Watching out for holy fear

I’ve been following the Festival of Homiletics ( – it’s free and anyone can listen) over the past two days as theologians, scientists, and speakers dialogue on climate change. 

Today Ellen F. Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor, Duke Divinity School, gave a lecture entitled, “Telling the Plain Truth: Ungodly Facts, Real Power, and Holy Fear.”  

In her fascinating lecture, Davis mentioned that part of the Exodus story is about power (Pharaoh) and fear (crazy fear, natural fear, and holy fear). 

As we go through these mind-bending times, we’ve read about, experienced, and/or observed crazy fear.  Hoarding toilet paper would be an example of this kind of fear.  Maybe we’ve privately experienced fear that we know is absolutely groundless, yet we feel it anyway. 

Biblically, the story of Pharaoh’s killing of the boy babies two and under and Herod's killing of the innocents in the book of Matthew are sinister examples of two powerful men killing toddlers because they felt threatened by their very existence.

Natural fear would be something like the fear of falling – something we learn as infants and revisit again as older adults.  Or fear of public speaking, which is one of the most prevalent fears around and is considered quite normal.  Fear of death is another natural fear.

Holy fear.  Now, that is something I had never heard of until I went to seminary.  It seemed inconceivable to me that these two words should be put together.  How could fear be holy?  Unbeknownst to me at the time, the fear of God (found in Proverbs, the Psalms, Job, and elsewhere) was not what I had always assumed.

Actually, it was a relief to learn that the fear of God referred to in the Bible had little to do with being afraid of the angry or vindictive Father/Dad(dy) in the Sky, but rather the feeling of awe that accompanies an experience of the Divine. 

Some have found that when watching a sunrise or sunset; holding their newborn for the first time; standing on the beach watching the ocean; finding a shockwave of understanding in scripture or inspirational works; or looking into the eyes of their beloved.  In these, and other ways, we experience something greater and more profound than ourselves.  And that despite our insignificance we are meant to be part of that Something More.

The Bible gives us ample instruction, in both old testament and new, as to how people of faith are to be in this world.  Our part in the story of God and God’s people is clear.  From the beginning, we were meant to care for the earth, the creatures in, under, and above it, the water, the air, and its people.  It is all of one piece.  When one part is abused, ignored, exploited, or harmed the whole suffers in some way.

None of this would happen if humanity had a holy fear of God.  In other words, if we held God in awe.  Operating from a knowledge of the awesome vastness, mercy, grace, and love of God, we humans would naturally treat the earth and its inhabitants with love and respect.

The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “The fear of God is the death of every other fear; like a mighty lion, it chases all other fears before it.”  We stand in a time when fear of every sort crouches behind headlines and the nighttime thoughts that come unbidden to us. 

Yet the Bible is rife with stories and poetry about our God’s actions in the lives of individuals and nations.  We know that no matter how crazy or natural our fears might be, they are not meant to be the driving forces of our lives.  Only the fear of God – awe - is to propel us into action on behalf of the earth and others.

The strangeness of our times is as good a time as any to seek out or just notice the awesomeness of our God who has made this planet and everything in it.  Our motivation in life is meant to come from a deep well of knowledge that God is God and we are not. 

When we step aside and let God work through us, real and lasting solutions to the many ills of this world can be found.   Let us all put aside all of our crazy and natural fears and replace them with the fear of God.