One Helpful Difference Between “Fearing” and “Being Afraid”

“Fear not.”

It’s a refrain that echoes over and over again in the pages of Scripture, a command given by God to His people. He said it to Abram when Abram wondered when he would see his promised heir. He said it to His people as they looked at the odds stacked against them in the Promised Land. He said it to Joshua as he prepared to take the reigns of leadership from Moses. The words echo through the psalms as a means of encouragement during worship. It seems that God is very concerned about fear in His people – specifically, He is concerned with removing it from them. God does not want us to live in fear; indeed this is part of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives:

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment (2 Tim. 1:7).

Of course God does not want us to fear; He loves us, after all! What parent, who loves their chid, would want that child to walk around on eggshells all day? Not only that, but consider what a life of fear says about the object of our faith.

When we live in fear, we are testifying about what we truly believe about our Father. Though our words might say differently, our actions show that either we think God to be weak, or unloving, or ambivalent about what’s happening in our lives. It’s no wonder, then, that God commands us to fear not; He does so not only for our sake, but also for the sake of His own glorious reputation.

But this is where we run into what might seem to be a contradiction, because though God tells us that we should not live in fear, the Bible also tells us that we should live in a constant state of fear:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).

If we want to really know anything, if we want to possess any amount of wisdom about how to live, then the foundation of it all is fear. It’s fear of the Lord. So how do we reconcile these things together?

Much ink has been spilled over the difference between the “fear” in Proverbs 1 and the “fear” in 2 Timothy 1. It might be helpful to think of it as the difference between “fearing” and “being afraid.” To “fear the Lord” is to live with a holy reverence and appreciation for the majesty, holiness, and power of God. It’s to take the Lord seriously in all respects, knowing He always keeps His word. This is very different than “being afraid” of this circumstance or that person; in fact, it’s precisely the fear of the Lord that drives out all other kinds of fear that might threaten us.

But here’s another way to think about the difference between “fearing” and “being afraid” – one that brings to mind the focal point of each of these things.

When we are afraid, we might be afraid of disease, or economic downturn, or the unknowns of tomorrow, or whatever. But if we pull the thread of that fear, we will likely find that the focus at the end of that fear is ourselves. We fear what will happen to us. In the end, regardless of what particular entity inspires that fear in us, we are still focusing on ourselves. Our future. Our well-being. Our comfort.

But the fear of the Lord is different. The end of that thread is God Himself. When we fear the Lord, we are growing in our understanding, awe, and love of His character and power. Our eyes are fixed on Him, and when we are focused on Him, we find this holy reverence rising up inside of us. He dominates our gaze because He is too big to share that focus with anyone or anything else.

This is why the fear of the Lord leads us to worship. It’s because it comes when we commit ourselves to beholding the Lord, as He has revealed Himself to us. And this is a good and worthy pursuit.

Let us, then, live lives of fear and yet be not afraid, for the Lord is God.

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