Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed– not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence– continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV)
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18 NIV)
I see a paradox in these two verses, and I think this paradox might cause us to dismiss the concept of the fear of the Lord that is found throughout the Old Testament. Fear is a powerful emotion, but like all emotions there are degrees of fear. I am afraid of mosquitoes. When I get bitten by a mosquito the bite swells up and itches like crazy. The itch distracts me from thinking about anything else, so I work ridiculously hard to avoid getting bitten. If I can see or hear a mosquito in the room I will not rest until I hunt it down and kill it. This is one reason I prefer the ocean to the mountains. Camping in the mountains in the summertime means dealing with mosquitoes. The constant wind at the coast tends to drive the mosquitoes away. My fear motivates me to avoid mosquitoes.
The Bible clearly tells me that I am to fear God. Fearing God is an exceptionally good thing. However, if fear normally causes me to avoid or move away from something that does not match God’s desire for a close relationship with me, then there is something missing. Going back to the previous post, God has infinitely greater power over me than a mosquito does. How can fear motivate me to move closer to God when the same emotion drives me to move away from mosquitoes?
The mosquito does not care about me. The only thing a mosquito cares about is extracting blood from a living thing that will enable it to survive. God cares deeply for me. His desire for me to be in an intimate relationship with Him is so great that He sent Jesus to die for me to make that possible. He did not do this because He was powerless, but because He is all powerful.
John tells me to become perfect in love and then I will be without fear. Paul tells me that fear should be an important part of my motivation for striving to become perfect in love. How do we fit these two ideas together?
When I encounter a great power, I have a choice to make. Is this great power a threat to me or is it a help to me. Many things can be both. We cannot live without the ocean which provides us with both water and food. The waves on the shore constantly reshape the coastline and keep it clean. I know from personal experience that sometimes waves can threaten my life. I continue walking on the beach because the waves remind me of God’s power and faithfulness.
God is either a help or a threat depending on how I choose to respond to Him. If I respond to God by either rebelling against Him or simply ignoring Him, then I have reason to fear God’s coming wrath. If I respond to God with awe and worship, then God becomes a refuge and a source of protection from all other powers that might cause me fear.
I think the reason both the verses above are in the New Testament is because God understands us. God wants us to live with confidence in the assurance of His love. However, if our confidence becomes arrogance and we begin to forget who God is, then our fear, our recognition of His power, should humble us and turn us toward Him again.