How is it possible to fear God and love God at the same time? And how are both commanded of Christians? For most of us, fearing something would usually be an adverse reaction to something that makes us hesitant to approach the object of our fear.
The specific terminology appears as early as Genesis 20, where Abraham laments the lack of ‘fear of God’ while traveling in Gerar. But perhaps one of the most illustrative passages demonstrating this ‘different fear’ is in Exodus 20:20. There, Moses is speaking to the Israelites after just having given then the Ten Commandments. ‘Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”‘ (Emphasis added) In that sentence, fear is used twice, and it would be very odd if it meant the same thing in both instances! The first use of the word is the way we typically understand the word fear, so it’s the second use of the word that we’re interested in.
Let’s go back to our early English classes and remember that context clues can help us figure out the meaning here. Why was it desired for the fear of God to be in the Israelites? So that they may not sin. But this is not fear in the usual sense, rather something else.
Deuteronomy 6 clinches the meaning. Moses is to tell the Israelites that the greatest commandment is given so that they may fear the Lord their God ‘by keeping all his statutes and all his commandments’. The greatest commandment? ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’. This is cited by Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27). In this verse, love is an element of fearing God. In Exodus, not sinning is a result of fearing God. Tying the two together, we arrive at a definition that goes something like this: To be a God-fearing individual is one who respects and loves God, following His commandments.
Here, respect means that God has a rightful place in your heart as your Creator, accompanied by the knowledge that this has real consequences for your life. For example, one consequence is knowing that sin is something to be avoided, and repented from when it occurs. God is righteous and saves those who are faithful, but also judges those who are not. With the gospel promises (John 3:16 among them), believers have no reason to be scared of God. We know we are assured of our salvation, and we willingly approach God, praising Him all the while.
GotQuestions on fearing God