Fear: The Key to Joy

This post has been a long time coming for me. I’ve been reading on and trying to understand this topic that is found all over the Bible, namely, the fear of the LORD. I confess that as a new believer (and even a bit after that), I was quite confused, and even a little embarrassed, that God would want people to fear him. After all “God is love”(1 John 4:8), right? And, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts outfear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love”(1 John 4:18). Atheists go to town on the fear of the LORD as just propaganda meant to guilt and manipulate the masses into submission (although, in all fairness, the fear of the LORD has been abused in some cases of history). Even Christians themselves seem content to do away with it. Perhaps they lump it in with the Law of Moses (of which common misconceptions are rife); and therefore, relegate to that part of redemptive history that is no longer necessary. But this doesn’t do justice to what the scripture says about it. Or if they don’t do away with it all together, they take the edge off of it; instead of fear, they mean showing respect. But this won’t do either because the same word used for ‘fear’ is also used in Deut. 2:25 and can clearly not mean simply being respectful. Before entering the promised land, the inhabitants of which were to be put to total destruction, the LORD tells the children of Israel, “‘This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.'” The Canaanites were in fear of being destroyed, a truly terrifying experience.

I was reading through Isaiah a few years ago and was blown away by what I read. In Isaiah 11, we read about the “shoot from the stump of Jesse”(v. 1), who is the Messiah, Jesus Christ. 11:3, “And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” What!?! He will delight in the fear of the LORD? How does that even make sense?

But it gets even better. Psalm 2:11 says, “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” That’s crazy! Far from quenching it, the fear of the LORD actually can coexist quite harmoniously, and, as I’ll argue further down, it enhances it! 

As any good Christian Hedonist (if you’re not familiar with the John Piper’s book, Desiring God: The Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, the term Christian Hedonist means to seek and pursue the highest pleasure, joy, beauty of all, God himself). As I was saying, as any good Christian Hedonist, I want to pursue the joy that is found in God. And so I’ve come to the conclusion that my level of joy in Christ, will never surpass the level of my fear of God; therefore, if I would have more joy, I must increase my fear of the LORD. The reason why we fear him is because to stand before God is to stand in the blast radius of thermonuclear bomb of glory, beauty, holiness, love, grace, mercy, compassion etc., yet not be destroyed. I’ve heard the oft used analogy of standing next to the Grand Canyon (you’re amazed at its beauty and size but also afraid of standing too close to the edge), but I think that we should put it on the shelf for a while because I don’t think it captures the heights of joy (unless you’re a geologist or something). So I thought, “What are some the most joyful events that human beings experience?” I’ll mention two, but I’m sure there are more. The birth of a child and a marriage ceremony. These things are so beautiful that those who experience them are often brought to tears of joy and happiness as they either meet their son or daughter for the first time, or as they pledge their lives to the love of theirs lives.

But!!! What’s interesting about these events is that there is also a considerable amount of fear in them as well! I’ve heard parents speak of how happy and terrified they were that they now were in charge of another human being. And as vows are exchanged, the bride and groom often “tremble with rejoicing” over their overflowing love that they have for one another.

So it is with our worship of the LORD. You rejoice with joy that, in his holiness, he did not utterly destroy you; you glory that he is infinite and you are not, yet he deigns to lavish his love on you; you weep at his overwhelming beauty and that you’re somehow not dissolved by it. The fear of the LORD is the key to joy.

Great! So now what? Well, continue in the means of grace: prayer, the scriptures, fellowship, communion, fasting. As we abide in these things, our fear of the LORD will gradually (though it could happen quickly I suppose) almost imperceptibly grow and increase, and therefore our joy will as well.

In my prayer time in the morning, I’ve lately been praying that God would increase my fear of Him, that he would wash the crust off of my eyes that keeps me from seeing Him as He truly is. I’ve prayed this prayer from Augustine’s Confessions (Book I): “Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge Thou it, that Thou mayest enter in. It is ruinous; repair Thou it. It has that within which must offend Thine eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? or to whom should I cry, save Thee? Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare Thy servant from the power of the enemy. I believe, and therefore do I speak. Lord, Thou knowest. Have I not confessed against myself my transgressions unto Thee, and Thou, my God, hast forgiven the iniquity of my heart? I contend not in judgment with Thee, who art the truth; I fear to deceive myself; lest mine iniquity lie unto itself. Therefore I contend not in judgment with Thee; for if Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall abide it?”

May God indeed enlarge the tiny mansions of our hearts that we may “delight in the fear of the LORD,” and “tremble with rejoicing”!


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