Have you ever walked into a person's house who has an overly developed concern to child-proof their homes? Pads on the corners of tables, safety plugs in the sockets (that's probably a good one btw), and their kids in some sort of pen that was likely originally constructed for hamsters, these dangerous homes have been transformed into the bouncy house at the carnival. Christianity has been made safe these days as well. Preachers have removed what the Bible considers as the most important component of the Christian life from the pulpit: the fear of God.
They have removed it by speaking of God as a giant grandfather figure in the sky. They have removed it by speaking of Him as your friendly neighborhood therapist, who is always there to counsel you in whatever decisions you choose to make in life. They have presented Him as the fairy godmother, who exists to turn all of your pumpkins into carriages and all of your rags into gowns. But they do not talk about His wrath anymore. They do not talk about hell (when's the last time you heard a message on hell that wasn't meant to undermine it as a horrible place to be feared?) God isn't our judge. He's our buddy. What's there to fear?
One of the ways that preachers have removed the fear of God, however, has been in redefining it. It's not fear. It's respect. Fear just means respect in modern evangelical pulpit fiction. Now that's a sermon I have heard many, many times. But is it right? Is that what the word "fear" means in the Bible? Is that what the "fear of God" is? The answer is, No, it isn't.
There are words that describe respect in the Bible. The words "honor" and "glory" are better fits. They describe an attribution of awe to the majesty and splendor of God. So we are to respect God. There's no doubt about that. But fear is something much different than respect.
Let me explain it this way. Respect is something I choose to give to the lion, as I observe his strength and majestic features, while I am standing outside of the cage. I can also choose to disrespect him. I can make fun of him, and more importantly, I can ignore him. I can just forget about him altogether and go watch the monkeys.
Fear, however, is what I have for the lion when I am inside the cage with him. It is not something I can choose to give, but a recognition of the lion's power over me. I realize that whatever happens, he has the upper hand, as he has all the power. I won't be winning a fight with a lion. Fear focuses my attention toward the lion. It does not allow me to ignore or forget about him. It causes me to be cautious about what moves I make, and how I make them. Fear is a recognition of an authority that is possessed by another, with or without my choice to give it to him, as opposed to respect, which is an authority/attention I choose to give to another.
You see, fear takes away the pretense of my power. It removes the falsehood that I am in control here. It reminds me that I am helpless, and am completely at the mercy of another. It makes me realize my need, my lack. That causes me to seek out help, direction, instruction, from one who has authority.
So when Proverbs (1:7; 9:10) says that the "fear of God is the beginning of knowledge/wisdom" (i.e., understanding life), it means "fear," not respect, must be one's starting point and presupposition before he pursues other questions in life. If we start in the wrong place, one that does not pay careful attention to God as the authority of truth and good, we will end in the wrong place as well. Our conclusions will be false because our premise is false.
Proverbs tells us that the fear of God leads us to love true knowledge, as opposed to what makes us comfortable (1:29). It gives us a hatred toward evil, which is viewed as a self-willed life that seeks to make sense of life through one's own experiences (8:13; 15:33; 22:4--this is what pride and arrogance are in the Bible, humility/the fear of God being their opposite). It leads to a longer life (10:27; 19:23--which for us is eternal life). It gives us certainty (14:26) and is our source of life that keeps us from being trapped by chaotic ideas, i.e., the cultural philosophies the devil has set in place to destroy us (v. 27). It gives us the motivation to stop doing what is wrong (16:6). More importantly, it gives us the path to know God (2:5). This is in contrast to fearing man (i.e. paying attention to human ideas/seeing man in the place that God should be seen/starting with human authority instead of God's in one's view of life). In fact, the proverb, "there is a way [i.e., an understanding of life and the direction one should go] that seems right to a man, but the end is the way of death" is repeated twice in the Book of Proverbs (14:12; 16:25), which means it's being emphasized in the book. The Hebrew literally reads that the a path that seems right to man according to his experience (lit. "that which is before him") leads to "paths (plural) of death." Hence, to get the starting point concerning how we approach life wrong leads to multiple paths to death.
Now, that's just Proverbs. The term appears throughout the Bible, and we are told essentially, therefore, that the promises of God are only for those who fear Him. These promises of understanding life and being saved from darkness and death are only for those who fear YHWH (which is what the translation "Lord" is representing in these texts). Hence, the fear of the Lord is bound up with the Bible as God's revelation, and cannot be attributed to another religion. I can transfer the fear of the lion to the penguin in the cage, but I'm going to be paying attention to the wrong entity, and pay dearly for it.
To sum up, the fear of the Lord is our recognition of His authority over life in general, and over our lives specifically. In other words, it is a God-centered, rather than self-centered (i.e., arrogant) way of thinking. It recognizes that He already has the power over our lives and wields that sword daily. What He has given us the privilege to do is to know and understand life by giving us His Word. Through it, we not only recognize God's authority, but we can carefully and thoughtfully come to a true knowledge of God and ourselves. Our crooked paths are set straight. Our fear for God grows into respect, and respect, love. Hence, contrary to popular opinion, fear of the Lord and love are not opposites. The kind of fear that runs from God, which is not the fear of the Lord, is caste out by the love born from the true fear of the Lord.
So "fear" means "fear," but it is a fear that is a recognition of authority that pays careful attention to what that authority does (or in this case, says as well). I cannot ignore the lion any longer. Once my eyes have been opened, I realize the truth that C. S. Lewis noted years ago: that God is a dangerous lion, but He's also good and worthy to be followed. If our lives are constructed around ourselves, then He will do great damage to them. He is very dangerous. But we cannot God-proof our sermons anymore if we are to remain in the fear of God ourselves. If we are to bring the people back to Him, the fear of the Lord must be made known. If we do not, then we are all doomed to a misunderstood, misdirected, and missed life that was always meant to thrive in a God-centered world, but dies in one that is not. There is no doubt that the Word of God's place in our lives is diminished today, precisely, because we are a fallen people who do not fear the Lord (Rom 3:9-18); but for those of us who claim Christ, there must be a humility to God's Word that follows.
So take off the pads. Take out the safety plugs. And deflate the bouncy house. Because a true human life is not lived until it is lived in the fear and loving presence of God.
Thus says the Lord: "Heaven [is] My throne, And earth [is] My footstool. Where [is] the house that you will build Me? And where [is] the place of My rest? For all those [things] My hand has made, And all those [things] exist," Says the Lord. "But on this [one] will I look: On [him] [who] [is] poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word. (Isa 66:1-2)