In the past 2 months, I’ve had more conversations about fear than I had in the previous decade. As we have all wrestled with the unknowns of the Coronavirus crisis afflicting the world many Christians have also wrestled with fear. We can all point to Bible verses that command us to be strong and full of courage (Joshua 1:7). Likewise, we know that Paul tells us to “not be anxious about anything.” (Phil. 4:6) Do these passages mean that all fear is sinful?
Last week I read a short book by the Puritan, John Flavel, entitled Triumphing Over Sinful Fear. You can buy it here. In the book, Flavel distinguished between 3 types of fear found in the Bible: natural, sinful, and religious (or Godly). In understanding these three kinds of fear we are better helped to think about and process our own individual fears.
Everyone experiences natural fear. It is the trouble or agitation of mind that arises when we perceive approaching evil or impending danger. It is not always sinful, but it is always the fruit and consequence of sin. – John Flavel
Natural fear is the fear we experience when we’re standing on a ladder or walking through a dark room. Because we are created and finite beings we have an awareness of our own frailty. Falling from a ladder may result in injury. There may be hidden dangers in dark rooms. Notice that this fear is not always sinful. There is a healthy fear, not of the ladder itself, but of falling. But, also notice, that natural fear is always the fruit and consequence of sin. Because of sin we live in a world where people fall off ladders and are injured or even die.
Sinful fear arises from unbelief—an unworthy distrust of God. This occurs when we fail to rely upon the security of God’s promise; in other words, when we refuse to trust in God’s protection.The sinfulness of fear lies in its excess and immoderacy when we fear more than we ought. – John Flavel
For example, sinful fear says, “God can’t protect me from falling.” Sinful fear dethrones God, ignores his sovereignty, and devalues his love. Sinful fear questions God’s goodness.
There is a holy and laudable fear, which is our treasure, not our torment. It is the chief ornament of the soul—its beauty and perfection, not its unhappiness or sin. Natural fear is a pure and simple passion of the soul. Sinful fear is the disordered and corrupt passion of the soul. But the awful, filial fear of God is the natural passion sanctified—changed and baptized into the name and nature of a spiritual grace. – John Flavel
The fear of the Lord, says Flavel, “is not, therefore, a natural product of our heart, but a supernatural infusion and implantation.” This fear gives us the resolve to trust and obey God. It strengthens us to avoid what God forbids and to do what he commands regardless of the opposition.
So, as you consider your own fear, you ought to ask yourself a few questions:
Is my fear causing me to question God’s power, sovereignty, wisdom, or goodness?
Is my fear causing me to disobey God’s Word or my own conscience guided by the Spirit?
Not all fear is sinful. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Prov. 9:10)
All quotations of Flavel from: Flavel, John. Triumphing Over Sinful Fear (Puritan Treasures for Today Book 3). Reformation Heritage Books. Kindle Edition.