By Daniel Schantz
I was at a church dinner visiting with a highway patrolman, and he said, “Dan, I deal every day with a culture that has no conscience. These guys don’t care who gets hurt. They are not afraid of the police . . . they don’t fear God himself.”
It was a sobering revelation, because fear is vital to civilization, and most normal people have a number of instinctive fears.
Surveys of the American public show a variety of fears out there—the fear of public speaking, of dentists, of climate change, for example.
Women fear losing their looks and their relationships. One list showed women fear mice almost as much as nuclear war! Perhaps we should be stockpiling mice instead of missiles.
Males fear physical weakness and not being able to provide for their children. Oh, and they have a deep dread of crying in public. If someone could invent a pill to keep men from crying at weddings and funerals, I would be his first customer.
Young children have a multitude of fears, with the fear of wild animals near the top, which is odd, since kids are not likely to encounter any tigers in suburbia.
My granddaughter was terrified of panthers. When she came to stay with us, I assured her, “There are no panthers in Missouri, Hannah.” But she was not convinced. She slept upstairs with Grandma. My job was to sleep downstairs and make sure that none of the big cats found their way into the house.
The fear of disease and death spurred creation of modern city sanitation systems and antiseptic procedures for hospitals.
The fear of poverty prods many to get a job and start a savings account.
The fear of getting a ticket or killing a child makes me a more careful driver.
Fear can even be fun. Alfred Hitchcock made great movies based on his belief that people would rather be scared to death than bored to death.
A Perfect Fear
There is one fear that is actually encouraged in the Scriptures. “The fear of God” is a phrase that appears in a variety of wordings more than 300 times in the Bible. According to the book of Proverbs, this fear is foundational to life itself. It is the starting block in the race of life.
In his autobiography, Gary Burghoff, better known as Radar O’Reilly in the M*A*S*H sitcom, admits he was not the lovable little guy he appeared to be in the show. Rather, he was self-centered, ill-tempered, difficult, and, consequently, not well-liked by some cast members.
His first marriage failed because he gave everything he had to the show. His second marriage was heading the same direction when his father said to him, “Gary, you need a foundation in your life. You need God.”
When Gary’s father died, Gary dropped to his knees and gave his heart to God. Today he is finally the sweet little guy we saw on the show. The fear of God turned his life around.
How Fear Works
The phrase “the fear of God” is defined several different ways in the Bible, and it can be confusing. Perhaps a better way to understand it is to look at some Bible characters who modeled the fear of God.
The father—When Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, it was a hard, hard request. Did Abraham have misgivings? Any fears? How could he not? For one thing, he risked losing his son’s love and respect. How do you love a dad who has a knife at your throat? And what about Abraham’s wife, Sarah? After all, this was her son too. How do you tell your wife you have just killed her son?
“Oh, by the way, Sweetheart, I sacrificed our son today, and, hey, what’s for lunch?”
Whatever misgivings Abraham had, he feared God more, and God spared his son because of it.
God asks a lot of hard things of us. For example, he asks us men to be faithful to our wives until death. How is that possible in a world teeming with temptation?
Ideally, we should be faithful out of love for our wives, but even the best marriages go through some very difficult times, when affection may become paper-thin for a while. At such times a man’s respect for God and a fear of his sure and certain discipline may be the only thing that can enable him to behave until the marriage improves.
The noble woman—The godly woman in Proverbs 31 seems almost too good to be true. She clearly is a gifted woman, capable of doing anything she aspires to do, yet she centers her life around her family. Meanwhile, her husband is basking in glory at the city gates.
Some women today would call her a fool for giving up her own dreams to care for her family. After all, husbands are notoriously self-centered and thankless. Children are demanding, draining, even infuriating. They grow up, move away, and forget even to send a Mother’s Day card.
This noble woman kept going because she was working for another employer, her Father in Heaven. Her fear of the Lord was her secret source of energy and solace.
In the end, she received both the applause of Heaven and high praise from her family.
I have been married to a woman like this for 54 years. Every good thing I have ever done has her fingerprints on it because of her support. Now, in retirement, I am able to give something back to her for the years she gave to me, and it’s a pleasure to do so.
The crook—When Luke describes the crucifixion of Christ, he zooms in on the thief who became a believer in his final moments. This man was probably more than a petty thief. He most likely was a revolutionary, a kind of Robin Hood, who stole from Roman warehouses and sold the goods at discount to those in need. In the process, he may have murdered a Roman guard, hence the capital punishment.
Apparently he was already acquainted with Jesus because he knew that “this man hasn’t done one thing wrong.” When he saw how Jesus returned love to his tormentors, he knew he was looking at a god. He rebuked his fellow thief by saying, “Don’t you even fear God when you are dying?” (Luke 23:40, 41*).
When this repentant thief asked Jesus for a favor, he had to know it was a long shot, in light of the man’s dark past. Imagine how surprised he was when Jesus replied with eight of the most comforting words ever spoken: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
The fear of God opened the gates of Heaven at the last moment, because God honors humility. No matter how wicked a man’s life, there is hope for him when he shows a proper respect for God.
Choosing My Fear
It’s impossible to avoid pain in this life, but I can choose to suffer for a good cause.
Rumors of Christian persecution abound in our daily news. More and more, Christians are looked upon as mentally ill, hateful, even criminal, just as they were in the first century.
I may have to decide whether I am more afraid of jail or judgment day. Whether I am more afraid of the Supreme Court or the Supreme Being.
The secret of surviving this hostile culture is for me to fear the only One who has the power to save me.
*Scripture quotations are from The Living Bible.
Daniel Schantz is a professor emeritus of Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri.