Recently, I invited a cross-section of leaders in the biblical counseling world to attend our biannual ACBC leadership colloquium, which is an invitation-only event where leaders from across the biblical counseling world gather together to talk about topics that are of great importance to biblical counselors. The theme for this year’s ACBC leadership colloquium was on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What that meant is that we had about 40 biblical counseling leaders together for a couple of days talking about the issue of fear.
Because we get a lot of questions about fear for the podcast, I wanted to talk about it on Truth In Love this week. If we’re going to understand and help with fear, we need to understand some categories of fear in the Bible. It’s important to realize that, in the Bible, not all fear is created equal. What I want to do is talk about three different kinds of fear.
We could talk about, to start with, godly fear. Godly fear is discussed in places like Proverbs 9:10 where the Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It’s important that we notice that, in this context, fear is a really good thing. When you have a reverential fear and when you have an awe of the presence and the power of God, the Proverbs say that is the very beginning of wisdom. You cannot be a wise person without being the kind of person who stands agape at the glory and the wonder of God and reverences and has awe over Him for who He is and what He has done. So, there are some places in the Bible with godly fear where fear is a really good thing.
There’s another kind of fear that we can talk about, and we might call it repentant fear. We see repentant fear in 2 Corinthians 7:11, and the Bible here is talking about godly grief or godly sorrow. It’s the kind of sorrow and the kind of grief that leads to repentance and life. The Apostle Paul wants to explain the characteristics of that godly sorrow and he does it in 2 Corinthians 7:11. He gives a number of indicators. He says, “Behold, what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear.” Now, it’s interesting there that one of the ways that you can know if the kind of sorrow you have is good or is repentant sorrow is by the presence of fear.
I think how we’re supposed to understand this here is a kind of fear that has a sober awareness of the consequences of sin. This kind of repentant fear looks back at the sin that you were committing, it looks back at the consequences that are recorded in Scripture for that sin that include death and there is a sober, fearful realization of the consequences that could have befallen you if God had not graced you with repentance. It’s good and right and is an outgrowth of the fear of God to look and see very clearly the fear of the consequences for sin that would come to each one of us apart from the grace of Jesus Christ. Again, we see a very good sort of fear.
But then there is the fear that most of us mean when we use the word fear or when most of us talk about worry. It’s sinful fear, it’s sinful worry. It’s the kind of fear the Bible talks about when it says in its most frequent command hundreds of times, “Fear not.” Most of the time when we talk about fear in our conversations and most of the time when the Bible talks about fear, it’s talking about sinful fear. It’s the kind of fear that Jesus addresses in Matthew 6 when He regulates this kind of sinful fear in the Sermon on the Mount.
He says, starting in verse 25, “I say to you do not be worried about your life, as to what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink; nor about your body, as to what you’ll put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they don’t toil or spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? O you of little faith! Do not worry, then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
In this context, Jesus is talking about worry and He places it at odds with faith. That’s what He says in Matthew 6:30. When you worry, He calls you a person of little faith, and that is a condemnation from Jesus Christ. When you worry in the sinful sense, you are cutting across the thesis of Jesus’s treatise in Matthew 6, which is, God loves you and He uses all of His power to care for you when you are His child. Sinful fear says, “Everything won’t be okay. Everything’s going to be bad. Everything might not work out for me,” and it indicts the good care of God. It is a sin every time.
Now, a lot of times in our human conversations about fear, we talk about the extremes, or we talk about people getting diagnosed with certain kinds of fear. People will get a diagnosis of, say, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, where they have present fear as they remember a past event. Sometimes, people will talk about the physical symptoms of fear. You’ll have people talk about panic attacks where they’re short of breath and they’re experiencing heart palpitations. These sorts of diagnoses and these sorts of physical symptoms don’t mean that our sinful fear is anything other than sin.
What it does is demonstrate how painful and far-reaching the effects of sin can be. It demonstrates that when we sin by not trusting God, it leads to painful consequences and painful experiences of suffering in our larger existence. We need to know this. We need to acknowledge that sinful fear leads to consequences. It’s important to understand this because, until you understand what is driving sinful fear, you can’t get to the understanding of the solution of sinful fear.
As biblical Christians, we would want to say that the antidote to sinful fear is the fear of God. We would want to say that, as Christians, the antidote to sinful fear is the fear of God as it locates on the person and the work of Jesus Christ and as we look to Jesus and we see the one who has conquered death on our behalf. And, as we see in Romans 8, that God has freely given us His very own Son, and now, because He’s given us Jesus, we can have the confidence that He’ll give us all things to go along with Him.
Fear says, “Everything’s not going to be okay. Things are going to be bad. God won’t take care of me.” The Bible teaches through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, that God does love us, that He will take care of us, and that because He has given us the best gift in His Son, He will certainly give us all things that go along with that. That sort of conviction of who Jesus is and what He has done eradicates sinful fear and gives us no cause to doubt that all will be well. It doesn’t mean that we won’t struggle with fear in this life, but it means when we do struggle with fear, we depend on Jesus. We ask His forgiveness when we sin against Him by not trusting Him and we ask for His grace to empower our faithful, obedient living as we move forward with great, great trust in who He is and what He’s done for us.