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What is Fear?

Is it a good idea to talk about fear when so many people are afraid? Wouldn’t we be better off just ignoring it until it goes away? We clearly don’t think so, given that we’re writing these short reflections, and there is a good reason. Fear creates, in many cases, chaos and confusion. By talking about fear, we can help bring order in the chaos and peace in the confusion. After all, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33).

So, then, let’s talk about fear. Specifically, we need to think about the object of fear. Broadly speaking, the object of our fear can be God, people, and things. We should begin with God as the object of fear because the vast majority of examples of fear in the Bible have God as their object (NIDOTTE 2:527). Now, the fear of God can be positive (Prov 9:10), or it can be negative (Heb 10:31).

Moreover, the fear of God can have different qualities related to it. Sometimes, the fear of God relates to worship (Jon 1:16); other times, it relates to respect (Exod 1:17); in other situations, it relates to terror (Exod 3:6). There is much to say about fear related to God.

But God is not the object of fear all the time in Scripture, and our reason for writing is not principally to talk about the fear of God. Sometimes in Scripture, the object of fear is a person. Jacob was afraid of Esau (Genesis 32); Gideon feared his own family (Judges 6:27); David was afraid of Achish (1 Sam 21:12). This is what we might call the fear of man.

But there one more object of fear, i.e. the fear of things. Moses was afraid when we realized his murder of an Egyptian was known (Exod 2:14); the sailors carrying Jonah feared the storm (Jonah 1:5); everyone apart from the love of God in Christ Jesus is a slave to the fear of death (Heb 2:15). When the object of fear is a thing, there seems to be a sense that the source of fear is the unknown. What will happen to me now that everyone knows I am a murderer? What is this violent storm going to do to my life and livelihood? What is going to happen to me after my eyes close and I take that last breath?

As we read the news and hear the updates these days, we can fear the unknown and the uncertain. How long will our lives be radically altered? How low will the stock market go? How will I or my elderly parents fare? How long will we be distant from one another? Fear is your response when you don’t know what will happen when you take the next step; you fear when you don’t know if you should take the next step. This, I suspect, is what most of us are experiencing.

But we need to know that, among the instances of fear in the Bible, many of them respond with the message, “fear not." God is concerned to alleviate our fears, and the greatest “fear not” comes in Rev 1:17-18 where the ascended Lord Jesus says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” In times of crisis, we have the sure word of the Word of God who died and yet lives forevermore: “Fear not.”


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