At first glance, these words of Jesus seem contradictory. ‘Do not fear human beings who can only kill the body,’ he says, ‘but fear God whose power extends through and beyond death.’ But having warned us to fear God, Jesus then reassures us of God’s lovingkindness towards us. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “you are of more value (to God) than many sparrows.” So which is it? Are we to fear God, or not?
The Greek word that is translated “fear” in this passage is phobeó (fob-éh-o), which can mean “to fear” or “to dread,” but can also mean “to reverence” or “to hold in awe.” It is this latter sense of reverencing or holding in awe that is the psalmist’s meaning when he says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). It a state of being in which dread, veneration and wonder are mingled. To “fear God” is to have a profound and humble reverence for God, who is sacred and mysterious, and who is far beyond our human understanding.
It is Moses’ fear before the burning bush, when with trembling hands he removed his sandals and “hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6).
It is Isaiah’s fear when he cried out, “Woe to me! … I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).
C.S. Lewis helps us understand this juxtaposition of fear and love in his description of Aslan, the lion who reigns in the mystical land of Narnia and who is clearly an icon of Christ. In an early scene, the children meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who tell them about Aslan:
“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
This is the sense in which we are to fear God, at the same time trusting in God’s goodness. When we truly fear God, we will recognize the God is the Creator and we are the creatures, that God is the potter and we are the clay, that God is the Shepherd and we are the sheep, that God is our Father or Mother and we are God’s children, that God is the Lover and we are the beloved. It is not unlike the healthy fear that children might have for their parents or for a teacher or coach. They know their parents or teacher or coach hold power over them, but they trust their love and their goodness, and therefore they want to please them.
Oswald Chambers once remarked, “The remarkable thing about fearing God is that, when you fear God, you fear nothing else; whereas, if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.” This fearlessness is, I think, what Jesus is pointing us toward when he assures us that we are not forgotten in God’s sight. “Even the hairs of your head are all counted,” he tells us; “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” You need not fear any adversary when you know you are unconditionally and forever loved by God. There is nothing that can separate you from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).
We see this fearlessness in the apostles following the Day of Pentecost and in Saint Paul. We see it in the lives of courageous men and women down through the ages, people like…
Martin Luther King, Jr., who, at the risk of his own safety and that of his family, boldly challenged the evils of segregation in this country, or
Rosa Parks, who was jailed for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, or
Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who ignored the death threats of the Taliban and survived an assassination attempt while fearlessly advocating for the educational rights of women and children, or
Nelson Mandela, who languished in prison for years but never lost his resolve to oppose the evils of apartheid in South Africa.
These are people who overcame their fears of being rejected by others, of being hated, of being subjected to mistreatment, imprisonment or death; to act boldly in the face of evil.
You too may need to overcome fear in order to fulfill the particular mission and vision God has given you – your “purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God.”[i] Jesus urges his followers to fear God, not people. You need not be afraid, Jesus assures us, because God cares so deeply for those who entrust their lives to him.
So, do not be afraid. Do not be held hostage by your fears of your own inadequacy, or of the possibility of failure or rejection or even physical harm. Do not fear what your enemies can do to your reputation or your career or your body or mind. Like Paul, they may beat you or imprison you or even put you to death. Do not fear them. Fear God alone.
[i] Walter Brueggeman’s definition of a “vocation.”
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