Why live in the fear of God?

owl on book with Proverbs 1:7. Live in the fear of GodWhen we hear the phrase “put the fear of God into someone,” we know “someone” is, or will be very frightened. Yet the Bible commands fear of God. Does God want his people to be very frightened?

Of course not.

Jesus identified the most important commandment as “love your God.” How can we love what frightens us?

And yet the Bible commands the fear of God in many places and many ways. Why should we live in the fear of God?

Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Let’s unpack the relationship among the fear of the Lord (which is the same as the fear of God), knowledge, and wisdom.

What the fear of God isn’t

Satan. live in the fear of God

Engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Canto XXXIV of Divine Comedy, Inferno, by Dante Alighieri. Caption: Lucifer, King of Hell

Centuries of bad teaching and practice in the church haven’t helped matters. Generations of preachers thought it their business to try to scare the hell out of people. They wanted people to be afraid of God’s wrath.

Many even taught that out of all the people God made, he would choose only a few for salvation. Someone’s sin, for these preachers, was simply evidence of that person’s lostness.

It didn’t have to be preachers. My mother had an uncle who lived to be 90. He was a Methodist.

Some time in his last decade, one of his Baptist friends took him aside and warned him, “I’m really worried about your baptism, John. You’re too good a man to go to hell.”

In fact, the Bible makes it clear that we all start in a state of lostness. No one can be “good” enough to earn a place in heaven. Religious rule-keeping will never get anyone into heaven. Only God’s grace and mercy can do that. God would rather extend mercy than punish anyone.

To be sure, God will reveal his wrath against all unrighteousness and ungodliness, but living in the fear of God does not mean living in the fear of his wrath.

Humans don’t even respond well to earthly parents on that basis. If a child is thinking about doing something wrong and realizes that his parents will be angry, does that stop him from doing it? Maybe, but not necessarily.

Some better ideas of the fear of God

Now, if that same child is thinking about doing the same thing and realizes that his parents will be tremendously grieved, hurt, and humiliated, that’s more likely to persuade him not to do it. Fear of God’s grief will have a better effect on our behavior than fear of his wrath. But there’s something deeper.

We’re all members of a fallen race. Even after we meet Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord and Savior, there is a sinful nature, a flesh nature, within us that does not want to acknowledge God at all. Flesh trembles and rebels at the very thought of approaching God. It can keep people from going to church, from reading the Bible, from wanting to get anywhere near God in any way.  Giving in to that nature and avoiding God is foolish.

Embrace what the flesh fears. Living in the fear of God means drawing near to God even when we’d rather run away. And drawing near with the intention of doing what he wants no matter how much the sin nature protests.

Knowledge and wisdom

Open Bible. live in the fear of GodThe proverb says that knowledge begins with the fear of the Lord, and that fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Knowledge and wisdom are related, but not quite the same thing. People can know all kinds of facts and gain information in a variety of ways.

Actually, living in the fear of God has nothing to do with knowledge in the sense of gaining information. But that’s not the knowledge Solomon intended when he compiled the proverbs.

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young. (Proverbs 1:1-4 NIV)

And so it’s knowledge of how to live prudently and with discretion, of how to do what is right that begins with the fear of God. Wisdom is understanding how to act on that knowledge.

If we read knowledge as information into Proverbs, we miss the point. There is no correlation between the amount of information someone possesses and discretion, prudence, and doing right.

In fact, if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, then nowadays when it seems anti-intellectual to believe in God at all, the more academic knowledge a person has, the more likely he is to be too smart in his own eyes, too intellectually proud, too stubborn, too arrogant—and in Biblical terms, too foolish—to acknowledge God at all.

Fools despise instruction in godly living. They refuse wisdom. To gain either, a person must be willing to live in the fear of God.

Photo credits:
Satan. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Open Bible. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons


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