Surfer going into wave, no fear
Woman holding surgboard walking into huge wave no fear

“Who or what you fear is that which controls you.”

—Ed Welch, “What is the Fear of Man, and Why is it so Dangerous?”

Mom learned to swim when I did. I was six. She was thirty-two.

Imagine my surprise that lesson at the ‘Y’ when I spotted my strong, capable mom clinging to the edge of the pool, the shallow side, forcing courage to immerse her face. I had butterflies when I flopped off the high dive. But my grown-up mom was afraid to splash her face.

Aquaphobia had put a damper on her relationship with dad. Early in their dating, dad had taken her to the old Mill Pond. It was all she could do to go ankle deep.

Water controlled her.

Years later, I learned that mom’s fear of water was learned. Grandma dared not remove her shoes at the beach, if she’d even consent to go to the lake. She was terrified of pools and lakes, and passed her terror on to mom.

But mom refused to pass it on.

Learning To Surf

My husband and I are not thrill seekers. I run and bike, he golfs and shoots hoops. We don’t seek extreme. We are Wisconsinites, and we don’t surf.

But our first anniversary found us on Maui.

Our Saturday trip was the road to Hana and its Black Sand Beach. We’d grabbed the boogie boards, just in case, from condo closet. Not too long down the road we saw signs for Ho’okipa Beach Park. It happens to be a world-wide Mecca for surfing.

And it just so happened that we had connected the night before with transplanted family friends who happened to be picnicking with their friends that morning. They were friendly and we were unafraid.

Minutes later, our friends’ surfer-friend John was giving us a lesson.

First, tether the strap to your wrist. Then lie down, belly on the board, and paddle out to where the waves are breaking. Once you find the one you want to ride, get in front of it and kick and paddle as hard as you can until you catch the wave.

Then John added, as an afterthought, If you get stuck under one, don’t panic. Hold your breath and you’ll come out of it just fine. But whatever happens, keep your wrist strap on.

We obeyed, then flopped ourselves onto the boogie boards and paddled into the Pacific behind our hang-loose guide.

Glancing back to the shoreline, just up from the white sand beach, I watched waves crash on jagged, massive rocks. Now in the surf, I felt my first flash of real fear.

But there’s fear and then there’s fear.

There’s irrational afraid-to-get-wet-at-the-Y fear and there’s keep-your-wrist-strap-on-tight fear. I was learning the second—the rational, healthy fear.

It’s been 25 years since our little surfing adventure, but it’s still teaching me about the goodness of fear—of big kahuna waves and Almighty God.

4 Questions About the Fear of God

1. What is the good and healthy fear of God?

It is an awareness that you are in the presence of a holy, just, and almighty God with whom you want to be on good terms, one author wrote. The right fear of God draws us near to him.

It’s walking near the big loping dog that growls as it runs at you. It is not high-tailing it from the beast, breathlessly panting, Go home, go home.

I know this. I tried this and the German shepherd had my hamstring for lunch.

It bit me because I was afraid. Because I was running away.

I don’t run from dogs on my jogs anymore. I still fear them as they run at me, and over the years, some have. But now my fear keeps me from running away. I look dogs in the eye, use my big voice, and I stay.

Fear of Fleeing

When we fear the God who creates and destroys we don’t run away. We stay.

If you are running from God because you are afraid of him, then you are not yet as afraid as you ought to be. In fact, your very flight is a mockery of God, presuming to think that you could outrun this German shepherd. If you really fear him and love your own life, stop running, turn around, and hug his neck for dear life, and he will lick your face. 

The fear of the Lord is fear of fleeing out of his fellowship into the way of sin. Therefore the fear of the Lord is full of peace and security and hope. It keeps us near to the merciful heart of God, our fortress, our refuge, our sanctuary, our shield, our sun. Isaiah 8:13 says, “The Lord of Hosts, . . . let him be your fear, and let him be your dread, and he will become a sanctuary.”

—John Piper, “A Woman Who Fears the Lord is to be Praised

When we fear God this way and let him be “our dread,” he becomes our safe-place, our sanctuary. It is counterintuitive, but the more we fear God, the more our relationship with him grows.

That’s because God makes himself known to those who fear him.

2. What benefits come to those who fear the LORD?

Big, bountiful blessings are promised to those who fear the LORD. Here’s a sample of 12.

Which one motivates you most?

  1. God will be our friend. The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. Psalm 25:14
  2. God will take pleasure in us. The Lord delights in those who fear him, who hope in his unfailing love. Psalm 147:11
  3. God will give healing and refreshment. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Proverbs 3:7–8
  4. God will instruct him. Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should go. Psalm 25:12
  5. God will watch over him. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Psalm 34:7
  6. God will have compassion on him. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. Psalm 103:1
  7. God will give him wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. Proverbs 9:10
  8. God will keep him safe from snares. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death. Proverbs 14:27
  9. God will grant him prosperity. The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life. Proverbs 22:4
  10. God will endorse her praise. Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Proverbs 31:30
  11. God will hear him. Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. Malachi 3:16
  12. God will be his sure foundation. He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure. Isaiah 33:6

These are only the beginning.

Beacause fear of God is shorthand, I think, for a right relationship with him. God is the most important “person” in our lives and when we fear him, we treat him as such. We don’t trifle with God.

Far from stifling the relationship, this weighty, draw-near fear creates security and intimacy with God.

3. Can this draw-near fear be learned?

Absolutely. Psalm 34:11 says, “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” Fear of the Lord can be learned and taught. (It also is a gift from God. See Jeremiah 32: 38-40.)

4. How?

We learn the fear of God by knowing God better. We know God better by seeking him in his self-revelation, the Word of God. This has been his way since God settled his people in their land.

The LORD so wanted his people to know him and his ways. God wanted them to stay in relationship with him. He wanted them to learn the fear of the LORD. Thus he made that path plain. Three times we read, clear as day, this main way we learn to fear the LORD.

Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days they live on the earth and that they may teach their children so.

Deuteronomy 4:10

And [the king] shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and doing them.

Deuteronomy 17:19

Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the LORD

Deuteronomy 31:12-13a

Fear of God is not all or nothing, nor is it simply a gift from God for which we must passively wait. Rather, it is sought, it is taught and it is learned.

Abundant Goodness

Back to Ho’okipa Beach where we were in way over our heads.

Newbies on boogie boards in awe of the waves. With fear and trembling and tethered tightly we paddled through towering breakers to wait.

We lined up, bobbing and waiting for the big one to take us. And take us, it did. We started atop the Pipeline, but in a heartbeat I was within the monster wave, clinging to the board, heart racing, lungs burning, and wondering if I was racing toward the jagged shore or the sandy beach.

Then I burst into bright light—and not, I realized with glee—onto sharp rocks. My eyes fixed on Jim, gripping his board, craning his neck, and straining for me.

Our eyes met and we coasted onto that white sand beach yards apart and together.

Looking back, I see that I fear waves far more now—after I drew near, so near that I was engulfed, breathless inside one—than I did before our surfing adventure in Maui.

That’s how it is with God. We grow in good fear as we draw near and experience his goodness.

Twenty-five years ago, I did that. And it makes me hungry for more.

Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind!

Psalm 31:19 (ESV)

Afterward: 3 Really-Good Reads to Help You Grow in the Fear of the LORD

The fear of God is a form of xenophobia—a fear of the stranger, or, in this case, the One who is utterly strange and altogether different…God is not our buddy, an indulgent grandfather, a life coach, or a golf partner. He is the sovereign Creator of heaven and earth…

From Michael Horton, Encountering God Make Should Make You Afraid

The amazing counterintuitive thing in the Bible is that the more you fear the Lord and see him as high and lifted up, the more you actually get to experience him in intimacy because who does he draw near to? It’s the one who fears him, who sees him as high and lifted up, that’s [who] he draws near to.

Erik Thoennes, How to Have a Healthy Fear of God

Healthy fear and joy in the God of our salvation not only can go together, but must. We will never find joy in God while willingly and habitually living in unconfessed sin…[John’s] fear producing threats were necessary to wake up and shake up the Christians and motivate them to repentance, perseverance, and faithfulness.

Alexander Steward, Have a Healthy Fear of God

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