Go(o)d fear and bad fear
Tourists often fear dangerous animals in Australia, such as venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, crocodiles, sharks, killer jellyfish, and the blue ring octopus. On a recent hike we were surprised by a black snake. Most of us were afraid, but someone wanted to pick it up!
Fear can help us respond to a dangerous situation. This is protective fear. It’s why I told them not to go near the snake. It’s foolish to ignore real danger.
But constant fear is debilitating and can lead to anxiety that immobilizes and paralyzes us. This is chronic fear.
The fear (reverence and respect) of God is a feeling of awe and praise of a small creature before their immense Creator. This is respectful fear.
Let’s look at what the Bible says about these three kinds of fear. We’ll see that through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful, can avoid the bad fear and practise the good fear of reverence and respect for God and Christ as our Lord.
There are at least 10 Greek words that are used in the New Testament to describe “fear”.
The two most common ones are:
– phobeo (Strongs #5399) is a verb which means either to fear and be afraid, or to reverence.
– phobos (Strongs #5401) is a noun which means either fear, or reverence and respect for authority.
This article is based on verses with any of these 10 Greek words for “fear” in the books of the Bible written to the early church from Acts to Revelation. We begin by looking at protective fear.
When Paul was a prisoner he was sent to Italy by ship. A storm with hurricane force winds struck when they were near the island of Crete and the ship was driven towards Malta for 14 days. During the storm, the sailors were afraid the ship would run aground, and near the island of Malta they feared the ship would be dashed against the rocks (Acts 27:17, 29). This is a fear of danger, when our body reacts with a boost of adrenaline and we prepare to fight against or flee from the danger.
People are also afraid when they face punishment. When a Philippian jailer thought all his prisoners had escaped after an earthquake, he was about to kill himself because he would be punished (Acts 16:29). When we do wrong we are afraid of those in authority because we can be punished (Rom. 13:4). Those living under the Jewish law feared God’s judgment, but believers don’t live in this fear, as sons shouldn’t fear their father (Rom. 8:15).
The Bible says that unbelievers will be afraid when they face God at the Great White Throne to be judged because their names are not in the book of life. Apostates who abandon the Christian faith will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31). When Paul spoke about the judgment to come, the Roman governor Felix was afraid (Acts 24:25). This is a real fear because there is no protection for those who ignore Jesus Christ.
People are also afraid of dying. The Bible says this fear is like slavery (Heb. 2:15).
These are examples of fearing danger, punishment, and death. Protective fear can be an alarm that arouses us to protect ourselves.
Sin is another danger we should fear. We should be afraid that some people haven’t yet accepted God’s plan of salvation and so they aren’t going to heaven (Heb. 4:1). If an elder sins in such a way as to harm the testimony of the church they are to be rebuked publicly so the others may fear falling into sin (1 Tim. 5:20). And when responding to victims of apostasy, we should fear being trapped by the allure of sin (Jude 1:23). As Christians, do we fear sin and its consequences, which is a healthy fear that helps us live godly lives?
In First Aid when there is an accident or emergency we are told to follow DRABC. The first response is D for Danger. We protect ourselves, the casualty and other people from danger. After we have done this we can help the casualty. It’s risky to ignore this step, but it is also risky to not proceed on to the following steps. Likewise for us it’s good to have safety in mind by responding to reasonable fears.
If we obey the law of the land, there is no need to fear punishment from authorities. But do we fear danger or death? If we have no external resources to help us, it’s natural to fear these possibilities. But through faith in Christ, these fears can be replaced with courage, security, protection and peace when we realize two things. First, God and Christ are with us in the form of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 13:6). Paul was told, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you” (Acts 18:9-10NIV). God is always with us. Second, prayer is helpful in overcoming all types of fear (Phil. 4:6-7). “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Pt. 5:7). God always cares for us. Prayer draws us near to God. That’s how to deal with protective fear without lapsing into chronic fear.
But if fear persists it becomes anxiety.
In the case of chronic fear, people are too anxious and doubtful to respond appropriately. This is an unhealthy kind of fear, which keeps us from doing things we should do. It’s bad fear, which is based on one’s perceptions and assumptions. Such anxiety can lead to depression and possible mental illness (such as phobias, which are persistent fears of objects or situations).
In this case fear stops us from developing our spiritual gifts, from loving and serving God and loving and serving one another. Instead of being focused on God and others, we become self-focused. We worry about our needs instead of trusting God to take care of them.
Christians have a great foundation for overcoming fear and anxiety. All of our sins have been paid for. God isn’t angry towards us, and He will never punish us because His Son took our punishment. God has forgiven our sins, His Holy Spirit lives in us, and we will spend eternity with Him.
It is reported that about 40% of Australian police business involves domestic violence. During my last shift of telephone counselling, I spoke with three women who were constantly living in fear. They felt isolated and controlled by their partners. They were anxious not knowing when the next episode would occur. But they were seeking help.
If we are fearful and anxious do we seek help? Anxiety has various physiological, emotional and spiritual causes. As childhood experiences can have a big impact on personality development, are parents aware of their children’s needs? They need to be loved and wanted. To belong. And to feel worthwhile. Addressing these needs in childhood can help avert adult anxiety.
The process for overcoming anxiety is the same as for addressing any sin in the life of a Christian. The steps are:
• Identify what we are worried about.
• Identify our sin – what we doubt about God’s care for us.
• Confess and repent of our doubt.
• Remind ourselves of the truth about God and His promises in the Bible.
• Thank God in prayer for His care of us.
• Then we can have peace because we are trusting in God’s promises once again.
Courage is the opposite of fear; it’s the ability to face danger without fear. Next we look at when those who trusted in God demonstrated courage instead of fear.
The apostles were courageous when they faced the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 4:13; 5:29). This courage came from the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8). Christians are commanded to be courageous against dangers and difficulties (1 Cor. 16:13). They were not to fear threats or be frightened when persecuted, and not retaliate, but endure it patiently and be kind to their persecutors (1 Pt. 3:14). The church in Smyrna was told not to be afraid of persecution and to be faithful even to the point of death (Rev 2:10). All this is possible because the Holy Spirit makes believers courageous and not timid; “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid (fearful), but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).
When Paul visited Corinth during his second missionary journey, he preached to the Jews. But when they opposed him and became abusive, he moved and preached to the Gentiles. But Paul would have been discouraged and may have worried he would have to leave the city as had been the case in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 16:39-40; 17:5-10, 13-14). One night the Lord told him “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). As Paul knew that God was with him, he kept teaching them the word of God for 18 months.
During the storm mentioned earlier, an angel told Paul to not be afraid of shipwreck because he would stand trial before Caesar (Acts 27:24). So God encourages us to be courageous.
Christians don’t fear death because it brings them closer their Savior. In fact, Jesus frees believers from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15).
Christians don’t fear God’s judgment because Jesus has already paid the penalty. John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 Jn. 4:18). Christ’s death on our behalf is the “perfect love” that “drives out fear” of God’s judgment.
These are examples of courage and not fearing trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, and God’s judgment. This courage is healthy because it is associated with godly living.
A young father was having a difficult time convincing his son to go to bed. “I don’t want to go to bed. I’m afraid of the dark!” the five-year-old exclaimed. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” his father said reassuringly. “I sleep in the dark and I’m not afraid.” “Sure,” the youngster replied, “you’ve got Mom lookin’ out for you!”. He wasn’t alone. And that’s true for Christians as well – they have God the Holy Spirit with them.
Are you alone or have you turned away from sin and towards Christ as your Savior? That’s the only way to receive the Holy Spirit who can help us have courage instead of fear. In Revelation, unbelievers are described as being cowards because, they are afraid to believe that Jesus is the Son of God (Rev. 21:7-8).
Do we have courage instead of fear when we face authorities, trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, or God’s judgment? This courage comes from the Holy Spirit who empowers believers for godly living.
When facing our fears, do we act in the strength of the Holy Spirit? Are we motivated by love for God and love for one another? Are we self-controlled?
The second meaning of “fear” in Scripture is to indicate reverence and respect for authority.
Believers are commanded to give respect and honor to those owed respect and honor (Rom 13:7). This includes revering and respecting God and worshiping Him with reverence and awe (2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 12:28; 1 Pt. 1:17). “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Pt.2:17). They were not to fear persecution, but revere Christ as Lord (1 Pt 3:14, 15).
Paul respected the Lord as He is the one to whom Christians are accountable when they are rewarded at the judgement seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10-11). Similarly, we should fear displeasing the Lord.
Slaves (employees), children, and wives are to submit to their masters, parents and husbands out of reverence to Christ (Eph. 5:21). Respect is part of a healthy marriage. While the husband is to love his wife, the wife is to respect her husband (Eph. 5:33). Slaves (employees) should respect and obey their masters with reverence to the Lord (Eph. 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Pt. 2:18). Similarly, as God’s slaves/servants, our attitude towards Him should be one of reverence and respect (Rev. 19:5).
These are examples of reverence and respect for God who we wish to please as our Lord. Such respectful fear is healthy because it is associated with godly living. It’s good fear.
This is opposite to unbelievers, who don’t revere or respect God – “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18).
After a cop shot and killed a teenager in Ferguson, Missouri last year, potential US presidential candidate Ben Carson claimed that young males living in inner cities need to be taught how to respond better to authority. He said that a major problem that faces many who grow up without fathers or other authority figures in their homes, is that they don’t learn the right way to respond when confronted by law enforcement. They never really learn how to relate to authority in the proper way. If you take a group of young men and you raise them with no respect for authority, not learning to take on personal responsibility, having easy access to drugs and alcohol, they are very likely to end up as victims of violence and imprisonment. When it comes to God, are we like the teenagers?
A child’s view of God is usually similar to their view of their father. So Dad’s, be awesome, not angry or absent. If they can’t respect you, they will struggle to respect God. Pray for the children of single parent and step-parent families and homosexual marriages. What will their father image be like?
Do we reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord? Do we fear displeasing Him?
Do we respect His message for us in the Bible? Do we respect our employer, parents, spouse and our church elders?
Less respect of God means more trust in humanity, which leads to more anxiety and chronic fear. It also leads to less respect for authority in families, schools, and society. When parents don’t respect God, children don’t respect parents. When teachers don’t respect God, students don’t respect teachers. When our leaders don’t respect God, people don’t respect the police, the judiciary or the government.
While we are all products of our past to some extent, we don’t need to be fearful and anxious. God is always with us. He always cares for us. We can turn to God, and we can also have the help of friends, family members, or Christian counsellors.
Let’s confess and repent of our anxiety and bring all our fears to the Lord in prayer so we can exercise protective fear when we are aware of danger and not lapse into chronic fear. And most important of all, let’s be aware of God and Christ so we can practice respectful fear until it is part of our character.
Through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful. Above all, let’s reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord.
Written, June 2015
Can you please define the word fear in Rev 21:8? Is anyone who feels afraid or general, normal fear or anxiety disorder condemn a Christian to hell? This scripture troubles me. We all are afraid at some point. Please send me an e-mail and help me to understand this type of fear. Please respond.
July 21, 2015 at 7:29 am
Thanks for the question Valerie.
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8NIV)
The third Greek word in this verse is translated “fearful” (KJV), “cowardly” (ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV), or “cowards” (HCSB, NET, NLT). So most modern translations don’t use the word “fearful”. Although the KJV used “fearful”, it was changed to “cowardly” in the NKJV.
The Greek word is deilois (Strongs #1169 adjective), which means cowardly or timid. It occurs four times in the New Testament (Mt. 8:26; Mk. 4:40; Heb. 12:28; Rev.21:8). It is one of the 10 Greek words that were studied in the article on “Go(o)d fear and bad fear”.
Revelation 21:1-8 describes two eternal destinies – “a new heaven and a new earth” and “the fiery lake of burning sulfur”. Verse 7 describes those going to the former, and verse 8 describes those going to the latter. Verse 8 lists three attitudes of unbelievers (cowardly, unbelief, corrupt/destable/vile) and five of their deeds (murder, sexual immorality, witchcraft, idolatry, and lying). The cowards are afraid to accept Christ as their personal savior. They aren’t true Christians.
So, it doesn’t mean that anyone who feels afraid or general, normal fear or anxiety disorder is condemned to go to hell. Instead it is a specific fear to confess one’s sins to God and to follow Jesus Christ. The verse describes unbelievers, not true believers in the good news of the forgiveness of one’s sins through the substitutionary death of Christ.
July 23, 2015 at 10:56 am
My fear has turned into a phobia. I have struggled with it for years and struggle with depression. I know what the bible says about fear, but struggle to step out.
March 28, 2019 at 2:13 am