Is fear a sin?


Sometimes we say that we should only fear God and that we shouldn’t fear other people. I have often talked about how the things we fear are the things that become our idols.  Jesus tells us:

“do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[1]

However, from a different perspective, we need to acknowledge that fear is a good, necessary and healthy response to life in our fallen world.  Let me explain what I mean with reference to two examples. First of all, whilst the Bible tells us to fear God and that there is the beginning of wisdom, older translations also talk about other examples of “fear.”

For example in 1 Peter 2:17-18 we are told:

Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor. Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust”

It’s not so obvious in our modern translations but the word translated “respect” in verse 18 when talking about masters is the same word as used to describe our response to God (fear) in verse 17. We are to “fear God” and to be subject to our masters “with all fear.” What we are seeing here is the way in which a word can have quite a broad semantic range initially but that it gets narrowed down over time. What this means is that before we decide whether or not it is wrong to fear, we should check what we mean by the word.

Here’s my second example. I remember asking a godly man, who clearly is trusting God in the face of terminal illness what he would say to people that were anxious and frightened of serious illness. I expected him to talk about the importance of not being afraid. Instead he said that fear is a natural response to bad and harmful things. Indeed, in some contexts it’s a good thing.

We teach children to fear flames, so they don’t stick their fingers into hot gas fire and get burnt. We learn to fear HGVs so that we don’t step out in front of them on the dual carriageway.  We have a fear of serious illness which causes us to go to the doctor when we see worrying symptoms.  I would go further. I think there is a right sense of sin and idolatry as something that raises fear in us, causing us to flee those things and cling to Christ.

So fear is a good thing when it teaches how to respond rightly to things that might cause danger and harm.  Fear then is about rightly assessing the power and the danger of something else.  We may even find it helpful to distinguish fearing something in that sense from being afraid where the feae overwhelms us causing us to lose sight of other things and especially God, causing us to panic and respond inappropriately to those things and those people.

Therefore, you will notice that Jesus doesn’t just say “don’t be afraid of the one who can take your life.”  He doesn’t call that sin and he doesn’t say that there is nothing to be afraid of there. Rather what he does is set too alternative fears up and says “instead of fearing x, you should fear y.”  My fear of spiders, bullies, coronavirus or whatever should not be allowed to displace that correct reverence, awe, trust and indeed fear of God. Who do I fear more?

You see, we often choose our fear.  This is especially true when it comes to the fear of disappointing others. I may be so afraid of disappointing my boss that I stay and work late every night and go in at the weekends. There I am saying that I fear my boss and his wrath more than I fear the damage I am doing to my relationship with my wife and my family. My fear means that I am valuing other things wrongly and most of all more than God.

The reality is that we do experience fear and that fear tends to be mixed up and complicated. Worst of all, we tend to be afraid of expressing our fears so we suppress them or avoid them.  It is perhaps helpful then when seeking to encourage others to get them to name their fears. Naming our fears helps us to put them in the context of our fear of the Lord. It helps us to articulate our actual concerns and it helps us to identify a right response to them.

  • What/Who do you fear?
  • Is your fear of that/them greater than your fear of God?
  • What is a right response to your fear?

[1] Matthew 10:28

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