I speak this line to people all the time: “Fear is a function of worship.” And without fail, I get much the same response. They look at me with a side-turned head: “Okay…?” some of them say. Or, “I’m not sure what that means”, others reply. Still others quickly nod, not understanding, and proceed as though I’ve not said a word. And yet this concept, that fear is an aspect of worship, is a profound reality at the foundational level. Lest you too, dear reader, turn your head sideways or click away without understanding what is being said, please allow me to explain.
Fear is a Form of Worship
In Deuteronomy 10:20, Moses tells God’s worshiping community: “You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear.” God’s people are called to fear the Lord and fear him alone. The people are to have no other gods besides the one true and living God—he only deserves our fear. The next verb in that verse is the word “serve”, which can mean work or labor, but also is translated “worship” in the Old Testament. So we are beginning to see God making “fear” and “worship” a parallel concept. What is more, notice the other words even in this verse, and how they carry with them the idea of wholehearted devotion to the Lord “hold fast to him” and “swearing by his name”. These are worshipful and reverential concepts, friends!
If we were to examine the larger context, though, the notion becomes even more apparent. Deuteronomy 10 is all about obedience to the Lord, serving the Lord with a whole heart, circumcising one’s heart unto the Lord, and to fear him alone (cf. Deut 10:12-13, “what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord”). Clearly, fearing the Lord is a part of our larger devotion to God—fear is a function of worship.
Fear parallels worship
If Deuteronomy 10 leaves room for confusion, Deuteronomy 6 clarifies. In verse 13, notice the same idea, but perhaps stated more plainly: “You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name.” Do you see the parallelism Moses is highlighting for us? Fear God alone, worship God alone. Fear is an aspect of our worship.
Okay, but why does any of this matter? And why is this something that would be spoken by a pastoral counselor so frequently? After all, what significant application to our day-to-day lives does this have?!
What we fear, is what we reverence. What we fear, is what we serve. What we fear, is what we worship.
An Ancient Illustration
Allow me to illustrate: If the people entering the promised land believe that the false gods of Canaan were real, and could bring about wholesale disaster and destruction upon the people, then they would think twice about tearing down their high places. Israel would dare not tread upon the false gods’ territory. They would respect the false gods, believing them to not be false at all.
God’s people would respect and reverence the places of worship to those false gods for fear of retaliation. This is because to fear something, is to suggest it is real. And not only real, but worth worrying about. To fear these false gods, is actually an act of reverencing them as having power and being able to bring about harm upon their enemies. This is because fear is a form of worship.
A Modern Illustration
Here’s how I explained the same concept to my children in family worship when we read this portion of scripture recently: If my kids believe aliens exist, and they go outside in the dark by themselves and look up to the blackness of space, how would they respond? If they cower in terror and slink away in fear, they are suggesting that aliens are there, can harm them, and are powerful to work in their lives. They are giving these beings “worth” (i.e. “worth-ship” or worship). They are believing them to have significance in their everyday lives. It is a form of reverence—it is giving significance to these aliens. Maybe not the strongest illustration for we adults, but you get the point.
(Some may want to engage with the metaphysical realities of aliens at this juncture, but I’ll save that debate for a later time!) Here is the point though: fear is a function of worship—giving something worth in our lives.
A Modern Application
Now, allow me to bring all of this to bear on our lives: Whatever you fear—whether it be the future, be it your past, perhaps it’s a living person who causes you dread. Whatever it is you most fear—you are giving that thing, that aspect of your life, worth. You are saying it is worth your time, it is worth your thoughts, it is worth your worries, it deserves your energies, your planning, and your deliberations. It is worth giving large swaths of your life over to serve it in your mind. For you fear it, and whatever you fear, you ascribe an aspect of worship to that which you fear.
But we don’t want to believe we’re idolizing good health, for instance, if we fear disease. And we’re not comfortable seeing addictions, which we hold at arm’s length out of fear they will reclaim our lives, as something we’re standing in awe of. We certainly don’t want to look full in the face of death itself, and believe that we’re wrongfully reverencing this life, as opposed to the eternal life that the Lord offers—life with him in the next. The idea that fear is a function of worship is an uncomfortable notion if we’re honest, because it reveals our idols. What most demands our attention, our fears—is it the Lord, or is it something else?
Fear the Lord Alone
Jesus speaks plainly to those who first witness his resurrection—a terrifying sight, to be sure, for it is not everyday that people see a man risen from the dead! “Do not be afraid” (Matt 28:10) he says, as they fall down and worship at his feet. Fear and worship are integrally connected in the scriptures. We must not fear wrongly, friends, but we must fear the Lord our God and him alone shall we worship (Deut 6:13).