Fear, God, and Delight–An Unexpected Combo?

Jumbo shrimp, airline food, just war, Microsoft Works, or my personal favorite, country music 🙂 — All of these might fall under a category titled oxymorons–a figure of speech containing self-contradicting components. Likewise, some individuals might also consider Nehemiah’s description of God’s servants in Nehemiah 1:11 as an equally oxymoronic phrase–those “who delight to fear” God’s name. …Give those words a second glance… “who delight to fear your name.” There’s so much in this phrase that runs contrary to our common conceptions. Most obviously, many of us would never pair fear and delight as companions, let alone a fear of God.

I’ve been musing over this seemingly paradoxical description for a while now; and I’d like to propose three ways in which I think fearing God is rightly called the delight of His people.

The Consequences

First, the believer finds delight in the consequences and life that flow from a fear of God.

To fear God means to honor, respect, and revere Him, to hold Him in awe. One might define the fear of God as the proper response to perceiving God as He truly is.

But this disposition is contrary to the sinful state in which we are born. In our wickedness, we suppress and reject this fear of God (Rom 1:18-22). To actually delight in the fear of God is seen as foolish, not wise. Many live, act, think, and plan their lives as if pleasure is found in anything but fear of God and His commandments. In fact, God is referred to as the “cosmic killjoy.”

Contrary to this assessment, Nehemiah demonstrates the Biblical belief that delight flows from the life that is calibrated in proper fear of God. Ironically, greater pleasure is found by refusing the lesser and temporary pleasures of sin. And that’s part of the paradox of “delighting to fear.” It’s not to say that fearing God won’t mean the forfeiting of some pleasures. But paradoxically, the forfeiture of such pleasures in the pursuit of reverencing God yields even greater, unshakable pleasure.

The Experience

Second, a certain delight exists in the very experience of fearing God.

Although many of us would likely initially categorize fear as a negative reaction, our own experience tells us that fear is not necessarily something unpleasurable, something repulsive.

Since a young age, my sister and I have loved roller coasters. We love the thrill of having our body whipped around, spun, and hurled to the earth from 400+ feet high. (Although the following are beyond my comprehension) similarly people love to jump out of planes mid-flight. People also find pleasure in jumping off tall bridges with bungee cords attached to their feet. And people actually enjoy going to movies with the purpose of being frightened out of their minds. In other words, our experience tells us that in the right context, we actually enjoy fear. In a sense, we find pleasure in terror.

But sane people don’t actually delight in the fear of real, impending or likely harm. It’s not the imminence of harm in which people delight. They enjoy the thrill. That’s why people go to horror movies instead of making friends with real serial killers. That’s why, when people willingly pay to jump out of a plane, they wear parachutes.

As believer’s, we experience something similar with God. God is terrifying. And those who face His judgment have genuine reason to fear Him. As believers, our fear of God is no less genuine; but it is experienced within the safety of Christ. As a result, we experience delight in our fear of Him. If people find rollercoasters thrilling, how much more the infinite, all-powerful, all holy God? These are just cheap imitations of the real thing. We experience the ultimate thrill, we get a sample of what will eventually be our eternal “adrenaline rush,” when we worship God and see Him as He truly is, yet within the safety of Jesus Christ.

This delight, found in the experience of fearing God, would likely appear to many as a peculiar and odd thing; but it’s an experience well-known by the Christian. Every Christian knows that inexpressible delight when he or she catches a glimpse of God as He truly is–awesome. It occurs in prayer as we dwell on God’s character, work, and interaction in our lives. It occurs in worship as we praise God for His awesome and glorious attributes, His terrifying yet gracious character, His transcendent yet immanent nature. It occurs as we experience the wonder of His creation and are confronted with the reality of this God who makes the leaves turn color, designed the various species of the sea, formed wonders like the grand canyon, and in His hand holds the vast universe, which makes our existence seem so insignificant and trivial… and yet is special in His sight. It occurs as we read God’s self-disclosure in scripture and learn of His nature and dealings with mankind throughout history and in the person of Jesus Christ.

There is an inexpressible sweetness to fearing God.

The Object

Third, fearing God is delightful by nature of the object in whom we fear.

There’s something unshakably satisfying about a posture of fearing God. This is because it conforms to what we are meant to be as human beings. As image-bearers, we were created to worship God. We are by nature worshippers and unavoidably seek an object(s) of worship. When we try to fill that void with anything but God, our spiritual mouths will be left severely parched and our stomachs starving. We are left utterly unsatisfied. Any pleasure we do find by rummaging through the garbage dump of sin will only give us food poisoning and is merely temporary, leaving us with a vivid sense of that void that only God can fill. But when we fear God, we calibrate our lives to the way things were intended to be; and we find satisfaction.

We also discover an unceasing, unmeasurable store of pleasure in our God of infinite goodness. He is not finite and fleeting like the pleasures at which we so frequently grasp. All other pleasures are incomparably inferior to Him. There is an unmeasurable delight in fearing God, because he is an unmeasurably worthy object to fear.