This article shows that as Christians we have to develop healthy fear.

Source: Clarion, 2014. 3 pages.

Healthy Fear

There is a refrain that I keep hearing lately and I can’t seem to get it out of my head. It goes something like this: fear is a bad counsellor. Or: we shouldn’t operate out of fear. I hear this in various church discussions like whether women should participate in voting for office bearers or, more recently, in the matter of how to interpret Scripture (i.e. principles of hermeneutics).

For instance, when an argument is raised expressing concern for where a position might lead in the future, the response is: we shouldn’t argue out of fear. When the risks of a certain position are pointed out, even showing examples from the past, they are dismissed with a wave of the hand: fear should not dictate our course! And please, don’t even bother mentioning the “slippery slope” for you will only be met with rolling eyes, snickers, and wagging tongues: there is no such thing as a slippery slope! Christians, we are told, should not be ‘fraidy cats’. With that, the discussion is suddenly closed. But should it be?

Fear Not🔗

Now, on the one hand, Scripture tells us not to fear. In fact, one of the most repeated commands in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid,” and it is deeply comforting. God commands us not to fear our enemies. Or our guilt. Or his holy presence. Fear caused by our sin, fear caused by Satan and the existence of evil, all of which are threats to our eternal safety, that fear is cast out by the Lord Jesus Christ (1 John 4:17, 18). And what a wonderful thing! Our three sworn enemies have been defeated by our Saviour and ultimately there is nothing left to dread or be in terror of. We have peace with God through Jesus Christ and no enemy can ever take it away. Thank God for this!

Fear God🔗

But the Bible also speaks of fear in another way, a fear that does us good, a healthy fear. First and foremost we are commanded to “fear God.” It is repeated often in the Bible. This does not mean to stand in terror of him, but it does mean to have a deep, from-the-heart reverence and awe for the Lord. He is the Almighty, we are helpless creatures. He is magnificent in his holiness, we are sinful in our depravity.

In Scripture, any time a human even comes close to the presence of God, there is full humility, a great sense of wonder and of being overcome, and often a trembling before the greatness of his majesty. Just think of Moses before the burning bush or Isaiah in his vision of God’s throne-room or even Peter before Jesus when the Lord caused the huge, miraculous catch of fish. All had a very healthy fear of God.

Out of this great respect for God, we obey his commands. Practically speaking, this is what “to fear God” often means in the Bible. It’s a synonym for walking in his way or listening to his Word. Ecclesiastes 12:13 is one of several texts that show this, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

Fear Sin🔗

The Scriptures go further. Having this fear of God should lead us to a fear of sin. That is, we should be afraid to sin against our awesome and loving God! Moses makes this connection in Exodus 20:20 when the Israelites were literally trembling in fear before the thundering voice of the Lord coming from Mt. Sinai. God had just spoken the Ten Commandments from the mountain-top and then we read, “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.’” On the one hand the LORD in his grace does not want us to be terrified of his majesty. On the other hand, also in his grace, he does not want us to get comfortable or complacent when it comes to keeping his commandments, for much is at stake.

The LORD knows our hearts, how our thoughts are evil from our youth on (Gen 8:21), and so he works to instill in us a sense of fear to keep us from sin. Sin leads us away from God and into trouble, misery, and even damnation. We need a sense of caution, a sense of risk and danger when it comes to breaking any of God’s commandments, for by nature we don’t have it. We are warned not to play with fire. Instead, we are called to develop a healthy fear of our own weakness and how easily we can be led astray, as Paul says, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12).

There is another reason to be afraid to sin: because of our love for God. This is even the primary reason. When we as believers realize what sin does to our heavenly Father, we will hate it, flee from it, and be afraid to fall into it (see Lord’s Day 33). Our iniquity is a great offense to God (Ps 51:5). Our evil deeds cause God sorrow and pain (Gen 6:6, 7).

Our sin grieves his Holy Spirit who lives in us (Eph 4:30). Our sin has cost God the greatest sacrifice he could ever make the death of his only-begotten Son, so how can he be pleased when his people are careless about sin, flirt with temptation, or dismiss the risk of falling into sin?

Fear of Backsliding🔗

The Scriptures teach us to develop an instinct of great caution when it comes to the potential to stray from God’s commands. We see this also in the many warnings God sends. Think of the lengthy list of curses for dis­obedience described in Leviticus 26 and repeated in Deu­teronomy 28. Remember the many prophets who pleaded with the people to turn from their wickedness and avoid the punishment God was threatening (based on those earlier curses!). Just read through Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and count all the warnings against breaking God’s commandments.

A warning is meant to put us on guard, to make us alert to raise a level of fear in our hearts so that we do not fall prey to the thing warned against. Christ also warns against letting go of the faith altogether or backsliding. This mes­sage comes out clearly in the parable of the sower (Luke 8:1­ 15) where the sown seed lands on four different soils. Those soils represent the hearts of the hearers and it turns out that three out of four “types” of listeners, in the end, produce no crop. The parable is a cautionary lesson, to warn especially new Christians that backsliding is possible and, unless one grows in faith and produces a crop of good works, the little shoot of “faith” will perish. A professing Christian should heed the warning and be afraid of backsliding.

Isn’t that the same healthy fear the Holy Spirit wants to invoke in our hearts in Hebrews 2:1, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it”? The author gives this warning more forcefully in 6:4:6,

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Does this not send a shiver down your spine? It’s meant to. It’s a healthy thing to soberly consider that by our neglect of God’s Word we may forever fall away. Those who profess Christ can’t afford not to be afraid of sin.

Fear Factor🔗

For that reason, we should not simply cast out any men­tion of risks or potential dangers in our discussions, with­ out any further consideration. A person raising a concern for a possible future development should be given a fair hearing and not be mocked or dismissed.

We do this all the time in other areas. We warn against smoking because it might lead to lung cancer. Is that a logic­al necessity? Is lung cancer an unavoidable consequence? No. You can find long-time smokers who enjoy good health. However, history shows that a high percentage of smokers develop this disease, so we know that smoking carries a great risk and for that reason we counsel against it. And everyone accepts it as good and proper.

Take another example. Kids playing soccer near a busy road is not a good idea because there is danger present. Is it a foregone conclusion that a child will run after the ball onto the road and get hurt? Is an accident inevitable? No. The game could go off without any problems. But every parent knows the risk is high and for that reason will have the kids play where there is no traffic. This is a normal and fitting way to reason things.

Assessing Legitimate Risks🔗

So, healthy fear, predictable dangers, foreseeable haz­ards are legitimate things to raise also in church debates. Risk assessment is not just a good practice in our daily lives but it is also biblical wisdom.

At the same time, the concern raised must be well-rea­soned and based on something solid like historic trends or parallel circumstances or statistically likely outcomes (for example). The risks believed to be present should be spelled out and the basis for them clearly explained so that they can be carefully weighed by all parties. Before diving in to something new or untried, we should indeed “test the spirits” and that will mean not only testing the arguments for change but also whether the fear of change is valid. And valid risks should factor into our decisions. Precautions may then be taken to minimize the risk of straying away.

I would agree that irrational fears, baseless concerns, and unfounded predictions of a coming deformation should not be our counsellor. That’s unhealthy fear and unworthy of Chris­tians. Such talk may even inhibit true, biblical reformation as well. It will take wisdom, humility, and prayerful depend­ence on the Lord to discern the difference at times, but what I wish to plead for most in this editorial is: please, do not throw healthy fear under the bus. Do not write off the “slippery slope” argument simply because you have bought into the notion that fear any kind of fear is a bad counsellor.

The fear of God should give us a healthy fear of sin and a warm love for one another also in our debates. We all have the same goal, right? We all want to help the church stay faithful to the Lord’s commandment, so let’s allow healthy fear into our thoughts and discussions.

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