Calvary Road Baptist Church

“IRRATIONAL FEAR VERSUS INSTRUCTED FEAR”


This evening we will consider fear. Fear is defined in Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary as “a feeling of anxiety and agitation caused by the presence or nearness of danger, evil, pain, etc.; timidity; dread; terror; fright; apprehension.”[1] That is not a biblical definition of fear, but it is a good place to start, so we will run with that definition for now. There are some who are fearful, which is to say that they are affected by fear; feeling fear; afraid.[2] There are also those who are fearless, free from fear; bold; courageous; intrepid; undaunted.[3] Most people, however, are between the two extremes of perpetual fearlessness and constant fearfulness, and are fearless in some situations while being fearful in other circumstances. As well, there is to be considered what it is that is feared or not feared. I would suggest that it is reasonable to fear the threat of physical harm, depending on your experiences and abilities. A small woman or an aged man might fear walking on a dark city street at night, owing to that person’s relative defenselessness against an attack by young men. On the other hand, a healthy and athletic young man might have no fear in such a situation, though he might be terrified in a social setting at the thought of being embarrassed because of his awkwardness in social situations. I know young men who have fled the prospect of academic failure, fear of flunking out of college, and instead pursued occupations that expose them to the threat of great bodily harm. That is, they greatly feared not doing well in school, but have little apparent fear of the prospect of being injured or killed. Others have no fear playing football, but are terrified of climbing ladders. Petite gymnasts are willing to risk crippling injures doing routines on uneven parallel bars or the balance beam that a football or baseball player might be terrified to attempt.

The point that I seek to make is that there are all kinds of people who have their own sets of fears. Girls are afraid of spiders and cockroaches while older boys are frequently afraid of being perceived effeminate. Most people have some fears related to the possibility of physical harm or death, while also being fearful of other things that are less well defined but pose no risk of physical injury. When I was a youngster, I had never heard of such a thing as a panic attack or an anxiety attack. Of course, people got scared of a specific threat, but they then either dealt with the threat or remained terrified until the threat passed. Once the threat or the perception of a threat was passed, there was no longer any fear. Today, however, some people become utterly terrified without successfully identifying any specific threat. “Are you afraid?” someone might ask. “Yes,” would be the answer. “Of what?” would be the follow-up question. “I don’t know,” would be the second answer. Thus, some people have little or no fear in their lives, while others are overcome by fear to such an extent that it interferes with a normally functional life. I would suggest that the person who experiences no fear is likely a sociopath who has something terribly wrong with him. The person who has no fear of God is a number of things: First, he is ignorant, Psalm 34.11. Next, he is wicked, Psalm 36.1. Third, he is foolish, Psalm 111.10. Fourth, he makes bad decisions, Proverbs 1.29. Fifth, he is proud and arrogant, Proverbs 8.13. On the other hand, what can be said about the person who tends to be fearful, who feels frightened without being able to put his finger on the reason for his terror? This may surprise you, but God’s Word is quite specific about certain things.

Turn to Proverbs 22.13: “The slothful man saith, There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the streets.” Think about this. Have you ever heard of a lion on the streets of a city or a town? Yet we have in this verse someone who is terrified, overwhelmed with a fear that is hardly likely, and is most improbable. I would suggest to you that what we have here is a 3,000-year-old description of a panic attack or an anxiety attack. However, what kind of person feels this paralyzing fear of that which borders on being an impossibility? The slothful.

Turn to Proverbs 26.13: “The slothful man saith, There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets.” This verse is almost the same as the one we just looked at, with one distinction. There is no fear of being slain articulated. The fear is less distinct, fuzzier, less focused. However, once again, though the word fear does not appear in the verse, it is clear that this is the expression of someone who is afraid. We once again ask what kind of person experiences this fear? The slothful.

Our last look at something that seems akin to an anxiety attack or a panic attack is found in Proverbs 28.1: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.” To flee when no man pursues is precisely what those people who have anxiety or panic attacks do. They run. No one is chasing them. They are in no danger of physical harm. They are not facing public humiliation or a loss of employment in most cases, but they have this strong urge to get out of Dodge City. They flee when no man pursues. What kind of people reacts this way? Proverbs informs us that this is the behavior of those who are wicked, and contrasts them and their behavior with those who are righteous, who instead of being afraid and running away are characteristically bold. In short, fear can be a reliable indicator of a person’s spiritual condition and relationship with God.

If a person has no fear, especially no fear of God, he is not a believer. Instead, he is foolish, ignorant, wicked, proud, arrogant, and makes terrible decisions with respect to spiritual matters and the safety of his eternal and undying soul. On the other hand, if he is at the other end of the fear spectrum and is overwhelmed by his fears, so much that he fears the unlikely and the non-threatening, or is overcome by fear without being able to pinpoint what it is he is afraid of, he, too, is a lost person and his behavior is not at all consistent with someone who has been reconciled to God through faith in Christ.

At this point, it would be good for us to refine our definition of fear. The Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, once again, defines fear as “a feeling of anxiety and agitation caused by the presence or nearness of danger, evil, pain, etc.; timidity; dread; terror; fright; apprehension.” Charles Spurgeon, referring to the kind of fear that comes when one gets a glimpse of God’s holiness, declares, “This is a kind of fear which we have need to cultivate, for it leads to repentance, and confession of sin, to aspirations after holiness, and to the utter rejection of all self-complacency and self-conceit.”[4] Recognize that there is a component of man’s capacity to fear that is related to physical harm, to the possibility of being injured, and even an appropriate concern for and aversion to death. With respect to such fears, there is a great deal of variation from person to person. However, this type of fear is of no interest to us tonight. I am unconcerned about the presence or absence of physical bravery and the presence or absence of one’s fear of physical harm. As I have told you before, I am completely unimpressed with a fellow who is unafraid of being shot, but who is terrified at the thought of carrying a Bible with him to school. So, set that aspect of fear aside for now.

This evening we will stay in what is basically the realm of the moral and spiritual, setting those fears related to physical harm and death aside, and addressing irrational fear, first, and then instructed fear. Recognize that we are just scratching the surface tonight. However, it is my prayer that you will be both helped and directed by God’s Word to not fear what you should not fear, but to instead fear God.

 First, IRRATIONAL FEAR

 Irrational fear is fear that makes no sense when you think about it. Irrational fear is the result of not obeying God’s directive in Isaiah 1.18: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” When a person engages in the activity of reasoning, his mental faculties are brought to bear and he engages in right thinking. Irrational fear is the result of not engaging your mental faculties as you ought to, and not taking into account the factors and circumstances that are truly important.

For example: What real sense does it make for someone to make important spiritual decisions on the basis of what a friend might think? Young people will actually refuse serious consideration of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ because they fear an adverse reaction from a friend. They are afraid of what their friend might think or say. However, the reality is that there is almost no chance that those who are close friends when they are young enough to live at home will remain close friends for another five years, unless they come to Christ and remain faithfully involved with their church. The fact is that high school friends almost always grow apart over time, as various career choices are made, and as marriages and children follow. Therefore, what sense does it make to allow your fear of your friend’s reactions influence your response to the gospel and your eternal destiny? Fear of your friends’ adverse reactions is irrational. It does not make any logical sense.

Another example: What sense does it make for a guy to reject the gospel because he is afraid his girlfriend will not also come to Christ? This irrational fear ignores the very real consequences of what will really happen if a guy rejects Christ for the sake of his girlfriend. On one hand, he forfeits any semblance of leadership he can expect to fulfill in their relationship. On the other hand, he sets his girlfriend up as an idol that God must topple in order to work in his life. Then there is the complete absence of manliness such a guy demonstrates, that may very well prove to be a complete turnoff to a self-respecting woman who grows to despise a man who is in no way manly. In short, being afraid of a girlfriend’s possible reaction to your conversion is irrational, especially in view of what is at stake, the salvation of your soul.

A third example: You are married. You become concerned about your eternal and undying soul. Yet your concern about the gospel is accompanied by your fear that if you become a Christian the person you are married to you will leave you. After all, becoming a Christian makes you a completely different person than your spouse originally married. Marriages do sometimes end when one but not the other becomes a believer, or they can become very unpleasant if the marriage continues with only one of you being a Christian. Why is this in irrational fear? It is an irrational fear for the same reason fearing your friend’s reaction, or fearing your girlfriend’s reaction is irrational. This is your soul’s salvation that we are talking about. Nothing, and no one, is as important for your eternal welfare as the salvation of your soul from sin. Will a man or woman sacrifice an eternal happiness for the sake of a view years of surrender to an obnoxious husband or wife? Sadly, foolishly, irrationally, some do precisely that.

Let me wrap this up with a final example: Some people are not afraid of what their friends might think, what the girlfriend might think, or what the spouse might think should they come to Christ. Some people become terrified, but they are unsure of precisely what it is they are afraid of. All they know is that they are terribly frightened, and their fears are profoundly distracting. So much so that they seem unable to seriously consider the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. Why is that an irrational fear? Is it not irrational to be afraid of salvation, of safety, of security, of peace with God, of deliverance from sin and Hell, just as a dog trapped in a bear trap irrationally snarls and tries to bite the trapper who comes along and tries to set it free? It is irrational, but it happens nevertheless.

What is typically common with each of these examples of irrational fear is the absence of any serious consideration of the facts, an appreciation of the folly of valuing a relationship with a mere mortal more than a relationship with Jesus Christ and with God, and a complete disregard of the consequences of rejecting Jesus Christ. How irrational must it be to reject the One who is the Resurrection and the Life, the only One who saves from sin, the only One who provides peace, security, and fulfillment for all eternity. It was in the face of what I would term his irrational fear that God said to Abram, in Genesis 15.1, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” It was in the face of what I would term their irrational fear that Moses said to the people, in Exodus 20.20, “Fear not: for God is come to prove you.” When Simon Peter was overcome with irrational fear, Jesus said in Luke 5.10, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.” Then, when he was in a storm-tossed ship on his way to Rome, Acts 27.23-24 reveals Paul’s own experience with the wrong kind of fear, as he recounts, “For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, Saying, Fear not, Paul.”

My friend, there is a type of fear that I have labeled irrational fear. It runs contrary to facts and reason. It sometimes comes upon you though situations and circumstances remain unchanged. We are all overcome by such fear from time to time. However, this kind of fear is not healthy, is not beneficial, and can actually impede the progress of God’s work in our lives, so when it comes to this kind of fear, fear not.

 On The Other Hand, THERE IS INSTRUCTED FEAR

 This is the kind of fear that should replace the irrational kind of fear, especially the various kinds of the fear of people (such as the examples I provided) that Jesus warned against. It is the kind of fear that the Apostle Peter commended and commanded in First Peter 2.17, when he wrote, “Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.” It is the kind of fear referred to by the angel in Revelation 14.7, when he loudly says, “Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come.” This kind of fear is different than that referred to by the dictionary, with its anxiety and agitation caused by the presence or nearness of danger and evil. This is the kind of fear that Spurgeon referred to, who I earlier quoted. This is the kind of fear Matthew Henry wrote of: “Of all things that are to be known this is most evident, that God is to be feared, to be reverenced, served, and worshipped; this is so the beginning of knowledge that those know nothing who do not know this.”[5] This is the kind of fear that recognizes that God is no enemy anyone should want to have, that takes into consideration eternal truths such as sin and endless punishment, as well as salvation and eternal bliss. This is the kind of fear that coexists with the kind of reason God calls for in Isaiah 1.18, and the kind of fear that is ignored by the irrational and irreverent, as well as by the selfish and the deluded. This is the kind of fear that pays respect to God’s holiness and majesty, to God’s infinite power and might, to God’s goodness as well as God’s justice, and to God’s mercy and grace. Irrational fear is displeasing to God, but He is well pleased with an instructed fear of Him, granting to the person who fears Him the beginnings of wisdom, the beginnings of knowledge, and the beginnings of understanding. Is there a conflict that exists with God’s love on one hand and the fear of the LORD on the other? On the contrary, the two are most harmonious and complimentary, as with a son who is the beloved of his father, and who loves his father, but who also and at the same time fears sinning against his father, fears disappointing his father, and fears his father’s displeasure.

I have used the term instructed to speak of the fear of God, because God’s plan is for His creatures to be informed and directed by Bible truth so that they fear God and no one else, a fear that is both pleasing to God and useful to His creatures. An instructed fear knows that a man is estranged from God by his sins, and that he is doomed to an eternal punishment in the lake of fire because he deserves the same. An instructed fear knows that God’s wrath awaits those who reject the gospel, but that His mercy and grace are extended to save those who embrace the gospel and come to Jesus, the Savior who provided for so great a salvation by His doing and dying on the cross of Calvary. God works by His Holy Spirit to awaken and alarm the sinner to his precarious situation in this life, and his urgent need to flee to Christ at his earliest opportunity to escape the divine wrath for his sins. Therefore, an instructed fear of God is a fear that recognizes his own guiltiness, and recognizes God’s provision for his salvation. Does the sinner fear God and the certainty of God’s punishment for his sins? He should. What will the sinner whose fear is instructed do? He will flee to safety and refuge for salvation from his sins, he will flee into the arms of Jesus Christ for forgiveness full and free, he will seek God’s remedy because he very appropriately fears God’s wrath and seeks to please God by the means provided in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

An instructed fear will recognize the wisdom of fearing the displeasure of God rather than the displeasure of a friend, the knowledge that the certain wrath of God is a far more worthwhile consideration than the possible disapproval of a girlfriend, the understanding that it is far better for one in a marriage to be reconciled to God through faith in Christ than for two to certainly go to Hell together, and that it is far better to fear and obey God as He is revealed in His Word than to be troubled and distressed by that which is unknown and indistinct. Consider the result of fearing God in a way that pleases Him, after the fashion of His instructions in scripture. In John 14.27, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Once the sinner with instructed fear flees to the safety that can only be found through faith in Christ, he finds himself at peace with God, Romans 5.1. Then, by God’s grace, he also finds himself experiencing the peace of God, Philippians 4.7.

 How is it possible for someone to fear God while loving God, to fear God while knowing the joy of sins forgiven? Is it not a contradiction? It is a contradiction with most men’s conception of God. However, Psalm 2.11 reads, “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” Thus, we see that there is no contradiction whatsoever when the one who is served with fear is the LORD. Consider everyone you have ever feared. Is there not more reason to fear God? Is there not real reason to fear God? To fear displeasing Him? To fear offending Him? To fear incurring His wrath and judgment? Who is anyone you have ever known in comparison with God, that you should fear them or their opinion of anything in comparison to God?

What kind of a person would want for a friend someone whose judgment was so poor that he considered the fear of his friend’s displeasure more than the fear of God’s displeasure? What kind of pathetic woman would want a man whose greatest consideration is her, whose highest prize is her? The advice I give women is to give no second thought to any man who is so small in his considerations that he thinks a woman should be his first concern rather than God. What kind of a man is that? Then, what hope is there for any marriage, what lies in the future of the children that might be raised in that house, if both parents settle for each other’s concerns instead of a healthy and wholesome fear of God? What hope for peace of mind and heart does anyone have who fears the unknown, who fears the fuzzy, who fears the indistinct, who fears fear rather than fearing God?

I say to you that it is a despicable thing to fear a man. It is a despicable thing to fear a woman. It is a despicable thing to fear anything that cannot steal from you your soul. Why so? It is despicable because a man has only so much capacity for fear, and if he fears anything other than God, he will not sufficiently fear God. On the other hand, if he sufficiently fears God he will have little with which to fear anything or anyone else.

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man,” Ecclesiastes 12.13.



[1] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996), page 669.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), Vol. 7, page 279.

[5] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers), Vol. 3, page 793.



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