When Helena Knowlton of Confusion to Clarity first began talking to me about fear in the cult she came out of, I knew I wanted to write about fear. But since I wanted to have a better grasp of the concept, I spent time studying fear in the New Testament.

So, it may not come as a surprise, but there’s more than one kind of fear.

And . . . it may not come as a surprise, but it’s important, when we read the Bible, to understand which type of fear God is talking about in each passage.

After all, when someone says, “Don’t be afraid,” does that mean of everything and everyone for every reason? (When someone says, “Be afraid” . . . same question.)

I found that the New Testament describes a few basic types of fear. Three kinds of fear are necessary and good (meaning they please God).

But there are  times when fear is unnecessary and potentially harmful. (Does that mean they’re sins? I would say not necessarily, but that’s something to look at when we get there.)

When is fear for sure necessary and good?

1. When it’s fear for physical safety in the face of a genuine threat that motivates you to take essential action.

This is part of the body’s warning system, which when the brain is healthy (undamaged by trauma, or healed from it), can be regulated by the mind/heart that is submitted to God. Though it’s only one of the six kinds of fear described in the Bible, it’s the kind people think about most often when they think of the word. It’s the kind described and validated in Gavin deBecker’s excellent book The Gift of Fear.

As a Scriptural example, Matthew 2:19-23 says,

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.

Joseph was exercising the healthy God-given gift of fear to make a wise choice to stay away from Judea where a wicked king wanted to kill the babies.

In my blog post Don’t be a martyr, but do suffer in your marriage to an angry husband (and other “Biblical counseling”), I said this:

Some of the bravest women I know are women who have come out of abusive homes. They had to face their fears—all of them fears of real dangers, not imagined dangers, but things that could really happen, perhaps had even been threatened—and do almost impossibly hard things, often because their love for their children was greater than their fears. Even in spite of their fears, they did trust God as they moved forward. I would never accuse them of sin for being afraid in a situation such as this.

These women’s fear is not sin any more than was Joseph’s wise fear of Herod that kept him from going to Judea. I wrote about Joseph’s wise fear in the blog post Joseph wasn’t afraid of “rebellion, the sin like witchcraft.”

Distinguishing what is a “genuine threat” and distinguishing what is the right action to take—all of these are decisions that wise Christians should help each other with, rather than simply telling each other to stop being afraid.

2. When it’s fear of God

All Christians know we’re supposed to fear God. But it’s more than just “respect,” although that’s important. The Scriptures make clear that fear of God combines something along the lines of (1) an open-mouthed wonder at the glory of God with (2) a sense of being willing to fall on one’s face at His majesty (and always living with this sense). So I call this one “awe/reverence fear.”

Two Scriptures represent this well, Revelation 14:6-7 and Revelation 15:3-4.

Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

This fear of God is commanded of all people, but Christians are the ones who rejoice to fear Him now, in this life, living with the constant sense of awe and reverence at His presence, knowing He is always present.

As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 7:1,

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.

And Mary said in Luke 1:49-50,

For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

When we live with an awe/reverence fear of God, it will help us have the right perspective on all of life. It will even help us in knowing what to do when wicked ones want to harm the innocent.

3. When it’s fear for the eternal souls of others

This one took me by surprise—I wasn’t expecting to find it. But the Scriptures show that when we love God and love others, a proper fear for eternal souls around us will bring us to our knees in prayer for them and give us a longing to spread the good news of the gospel with them. Here are some examples:

For I am jealous over you with the jealousy of God, for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to the Christ. But I fear that as the serpent deceived Eve through his craftiness, so your senses should be corrupted in some way, and ye should fall from the simplicity that is in the Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2-3)

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (Galatians 4:8-11)

Both of those are from Paul, who agonized in prayer for the souls of the spiritually desperate people around him.

Notice, though, that Paul was not experiencing any fear that the Corinthians or the Galatians were “falling away” from obeying earthly authority.

In fact, it was pretty much the opposite.

He feared they were in danger of turning back to the law and the earthly law-proclaimers in order to live their Christians lives. He feared that they were “falling away” from “the simplicity that is in Jesus Christ,” which the perceived earthly authorities wanted to trap them back into.

If a person is coming out of an authority-driven cult (and what other kind of cult is there?), he can experience a healthy and good fear for the souls of those  who are still in it, fear that will motivate him to action. It is for fear for those souls that he, like Paul, will want to expose the evil and show people caught in the cult that this is not the heart of God.

*****

All of these are valid reasons to experience what the Bible calls “fear,” and all of them are part of living a God-directed Christian life.

The fears that are unnecessary and potentially harmful . . . well, I’ll talk about those tomorrow.

But I just want to emphasize that feeling fear does not necessarily mean you’re sinning or turning away from God. Common sense would tell you that some kinds of fear are right and good, and the Scriptures tell us the same.

More coming tomorrow. Update: <<What does “fear of man” really mean? And other observations about fear>> is now published here.)

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