Fear As a Motivator?

Just a little reflection inspired by our study in Isaiah.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18)

So, does this mean that it is never healthy or appropriate to inspire or be inspired by fear?

If you answered yes, you’re not alone. This idea of the utter inappropriateness of fear as a motivator may not be an uncontested cultural fact in the west, but it is at least the predominant cultural feeling.

If you answered no, you may have this often quoted proverb knocking around in the back of your mind:

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” (Prov. 9:10)

I have to say that after spending some time in Isaiah, it is clear to me that God has no aversion to requiring his prophet to motivate people through fear. Just one example of many in this book:

Then the Lord said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has gone stripped and barefoot for three years, as a sign and portent against Egypt and Cush,so the king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared—to Egypt’s shame. Those who trusted in Cush and boasted in Egypt will be dismayed and put to shame. In that day the people who live on this coast will say, ‘See what has happened to those we relied on, those we fled to for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! How then can we escape?’ ” (Isaiah 20:3-6)

Obviously, the fear of finding themselves in this unfortunate circumstance is supposed to motivate people to stop putting their trust in Egypt and start looking to God.

So, how do we reconcile Isaiah’s message and Solomon’s wisdom with the words of John and Paul (Rom 8:15)?

Not surprisingly, Jesus has the answer:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

Ultimately, it boils down to what or whom one fears most.

Fear is actually quite helpful for navigating life. Fear of being burnt causes us to be careful around fire. (And just so you know—if you try to tell me it is actually the positive emotion of valuing in-tact skin that motivates your caution around flames, I will laugh at you and think you are a liar.)

To be fair, there are times when love, honor, and sacrifice can and should supersede the most valid and practical of fears. Jesus’ distress in the garden suggests that he was afraid of the horrible death he would die (and understandably so), but his love for us and the prize of his sacrifice were more important than the reality of the pain he feared.

The other qualifier I must add is that fear seems to be a lesser moral motivator. It can begin us on the right path, but as we learn to trust God and adopt his values as our own—then love, compassion, obedience, and joy should begin to replace fear as a primary motive for our choices. Along the same lines, fear can be a last-resort motivator to get us back on the right path when we have strayed and repeatedly refused to respond to gentleness and mercy. This is certainly the case in the prophets.

The truth is, no matter our age or maturity level, we just aren’t always good enough or eternally minded enough to be driven by positive reinforcement.

Sometimes I’m downright carnal.

I begin to value some other thing (good or bad) above my relationship with God. I’m after something, so I’m no longer trying to do the right thing because it’s right, because it blesses God, or because it is the most loving thing for my fellow man. In the pursuit of my desired object or outcome, I become willing to compromise, self-deceive, and justify. At this point, the only thing between me and a downward spiral, is fear.

I should fear who I can become.

A habit of compromise is the same thing as weak character. “Little” sins over time will turn me into a shadow and a shell of the person I could be.  Sin will obstruct my ability to see and love others. Sin will erode my relationships. Sin will distort my view of God. Sin makes me susceptible to lies from the enemy. Sin will affect my eternity and that of others, even if I am in Christ and on my way to heaven.

Plus, God loves me enough to send or allow tremendous discomfort in my life in order to get my attention.

It’s reasonable to fear discipline.

‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.” (Rev 3:19)

Sure, discipline is for the best if I’m that stubborn, but it’s not nice. And it would be better if just the fear of it was enough to inspire me to repent and head back in the right direction.

There’s plenty we oughtn’t fear.

We don’t need to fear that God doesn’t see us or isn’t passionate about us. We don’t need to fear that God won’t reveal himself if we seek him. We don’t need to fear our eternal security if we remain in Christ. We don’t need to fear temporary discomfort—in light of eternal consequence. Thankfully, this list is very long…

But we should fear God.

And just as an aside, I can’t make the whole “fearing God actually means having a deep reverence, respect, and awe for him” thing work with Matthew 10:28 at all.

“Do not [deeply reverence and awe] those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather [deeply reverence and awe] Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Clearly not what is meant here, especially in the context of Jesus informing the disciples of the hardships and persecutions they will have to endure in his name.

But even if this weren’t so awkward, I learned something else: the Greek word rendered fear here is PHOBEO, which we all recognize from our derivative, phobia. I do understand that words have nuances of meaning and certain ones can come in to prominence in different times or places. But even a cursory look at the Biblical usage of this word will reveal that, even then, the usual meaning was plain, old FEAR. Plus, it’s just kind of a silly exercise to try to replace phobia with deep reverence and awe in some commonly recognized afflictions.

Mysophobia – deep reverence and awe for dirt and germs?

Cynophobia – deep reverence and awe for dogs?

Claustrophobia – deep reverence and awe for small or closed spaces?

You get the idea…

I have touched the tip of the iceberg as far as demonstrating how fear is consistently used and even praised as a moral motivator in the Bible, and I have briefly discussed how it is personally relevant to me. I’m wondering, though, how does this concept play into discipleship, Christian accountability and fellowship, and even the public pulpit? In our time, one of “judgment” and “negativity” phobias, the image of the “hellfire and brimstone” preacher is often derisively conjured and applied to the least hint of serious warning or correction in a sermon. Has our push against one imbalance, caused us to abandon an important means of fostering Christian repentance and growth?


One thought on “Fear As a Motivator?”

  1. I have some thots, but I would prefer not to post them publicly here….so I’m guessing they will go unsaid for now…please feel free to delete this post, or feel free to find my email address in my conctact details…have enjoyed the readings of this year…thanks!

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