“The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever” (Psalm 19:9).
Please do not mistake my intentions. I am not going to attempt to eradicate the obvious tension between these two verses. It is the reverberation of dissonant notes that unnerve you while unhinging your heartache. The tension is real, and I daresay it is necessary. If we try to entirely explain it away, I think we end up looking a little ridiculous. Honestly, most of scripture lands in the tense realm of the ampersand, as far as I can tell. Honestly, most of life lands there—where things are “both ___ &___.” I am sure we hear discord partly because of our deep need for things to be cut and dried and lined up on sides. But mostly I am guessing that we see discord as contradiction because we do not fully understand. Regardless, it is clear that scripture is calling us to fear while also calling us not to fear.
I have long read 1 John 4:18 as an outright condemnation of fear. I wanted desperately to be made perfect in God’s love, so any scent of fear was a neon sign pointing straight at my imperfection. "Hello! Here is a gal who is clearly not residing in love—little Much-Afraid stumbling way short of the high places." If there is no fear in love, then (I was easily convinced) I was not in love, because I had a veritable cornucopia of fears. That is the bitch of the fear of man. It is a myriad fear of literally every and any thing, outcome, or person in this wide, wide world. Like the devil himself, the fear of man says, “My name is Legion; for we are many” (Mark 5:9).
Psalm 19:9 stands in stark contrast to hydra-headed fear of man. As I began to read scripture without filters, I had to acknowledge the conflict of lily-white fear with my 1 John perspective of perfect love annihilating fear altogether. Over and over (and over and over and over) the scriptures talked to me about the beauty of fearing the LORD, even the command to fear the LORD. I had come to see all fear as an archaic, Old Testament thing that Jesus had cast aside, but here was David telling me that the fear of the LORD was a lovely, clean thing that Jesus had fulfilled. And it wasn’t just for the barbarians—it endured forever. The fear of the LORD will never end or be outdated or undone. The fear of the LORD will always be. On into eternity and heaven and all that marvelous jazz, the fear of the LORD will remain. And if you are still ready to argue with me or with David about it, I give you Paul. “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Far from fear being a sign of imperfection, fear (according to the beloved hog of the New Testament) is the means to the wholeness (perfection) that is only found in holiness.
So I began to consider: What if perfect love is holy fear? There is still plenty of mystery in the fear of the Lord, but I felt the slightest release in considering that fear and love coexist.
If we cannot eradicate or create fear, but only choose on whom it will find its resting place, then consider the options:
- If I choose the myriad fear of man, I am right to fear punishment as 1 John 4:18 suggests. I have chosen Idolatry. I have said that these lesser gods whom I fear are in control. These things I fear are more powerful than God. These things I fear will have the devotion of my mind and my energy as I work to appease them, hold them at bay. If I choose the fear of man, I am right to stand in terror of God, because I have scorned the cross and brought upon myself the punishment which Christ already bore. I make His death needless. I incur God’s wrath, and punishment is certain.
- But if I chose the fear of the LORD, something magical happens. In the fear of the LORD, I turn away from worthless fears and honor The fearsome One. I obey Him and cling to Him for mercy. And He gets such a kick out of that, because it is already finished. He clothes me in Jesus. Nestled up in Him, I have zero fear of punishment, because Jesus explains to me (with his hands and feet and side) that His body exhausted the full measure of the wrath of God on sin.