The Healthy Kind of Fear

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7; NKJV).

In these days of COVID, I’ve heard a number of well-meaning Christians say something to the effect, “We shouldn’t fear. God is bigger than the coronavirus.” Yet, that is precisely why we should fear.

The Bible talks about two different kinds of fear. There is an unhealthy fear, for which God’s love is the remedy, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18, NIV). But there’s another kind of fear—a healthy fear—and the Bible speaks of the latter kind as a virtue, even the place where wisdom and knowledge begin.

So while we shouldn’t live in fear, I think the meaning of the unhealthy kind of fear needs to be qualified. We shouldn’t fear if that fear presents an obstacle to what God wills for our lives. If fear prevents you from carrying out the perfect will and intention of God for your life, then there is a problem.

Gabrielle and I are working with our kids on scripture memory, and we have a verse to remedy unhealthy fear. When our kids are up at night with negative thoughts or bad dreams, we remind them, “Now, what’s our verse.” To which they take a deep breath and reply, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Psalm 56:3, NIV). God’s desire is for his children to sleep. And if fear or worry presents an obstacle to us getting the sleep we need, well, then clearly that’s an unhealthy kind of fear, for which meditating on scripture can help. Huddling up on a blanket in Mommy and Daddy’s room may also help—and, admittedly, the kids have been doing quite a bit of that these days.

But it is equally important to remind ourselves of the healthy kind of fear. This fear is a virtue. As the prophet Isaiah affirmed concerning the Messiah of promise:

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord (Isa. 11:2-3, NRSV).

The “fear of the Lord” was perhaps the chief virtue for Isaiah. He mentions it twice for emphasis in the list of virtues noted here. While God’s Spirit opposes unhealthy fear, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7, NKJV), the “fear of the Lord” is one of the chief attributes of the Spirit. So how do we tell the difference? When should we quote Isaiah and when should we recite 2 Timothy?

Some would say if COVID is keeping God’s people from assembling on Sunday mornings in person, then we should muster up 2 Timothy and head to our local parish. On the other hand, social distancing (save a vaccine) is singlehandedly the best defense against this kind of sickness. So if wisdom says to social distance and livestream your service (and mail your offering in online), then we have an example of the healthy “fear of the Lord.”

These are not completely new waters we are treading these days. There is a precedent in history we can learn from. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic claimed 17 million lives worldwide (on the low end) over the course of about 2 years—a higher mortality rate than what we have seen thus far with COVID. How did the 1918 flu pandemic subside? It wasn’t a vaccine—while medication and vaccines were used to treat secondary illnesses, no vaccine was effective against the Spanish flu infection itself. Rather, it was social distancing, mask wearing, and other public health management techniques that brought the demise of the Spanish flu (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu).

So do we stay home or go out on Sunday mornings? For our household the answer is easy. We have three kids which is just too much to manage with the 6-feet-of-distancing and mask-wearing protocol (I am a proponent of masks—studies show they’re very effective especially when worn properly). Moreover, we’ve had some of our most meaningful Sunday mornings lately with just the five of us—when we are finished livestreaming our local congregation’s service, we’ve enjoyed some of the richest moments delving into God’s Word and praying together from the quiet of our own home. My wife and I have talked and prayed it over and think this is God’s will for our Sunday mornings at present. Unless we were certain God had supernaturally provisioned that our local church building would be exempted from the virus, it’s not worth the risk right now.

image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/

While I believe in and regularly pray for miraculous safety and healing, I also believe God works through ordinary means in our life each day. Drawing from experience, both personally and in church history, I think miraculous healing is the exception rather than the norm. That does not mean God wants to heal any less. God often heals gradually through natural means. It may be that God has ordained that social distancing is the natural avenue through which our world will experience healing from this pandemic. If wisdom is learning from history, and the fear of the Lord is where wisdom starts—then, inferring from the end of the Spanish flu, it’s the healthy kind of fear that tells us to socially distance, and wear masks, or stay home, as much as possible.

Indeed, God is even bigger then the coronavirus. If we should fear anything, it should be Him. Sure, there’s something vital about assembling in person with the rest of our local fellowship. But presently, we have found the silver lining in using our Sunday mornings to soak up and discuss the Word with one another and our kids.

Published by Paul J. Palma

Paul J. Palma is a professor of Christian history and theology at Regent University. His new book, Italian American Pentecostalism and the Struggle for Religious Identity, is part of the Routledge Studies in Religion series. Paul is a contributing writer for CBN.com and the Pneuma Review. He enjoys spending quality time with his family, whether on walks together, going to the beach, fishing, or work around the yard.

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