Is being afraid a sin? I think most of us, me included, would say it isn’t sinful in and of itself. Fear is often a natural gut reaction to things happening around us, and it serves a self-preservation role. It only becomes an issue if we act on it wrongly or let it paralyze us and prevent right action. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m letting my own fears cloud my perspective on this issue. Because it seems God takes our fearfulness more seriously.
He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Rev. 21:7-8, KJV)
Some translations say “cowardly” instead of “fearful,” but the Greek deilos really does mean timid or afraid. Strong’s dictionary adds that it implies faithlessness. Hence Jesus’ question, “Why are you so afraid? How is it that you have no faith?” to the disciples in a storm (Mark 4:37-40, WEB). Is it really the case that God sees our fears and timidity as lack of faith?
The Right Kinds of Fear
The Bible talks about fear in both positive and negative ways. The kind of fear that is connected with reverence and respect for God and His authority is good. In fact, it’s essential.
This is the end of the matter. All has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it is good, or whether it is evil. (Ecc. 12:13-14, WEB)
Fear of God has long been a commanded part of following Him (Deut. 5:29; 6:2; 10:12). And in the New Testament, the apostles tell us to perfect “holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1, WEB), to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12, WEB), and to live our lives on earth “in reverent fear” (1 Pet. 1:17, WEB).
This sort of fear is connected with respect and awe of God. It’s not supposed to make us scared of getting close to Him. However, this reverence should still include a healthy fear of the consequences connected with disobedience. Paul writes that our salvation shouldn’t make us conceited and complacent because we can be cut off if we don’t continue in God’s goodness (Rom. 11:19-23). There is judgement coming, as talked about in the verse we just read from Ecclesiastes, and we ought to have some fear of that (Heb. 4:1; 10:31).
The Things Fear Makes Us Do
It’s good to fear the consequences of wrong action. But we can’t let that fear, or any other, hold us back. The right kind of fear is meant to make us move toward God with reverent awe and trust in His mercy (which He’s always ready to extend — you don’t need to fear God’s wrath if you walk in His grace). We’re not supposed to be like the servant who, so afraid of his lord’s anger if he failed, hid his talent in the earth (Matt. 25:24-30). His fear made him wicked, slothful, and unprofitable.
The core problem with wrongly placed or directed fear is that it keeps us from doing what is right. Fear made Adam hide himself from God (Gen. 3:8-10), Isaac lie (Gen. 26:6-7), Jacob flee (Gen. 31:27, 31), and Peter act hypocritically (Gal. 2:11-12). That things that fear makes us do, or not do, often determine whether that fear is an issue or not. For example, Nehemiah was very afraid to ask the king for permission to go to Jerusalem, but he did the right thing anyway and his fear isn’t condemned (Neh. 2:2-5).
Two Different Reactions To Fear
We can see these two types of fear contrasted in the story of David and Saul. We see a wrong kind of fear (and a wrong reaction to it) in Saul. He was so scared of Goliath that he wouldn’t trust in God enough to face the giant as the king leading Israel should have (1 Sam. 17:11). Later, his fear of David drove him to try and murder him (1 Sam. 18:29).
David also had fears. But not the kind that made him scared to face Goliath, since that giant was defying the God of Israel and David knew the Lord would fight on his side. His fears were prudent ones — the kind that prompted him to run from a king trying to kill him (1 Sam. 21:10; 23:26). But, unlike Saul, he didn’t let his fears make him a killer (1 Sam. 24:4-7; 26:8-11). So what did David do with his fear? He took it to God.
The cords of death surrounded me. The floods of ungodliness made me afraid. The cords of Sheol were around me. The snares of death came on me. In my distress I called on Yahweh, and cried to my God. He heard my voice out of his temple. My cry before him came into his ears. (Ps. 18:4-6, WEB)
David’s decision to turn his fears over to God proved to be a good one. His enemy was defeated and he became king of Israel. Even better than that, he developed a close, personal relationship with God. He’s even called the man “after God’s own heart.” David trusted in God, and God trusted David to be someone “who will do all my will” (Acts 13:22).
Conquering Fear With Faith
We started off this post by quoting Revelation 21:8 as saying fear is one of the things that can keep us out of God’s kingdom. In that verse it’s listed alongside several sins, but it doesn’t appear in similar lists (like 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Tim. 1:9-10) of things that violate God’s commands. It appears that having fear isn’t a sin in the same way something like murder or idolatry is. It’s more subtle than that. Fear is dangerous because it blocks faith.
When we’re faced with a situation that could make us afraid, we have a choice. We can let faith in God conquer our fears or we can let fear push out our faith. That’s what Peter faced when he saw Jesus walking on the water and then stepped out of the boat to go to him.
But when he saw that the wind was strong, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand, took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:30-31 ,WEB)
Notice that even though Jesus chided Peter for his lack of faith, He didn’t let him sink. We have an incredibly compassionate savior who experienced what it’s like to be human (Heb. 4:14-16). He’s not going to give up on us just because we’re afraid. Rather, He’s committed to proving that with Him at our side we don’t have to be afraid. And with that assurance, He wants to see us work on overcoming our fears to truly live by faith.