– By Jonathan Kopke.
The second verse of Amazing Grace starts out like this: ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.
What an odd thing to sing about! We can see how God’s wrath would make us fearful. But why is it that his grace — his favor undeservedly shown to us — would “teach our hearts to fear”?
The Bible — especially the Old Testament — has loads of verses about “the fear of the Lord,” and some of them are just as puzzling as that second verse of Amazing Grace. Let’s look at just three lines from the psalms.
- Praise the Lord, all you who fear him! (Psalm 22:23 nlt)
- How joyful are those who fear the Lord. (Psalm 112:1 nlt)
- You, Lord, offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you. (Psalm 130:4 nlt)
We’ve all read elsewhere in the Bible that God has at times used plagues like the current coronavirus pandemic to punish sinners and to purify believers, so we can see why we might fear him. But why would we praise the God whom we fear? Why would those who fear the Lord be joyful? And if God offers forgiveness, how would that teach us to fear him? There’s something that we’re not getting here.
I looked it up, and in the Hebrew Old Testament, the word in these psalms that’s been translated into English as “fear” literally means “fear.” So that wasn’t any help. But when I started studying what Christian theologians have written about “the fear of the Lord,” I realized that, just recently, I’d encountered a human example of what that phrase really means.
In the past week, I’ve been reading another book about the Battle of Britain — the Nazi bombing of largely civilian targets in England during the Second World War. I read that one little boy in London was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. A fireman? A pilot? And the little boy answered, “I want to be alive.” During the war, the people of London lived in constant fear of being obliterated by the Luftwaffe. That’s the kind of fear that we usually think about. Just for now, let’s call that “common fear.” It’s not a bad thing. Common fear is what motivates us to avoid danger. But that’s not the only kind of fear.
When Buckingham Palace itself was struck in a Nazi air raid, the queen (the wife of King George VI) famously said, “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. Now we can look the East End in the eye.” And on mornings after heavy bombing attacks, the king and queen often went out to working class neighborhoods to do just that — look their people in the eye. The people there certainly weren’t scared by the royal couple who had shared their suffering. But when they saw their king and queen tiptoeing through the shattered glass of their bombed-out homes, they “feared” the two of them in a different way. They were awestruck. Sometimes dumbstruck. They were totally overwhelmed by the royal couple’s compassion for them. Let’s call this reaction “uncommon fear.” It’s what motivates us to honor someone. To be loyal to them. Even to worship them. And it’s in this sense that we can fear the God who has shared our suffering.
Pastor Tim Keller has written this about what I’ve called uncommon fear:
“To fear the Lord is to be overwhelmed with wonder before the greatness of God and his love. It means that, because of his bright holiness and magnificent love, you find him ‘fearfully beautiful.’ That is why the more we experience God’s grace and forgiveness, the more we experience a trembling awe and wonder before the greatness of all that he is and has done for us. Fearing him means bowing before him out of amazement at his glory and beauty.”
So we can see why the New Testament also instructs us to
Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. (Philippians 12:2 nlt)
With this understanding of uncommon fear, even in the middle of a global pandemic, we can sing all the more boldly,
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed!