Let’s start by seeing what Jesus had to say on the subject:
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Luke 12:4-7
Should we be afraid of God?
Jesus says yes, you should fear God, who has the authority to throw you in hell.
But Jesus also tells us not be afraid, because God cares about creatures as small as sparrows, and our lives are worth more than theirs to him.
So which one is it? When I read this passage, I see Jesus talking about two things in tension, and I think that holding those two things in tension is the key to understanding it.
When I read Jesus saying that we should fear God, who has authority to throw us into hell, I’m drawn to that word in bold. I read this as a warning to remember God’s sovereignty: he is not on our level. Yes, he humbled himself to die for us, but on a universal scale he has authority that we do not have – the earth is his footstool. This is the God who spoke and stars formed, who set in motion the laws of reality that govern that govern our physical experience.
The concept of the sublime is one that I have spoken about before, and it’s a concept that I think is really important for getting to grips with what Jesus is saying. If we come before God and there is not the sense of awe, wonder, and, yes, fear, that comes from facing the immensity of the sublime, then I wonder if we are seeing the real God.
Fear in this form is not blind terror, panic, or even something negative. It is the honest admission that God is infinitely greater than us, and the sober knowledge that he has the ultimate authority over our lives and the universe around us. If this was the overwhelming characteristic of God, however, I think we would be right to be very afraid.
But Jesus does not end his statement there. Instead he invites us to consider the sparrows, and then he tries to help us see how valuable we are to God. The almost unbelievable aspect of God’s love is that in the vastness of creation he has numbered every hair on our heads and he sees us as precious to him.
A God such as this, despite having power on an unimaginable scale, is not a being to shy away from. He is a being that, instead, humbly invites us to relationship in the most visceral, practical way possible – by becoming one of us, living among us, and dying at our hands.
We don’t need to be afraid to approach God and to relate to him because that is what he desires from us, and he values each and every one of us as a unique reflection of himself within his creation.
Hopefully you’re now starting to see the two sides to this issue that need to be held in balance, but I don’t think that there is a clean and easy way to reconcile them, and I’m okay with that. I think the tension between God as the almighty, sovereign creator and sustainer of everything and the loving father who stopped at nothing to bring us back to him and is reconciling all of creation to him through Jesus is central to our faith and our understanding of who God is.
There is no simple answer to this question. I can’t say that you should or shouldn’t be afraid of God because I don’t want to limit your perception of the complexity and immensity of his character. I think something fundamental would be missing if we could fully grasp God, or even if we always responded to him in the same way. Sometimes it’s right to respond with fear and awe, and sometimes you can draw as near to him as you would your closest friend.
God can’t be put into our neat walls, boxes and categories, and this means that sometimes we have to be okay with unreconciled tensions and not understanding everything.
I’ve just kick-started an ongoing series called ‘Different Voices’ where I want to get different people talking about God, life and faith. If you’ve read something in the Bible that has struck you recently, or you have anything else that you would like to share on the blog, I would love for you to get in touch with me to chat it through further.