposes.
When reading about God’s wrath, let us press in deeper and seek His love and grace. It is true that His righteousness calls for His response through judgement, but our hope is found in His proven love for us. As Psalm 111:10 tells us, “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom." Our heart posture towards God determines our perspective, and being grounded in the truth of His Word determines our response. Embracing a reverent awe of God—rather than terror—will lead to faithful responses, freedom from condemnation (Romans 8:1), and peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:6).
When we fear God, we can face anything.
How would you describe your own fear of God—are you afraid of Him or do you behold Him with reverent awe? Why is this? If you have a tendency to be afraid, invite the Holy Spirit to pour the love of the Father into your heart (Romans 5:5) that His perfect love might cast out your fear (1 John 4:18).