The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Not only that, but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of the Christian life. The Bible makes it clear that to love God, to honour God, to obey God, we must fear God. But ‘fear’ is a word with many dimensions, many definitions. In what ways are we to fear God?
Much of what I know about fearing God I learned from R. C. Sproul. Looking back to Luther, Sproul distinguished between servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear is the anxiety of a man who is terrified of what an evil person may do to harm him, the fear of a slave who is about to face the whip, the fear of a prisoner who is about to face the rack. Servile fear, he says, ‘refers to a posture of servitude toward a malevolent owner’. We who are loved by God need not fear him in this way, for he bears no malevolence toward us.
But filial fear is very different. It is the fear of a child for a father – an honourable child for a kind and loving father. Its motivation is not the fear of consequences, but the desire to not bring dishonour or shame upon loved ones. Such a person ‘has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves,’ says Sproul, ‘not because he’s afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he’s afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child’s world, the source of security and love.’
I have feared God in this way since I was young. From the time I was a child, my parents made the Proverbs part of my spiritual diet, and I have always known the importance of having a healthy fear of God. I have taught my own children that ‘Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments’ (Psalm 112:1)! To honour God we must fear God – to have a deep and abiding sense of God’s power, God’s majesty, God’s holiness, God’s sheer otherness. We live best when we live with a healthy fear of God.
So I do fear God. But these days I’m also finding myself afraid of God. I fear him in that sense of rightly assessing his power, his abilities, his sovereignty. But I’m also afraid of the ways he may exercise them. It is, after all, not long ago that God exercised his sovereignty in taking my son to himself. My life of ease and privilege was interrupted by a loss so great I would never have allowed myself to even imagine it. In one moment God delivered a blow that staggered me, that very nearly crushed me.
It was, of course, God’s right to take Nick. I know that. I affirm that. The God with the ability to give is the God with the right to take. Willing as I was to receive Nick as a gift from God’s hand, I cannot and will not begrudge the same God for taking him back. Like Job, I will bless the name of the Lord in the giving and in the taking.
But it is God’s ability and willingness to take that leaves me fearful. For if Nick’s life was so very fragile that it could end in a moment without obvious cause or explanation, why not the lives of others who are precious to me? If God has called me to suffer this blow, why not another? If God took my beloved son with such speed, with such ease, with such finality, what else might he take? Who else might he take? And how could I bear such a loss?
I am not particularly prone to anxiety, to fretting, to irrational fears, but in these days I find myself living with a sense that something bad is about to happen. Or that it could happen, anyway. I don’t want to let my girls out of my sight. I don’t want Aileen to venture anywhere on her own. I don’t want any of them to put themselves at even the least risk. I’m jumpy. I’m scared. I’m looking over my shoulder.
That’s all silly, of course. Nick was the most cautious of our children and was taking no risks when his life came to an end. There was no connection between what he was doing and why or how God took him. But still I fear. And, when I’m honest with myself, I admit that it is God that I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of what else he might call me to do. I’m afraid of what other ways he might exercise his sovereignty. I’m afraid of what else he may will for me to endure. It’s not that I begrudge or distrust him. At least, I don’t think so. I’m in awe of his ability and his willingness to work his will. But I’m also intimidated by it, afraid of what it might take from me.
Perhaps the reality is that I fear God in a new way. Before I understood he had power, but now I know he has power. Before I knew God would exercise his power in giving what I love, but now I know God will also exercise his power in taking what I love. Before life was easy because God’s sovereignty always seemed inclined toward the things I wanted anyway, but now life is hard because I see that God’s sovereignty may also be inclined towards the things I dread, the things I would not wish for. I’ve chosen to submit myself to that sovereignty, to continue to pray ‘Thy will be done.’ But even as I pray, I cringe just a little. I pray the words with little faith and with some hesitation. Even as I say the words, at least for now, I feel some measure of dread. For I know that he will work his will – his good will – no matter what it gives to me or takes from me. It’s the taking I fear. And behind the taking, the Taker.
Tim’s son, Nick, died suddenly and unexpectedly while participating in a sports activity on 3 November 2020. The cause of death remains unknown. Nick was due to be married on 8 May 2021. Those who wish to honour Nick’s memory are invited to contribute to the ‘Nick Challies Memorial Scholarship’ which will annually provide tuition assistance to a selected student from Canada whose ministry aspirations are the same as those Nick possessed – to return to Canada and serve as pastor of a local church.
Tim Challies is pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Canada. He is also a blogger, author, and book reviewer.