There are three kinds of fear. It’s an emotion we all know well, and in recent weeks, it’s one that has asserted itself in our minds and hearts. We fear both ourselves and loved ones catching the virus. We fear what will happen to our finances because of lost wages. We fear how long our life will be put on hold. We fear all the unknowns that lie ahead. And all these fears are exacerbated every time we turn on the news or scroll through social media. Fear, it seems, has spread as far and wide as the virus itself.
In the face of this crisis, how can we as Christians respond to our fears? It’s helpful to first identify the three kinds of fear found in Scripture, one of which is not like the others.
Three Kinds of Fear
The Puritan, John Flavel, describes these three kinds of fear in his book, Triumphing Over Sinful Fear. The first is natural fear. It’s the fear we feel in the face of danger, such as hearing a tornado warning on the news, coming upon a bear on the mountain trail, or learning of a viral pandemic spreading across the nation. Such fear is a natural and human response to harm. It’s what gets us to leave a building ablaze with fire. Flavel wrote,
“Everyone experiences natural fear. It is the trouble or agitation of mind that arises when we perceive approaching evil or impending danger. It is not always sinful, but it is always the fruit and consequence of sin.”
Our natural fears are the result of life in a post-fall world.
The second of the kinds of fear is sinful fear. Flavel describes this fear as arising from unbelief, “an unworthy distrust of God. This occurs when we fail to rely upon the security of God’s promises; in other words, when we refuse to trust in God’s protection.”  Sinful fear grips and rules our hearts. It governs our choices and directs our energies and affections. It draws us to false idols in the hopes they will rescue and save us. It’s a fear that becomes a pattern in our lives, an immediate response to difficult circumstances. It’s the kind of fear that distracts us and keeps us from resting and trusting in God and his great love for us.
In terms of our current situation, we’ve all felt natural fear as we’ve heeded warnings and taken necessary precautions to protect ourselves and loved ones from harm. At times, we’ve likely felt sinful fear as we’ve worried about the unknown future. It’s the fear that makes us want to acquire and hoard. This fear also plays itself out in our mind with all the thoughts of “what if____?” — replayed over and over like a record set on repeat. Over these weeks, we may have even felt an intermingling of both these fears.
But there’s one more kind of fear which Flavel writes about, and that is the fear of the Lord. This fear is holy and other. It is not a terror-fear as we might feel in the face of a raging storm, but a fear rooted in a filial love for the God who adopted us as his beloved children and rescued us from sin. It is a fear that is filled with awe, wonder, reverence, worship, and love for our great God. As Flavel says, this fear is “our treasure, not our torment.”
Throughout the Bible, we are called to fear the Lord (Deut. 6:24, Ps. 34:9, Acts 9:31). The fear of the Lord isn’t something that comes naturally to our fallen nature; rather, it is a fear implanted in us by God himself. “And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (Jeremiah 32:40). What grace! God calls us to fear him, and then gives us a holy fear of him.
The fear of the Lord is a fear that sees God as greater than all other fears. And, as the Bible teaches, it is the antidote to all our lesser fears.
Matthew 10 and a Greater Fear
In Matthew 10, after Jesus had called all the disciples to follow him, he prepared to send them out to preach that the kingdom of God was at hand. He told them to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons. He warned them that some would listen to them and some would reject their teaching. He also warned them of future persecution where they would be hated and beaten and brought to trial. It is amid these warnings that he also taught them about the fear of the Lord:
“What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (vv. 27-31).
This passage teaches that a fear of the Lord weakens our lesser fears. The disciples were to replace their fear of harm from man with a fear of the Lord. While man might very well harm them physically, even to the point of death, it is God who held the power over the destination of their souls. He is the sovereign One who knows all the hairs on their head. He cares for them more than the creatures he watches over each day. God is the one whom they were to fear.
The Bible teaches us that when we are fearful, we are to replace that fear with a greater fear, a holy fear of the Lord. We do so as well dwell on who God is and what he has done. We do so as we focus on God’s character: His sovereignty, holiness, righteousness, goodness, and faithfulness. We do so as we remember all he has done for us in Christ, when he conquered our greatest fear—eternal death and separation from him—at the cross. We do so as we relish and cherish all his promises for us. In the face of a holy fear, our lesser fears weaken; they lose their grip on us.
As this crisis continues, we will likely face more fears. When these fears arise, may we cry out to the One who gives us a holy fear of him. May we look to him and see him as greater than all our fears.
Note: This piece is inspired by Christina’s book, A Holy Fear: Trading Lesser Fears for the Fear of the Lord, published with Reformation Heritage Books.
 Flavel, John. Triumphing Over Sinful Fear (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2011), p.8.
 Ibid, p. 12.
 Ibid, p. 19.
This article about three kinds of fear originally appeared here.