These are words that set my mind on edge, an unease on many levels: Uphold the law, and there will be nothing to fear. I’ve seen these words many times in many places, notably in a NAZI propaganda poster in WWII. However, the link between law and fear is not only in despotic states, but exists almost everywhere one looks.
In theory, the law is displayed as a defender of justice. The law to protect individuals and society. But this law is often enforced with might and unjustly– the crushing power of a political state in most cases. No one wants to be on the wrong side of the police, especially when the power tips in the favour of the state.
Though some cases elicit desire for retribution, we are often more comfortable with reformation and rehabilitation. Perhaps our fear comes from the knowledge that our human power structures are corruptible, prone to error and evidently biased. Even doing what we think is right, there is a feeling it might not work out for us. Blame could come from some strange quarter – false blame even – and we may find ourselves mauled by the forces that claim to be just.
Fear of the law
The Bible has a similar statement to the one I noted in the opening:
‘...rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.’ (Romans ch. 13 vv. 3-4, ESV trans.)
One can feel the harsh oppression of Roman rule lurking behind this passage. How much easier I feel it would be to say the laws of the empire are unjust. Fight and gain freedom. But Paul points to God’s working through authorities. Rulers, both just and unjust, are there by God’s sovereignty.
God uses the nations for his justice, and for instruction. However, God’s justice is not identical to that of the nations. When God let the Babylonians strike down the Israelites he did not applaud the ferocity or extent of their violence, but set limits for them. When he allowed the Babylonians to follow their wishes and exceed their mandate, he also set the limit of their time to rule.
But how can this be just? To let nations squabble and corrupt systems deal out suffering does not sound like a good way to slow human inclination to evil. A full answer, I suspect, would take more than I have here for you.
The fear of God
However, I think much of it stems from this: that we humans are already justly liable to harsher punishment than this. Humans regularly reject God, we choose to flee from God’s rule in disrespect and rebellion. The rejection of God sets our status to being enemies, and the extent of the problem is massive. Paul states: ‘...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ (Romans ch. 3 v. 23, ESV trans.)
God has made a way for us to return to him because of Jesus, but without being returned to God it is a bleak picture. Being under God’s judgement means punishment now and beyond our present lives. You may not accept that we deserve this, but I hold that we do. The rejection of God is a colossal affront.
If you don’t agree, I’m sure you could try to make the argument, look through the Bible for some strong justifications, but I think eventually you would find it hard to see otherwise.
The best answer for us in the face of God’s justice is to seek God’s Mercy. Though it would be another difficult path to understand why it is right that God can offer this, Jesus’ actions mean that there is an escape from our rejection of God. There is a way to not be standard and reject God, Jesus is the way to have peace. Fear is not the primary descriptor for where we can be:
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John ch.4 vv.15-18, ESV trans.)
Fear of the state seems justifiable, especially as the state wields power without perfection. Fear of God seems justified because he wields power with perfection. But fear is not the only, and not the best way to relate to God.
The fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom, but love is his command and action (see Proverbs ch. 9 v. 10 and 1 John above). To love God is yet more profound. As John notes above, ‘perfect love casts out fear.’
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.