What it means to fear God–and why we need to do it

Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your rightful due. For among all the wise of all the nations, and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You. (Jeremiah 10:7)

Fear may be the greatest motivator in the world.

Fear makes the pilot do one more last-minute check before taking off. Fear makes the passengers buckle up and pay attention to the flight attendant’s instructions. Fear keeps the air controller attentive to the blips on her screen.

Fear restrains us from driving too fast or following too closely on the highways. Fear causes me to replace my tires before they get too bald, to slow down in school zones, and not violate that downed arm at the railroad crossing.

Fear drives us to take our vitamins, see our doctors, and keep making those insurance payments. Fear gets us out of bed and into our sneakers for our exercise.

Fear is a great motivator.

Fear of God is the best motivator of all.

Now, everyone has his/her own definition of the fear of the Lord, what it means and how it works.  Many Bibles have a footnote every time the phrase is found, saying that it means “reverence of God.”  Well, it does that, I’m sure.  But for my money, it means a whole lot more than just a healthy respect.

By saying ‘I fear God,’ I mean a lot of things, including these three:

I fear His power. Take a look at the physical universe, then stand in awe of the power of Almighty God. As the Psalmist gazed at the heavens, in awe he said, “What is man?” (Psalm 8)

I fear His wrath. Just the glimpses Scripture gives concerning judgement fills us with dread. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God,” says Hebrews 10:31.  This is one Person you do not want to make angry!

I fear His displeasure. This is one Person I do not want to disappoint at all…ever!  In fact, the greatest accolade I can find in Scripture comes in the middle of Hebrew 11’s account of some of the Old Testament’s greatest warriors for God.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God (11:16) and …of whom the world was not worthy (11:38).  I want to please Him.

I love the way the prophet put it: Who would not fear You, O God? This is your rightful due.  The more we know of this universe, the more we understand of the salvation God wrought in Christ, and the more we see of our own sinful hearts, the more we stand in awe of our Lord and find ourselves asking who would not fear such an amazing God!

His power is mighty and awesome. His wrath is biblical and fearsome. His displeasure is scary and then some.

Scripture says repeatedly the starting place for getting smart and wising up is fearing God. (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; 15:33)

Curt Schilling, former baseball superstar, was being interviewed on ESPN radio. The host said, “Curt, your regular season record is good but a lot of pitchers have done just as well. However, your post-season record is phenomenal. You were almost unbeatable. What motivated you in those games?”

Schilling–whose post-season record is an amazing 11 wins, 1 loss–said, “Fear. I fear losing.”

He explained, “People react to fear in two ways. They’re either motivated by fear or paralyzed by it. I’m motivated by it.”

The living God fully intends that fear of Him should do both things in humanity.

FEAR PARALYZES. Once we come to a realization of the reality and nearness of this Great, overwhelming Deity who rules the universe, we should be stopped in our tracks.

–We should halt doing anything He has forbidden.

–We should cease saying anything disrespectful to His Name. The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain (Exodus 20:7).

–We should stop mistreating other people, who are God’s ultimate creation and prominent in His heart.

–We should call off living for our own pleasure and purposes, and seek His will.

If the only way to do that is by the fear of judgement, then so be it.

Sitting around a table with several ministry couples, we began discussing the way some preachers were losing their families and ministries as a result of adultery.  Each couple weighed in with thoughts.  One pastor’s wife said, “I don’t have to worry about Frank.  He fears God too much.”  Her husband said, “You’ve got that right!”


The first step toward wising up is becoming aware of God.

Andrew Murray, prominent preacher of another generation, was once asked for the most profound thought he had ever had. “My accountability to God,” he answered without a moment’s hesitation.

That’s what we mean by “the fear of God.” When we speak of fearing God, we mean becoming aware of His reality, His nearness and power, and His complete involvement in every detail of what happens in this world and our part in it. The result will be a proper form of fright.

FRIGHT.   Definition: “noun. Sudden intense fear. Alarm.”

You look at your life and your behavior and say out loud, “Oh my goodness. Holy cow. What in the world am I doing? Am I crazy or what?”

That’s the idea.  Have you ever gotten alarmed at the way you were living? At what you were doing?  Maybe by what you were not doing?

Jacob awakened from a dream in which he had seen God. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, looked around, and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Then, shaking and shivering, he exclaimed, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:16-17)

Show me the individual in church or out of church without a healthy fear of God, an awareness of the Lord’s awesomeness and of his own accountability, and I’ll show you an unbeliever or a backslider.

Look at how Isaiah felt when He “saw the Lord on a throne, high and lifted up.” Struck to the depth of his being by the awesomeness of God, the prophet managed to mumble, “Woe is me, for I am destroyed!” He saw himself as a reprobate, an ungodly sinner, and everyone around him just as bad. How did this happen?  “Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts,” he explained (Isaiah 6:1-5).

The fear of God–in the proper sense–can be seen by what we do, rather than detected by what we say or claim.

The individual who comes face to face with the reality of God, His power and His nearness, and of his own accountability to Him, will be like other believers in these ways:


Nothing, absolutely nothing, cures man’s ego problems like seeing himself as the puny sinner he really is. And nothing does that like seeing God up close.

It’s what Peter saw the day Jesus told him where to fish and the haul was boat-breaking. “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8)

It’s what Peter saw again the day Jesus died. He went out and wept bitter tears (Matthew 26:75).

In humility, we see: a) Ourselves–our sinfulness, our helplessness, our weakness; b) Jesus–our need of Him and Him only; and c) His mercy–that we were not given what we deserve, but were spared and loved and blessed.

Humility drives a stake through the heart of our boasting, drives us to our knees in prayer for strength and direction, and drives us to our task.

Listen to the man or woman who makes much of God’s mercy. They know.


Here’s an assignment you will find profitable: sometime go through the teachings of Jesus and make a list of every time He speaks of servants being accountable to their masters. It’s a big thing with Him.

…so then each of us shall give account of Himself to God (Romans 14:12).

The servant who lives in an awareness that he/she must report in at the end of the day and account for every person, every dollar, every minute, and every assignment will serve far differently from the one who gives no thought to anything beyond his own pleasure.

A half century ago, the inimitable R. G. Lee built an entire career around the preaching of one sermon. Pay Day Someday told the story of old King Ahab and his wife Jezebel who abused a faithful citizen for their own purposes, and were held accountable by the living God (I Kings 21; 2 Kings 9).

Jesus said, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgement” (Matthew 12:36).


I am a child; lead me. Show me thy way, O Lord.

Again and again, throughout the Old Testament, God faulted Israel for their headstrongness. Jesus said the Pharisees were “stiff-necked.” These people were unteachable, but had their own agenda, their own plans, and their own philosophy, one that had no room for God.

One of the first traits visible in new believers is their teachability. In fact, we can say its absence reveals that the individual not to be a believer at all.

Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it. (Mark 10:14-15)

“Lead me in your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me; for you are the God of my salvation; on you I wait all the day” (Psalm 25:4-5).


The kingdom individual with no desire to serve is an anomaly. Even our Lord said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).

Our problem is not in the knowing, but in the doing. And as for that, Jesus said, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).

The blessing is not in the knowing (or learning or loving or teaching), but in the doing. Obedience.

Only the humblest can serve. Only those with an awareness of the reality of God, a gratitude for His mercy, and a full expectation of standing before Him in Judgment, only they will humble themselves and serve.

We said that fear of God shows up in the same ways in believers. However–other side of the coin now–it’s interesting that the opposite is not true. People with no fear of God will react in their own ways.

Scripture is saturated with references to those with no fear of God in their lives. Here are a few.

Abraham resorted to trickery in Egypt because he felt “the fear of God is not in this place” (Genesis 20:11).

Moses told Pharaoh that further plagues would be coming because “you will not yet fear the Lord God” (Exodus 9:30).

David said there is no fear of God before the wicked (Psalm 36:1).

David’s enemies were too set in their ways to change and fear God (Psalm 55:19).

Other scriptures include Luke 18:4; 23:40; and Romans 3:18.

Say all we wish about how the concept of fearing God simply means to reverence Him, but I suspect it’s far, far more than that.

Our home church–Birmingham’s West End Baptist Church–saw a revival of unprecedented fruitfulness in the Spring of 196l. Some nights, the altar was filled with forty or fifty people praying for salvation. On Tuesday night of the second week, God called me out of the choir and into the ministry. In all, some four hundred people came to Christ over those two weeks.

Pastor Bill Burkett was telling how it felt to be standing at the altar during the invitation times when the aisles were filled with people coming to Jesus. “Sometimes the Lord feels so close, it is the scariest thing I’ve ever known.”

Oh, Lord, scare us like that again today.

2 thoughts on “What it means to fear God–and why we need to do it

  1. So much truth here….I, for one, need reminding daily…I feel this should become a good book project for a respected author such as Dr. Joe McKeever.

  2. I think this kind of fear is much easier to identify with than the ideas that so many of us have had about God……..That God is just sitting up there on his throne waiting to throw us into eternal damnation because we have failed him. We learn pretty quick that we are far from perfect. So, this God…..he wants us to fear him……Man, he must be one revengeful being! Our enemies want us to fear them! We just don’t understand! We fall short and think it means God is just waiting to get revenge for all the things we’ve done. So, if this is the kind of God he is WHY would we WANT to serve him?? You’ve made this subject make a whole lot more sense. Thanks!

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