Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 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.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:18-21)
God does not want us to be afraid of him, but he does want us to fear him.
Confused? Let me try to explain.
We are very familiar with fear as a negative thing. Fear locks people up. Fear paralyses. Fear prevents people doing the things they know they should do. Fear robs people of their peace and causes them to live under the cloud of worry and anxiety. There is the fear of man, the fear of failure, the fear of death, along with all manner of phobias and neurosis. Christ came to set us free from all such fear.
But there is another kind of fear, a positive kind, a kind that is often neglected and rarely taught.
I was thinking about this recently as I was talking to my son about crossing the road. Now, on the one hand although I don't want my son to be afraid of the road, to tremble and panic whenever he reaches the kerb, I do want to instil in him a fear of sorts. A fear that gives him a correct sense of danger and that will keep him from putting himself into a situation that could harm or kill him. This kind of fear could save his life! That's a positive thing.
This, I believe, is the correct purpose of fear: a strong motivational force that gives us a correct sense of danger and keeps us from situations that would cause us harm.
A fear of heights is a bad thing, but it has at its root an inbuilt recognition of the danger of falling from heights. We need such recognition of danger to make sure we treat such situations with the utmost care. No fear in this case would be worse than too much fear. As usual with the strategies of the enemy, the phobias he locks people up with are not original inventions, but merely distortions of the good things of God. A brave man is not a man without fear, but a man who can overcome his fears.
This is the kind of fear we should have for God. Not a fear that locks us up and keeps us from coming into his presence. We know that we are forgiven, accepted, invited sons who can come with boldness before God's throne of grace. But to have no fear, here as elsewhere is worse than too much fear. We need to recognise that our God is not "safe!" He is not an indulgent grandparent who winks at our misbehaviour and panders to our demands. He is an awesome holy righteous God, a consuming fire, a God who expresses his holy wrath against sin every day (Ps 7:11). He is our father, whose love will not shrink from discipline when it is needed.
The fear of God is designed to keep us from the situations that would harm us. Keep us from the consequences of bad decisions, and keep us from unnecessary discipline. Like children, if we cannot understand why we should do right, we can at least fear what will happen if we do wrong. God wants us to fear him that we might not sin.
The fear of God is not to keep us from coming, but to keep us from straying.