Many Evangelical Christians and almost every fundamentalist claim that you must fear God.
They quote certain passages in scripture like, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). Indeed, there are passages in the Bible that seem to emphasize “fear” of God.
The word translated as fear is rooted in the Hebrew word “yara.” It can be translated as either “fear” or “reverence.” There is some evidence that it literally means “flow from the gut.” (Yep, Hebrew is a language full of wonderful and graphic imagery.)
Imagine if we translated that literally, “The flow from the gut of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
I have no idea what substance would flow from the gut of the Lord, but I would not want to stick around to find out…
When you are with something or someone who is awe-inspiring, you have a reaction in your gut. It could induce fear in your gut or it could induce a deep sense of reverence.
Here’s where we get a dilemma in translating the original Hebrew word “yara.” Most Bible translations use “fear,” but many people claim that we should use “awe” or “revere.” So, Proverbs 1:7 could just as easily be translated as, “Reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
There are three main reasons I think we should translate “yara” as “reverence” and not “fear.”
First, connecting fear with God easily makes God into a tyrant. You must fear God, because if you mess up, God will come after you! Evangelical Bible scholar Scot McKnight puts it like this in his book One Life, “The word ‘fear’ does not suggest cowering or cringing or buckling or breaking down, though some parents or preachers might try to force a decision in their favor by attempting to create that kind of fear. No, fear means ‘awe.’”
The problem is that “fear” primarily does connote cowering or cringing or buckling in the face of someone you fear is out to get you. God does not force a decision upon you by attempting to create fear in your heart. The point is that God is not like a parent or a preacher who might do that. So, you might be in awe of God, but you don’t need to fear that God is like a tyrant out to get you.
Second, fear spreads. It cannot be contained. When Evangelicals and fundamentalists emphasize that they are “God fearing Christians,” you generally don’t have to look very far to discover that their fear has spread from “fearing God” to fearing various people. Not all of them, but many fear Muslims and brown people and black people and gay people and transgender people and immigrants (you know, “invaders”), and they generally want to enact public policies based on those fears.
The point is that when we begin with “fear of the Lord” we easily end up fearing our fellow human beings, too. And it’s difficult to love those we fear. So instead of fearing God, I would rather we revere God, which helps us to revere our neighbors, the stranger, the poor, the transgender, and the immigrant.
Third, the New Testament was written by people who considered themselves to be Jewish followers of the Jewish Jesus. They knew the Jewish Scriptures. But over and over again, the New Testament tells people to *not* fear the Lord.
When an angel of the Lord appeared to Mary the mother of Jesus and to Joseph and to Zechariah and to the women who went to Jesus after the resurrection, they were all afraid of the angel of the Lord. But the angel said to each of them, “Do not be afraid.”
Why? Because God was on their side.
And Jesus reveals that God is fully on your side and so you do not have to fear God. God makes the sun shine on the evil and the good and the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5). God’s love is universally given to all people.
Whether you deserve it or not, whether you fear God or revere God, it doesn’t make a difference to God’s love for you or anyone else. God loves you unconditionally and eternally. You might revere that kind of love. You might be in awe of that love. But you certainly don’t have to fear that love.
The New Testament authors knew this deep in their guts! In fact, one author knew it so well that he wrote that God is perfect love and that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 1:4:18).
God fully loves you and me and Donald Trump and the Trump base and Hillary Clinton and the refugees in caravans and your neighbor down the street who annoys the heck out of you and your neighbor down the street who is full of grace and mercy.
So, please, do not live in fear of God. Do not live in fear of your neighbor or of immigrants or of Muslims. Instead, revere God. Be in awe of God’s eternal love for you and for all creation. Then love God and love your neighbor and love the immigrant and work for a more just world where God’s love flows freely to all people, but especially to those who need it the most.