It is a “blessed confusion,” made of sweet tears, in which God’s kindness shown to you at the cross makes you weep at your wickedness. You simultaneously repent and rejoice. His mercy accentuates your wickedness, and your very wickedness accentuates his grace.
The Heart’s Inclinations
The fear of God is not a state of mind you can guarantee with five easy steps. It is not something that can be acquired with simple self-effort. The fear of God is a matter of the heart.
How easily we can mistake the reality of the fear of God for an outward and hollow show! As Martin Luther put it: “To fear God is not merely to fall upon your knees. Even a godless man and a robber can do that.”1Scripture presents the fear of God as a matter of the heart’s inclinations. So, reads Psalm 112:1,
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who greatly delights in his commandments!
The one who fears the Lord, then, is not merely one who grudgingly attempts the outward action of keeping the Lord’s commandments. The one who truly fears the Lord greatly delights in God’s commandments!
The fear of God as a biblical theme stops us from thinking that we are made for either passionless performance or a detached knowledge of abstract truths. It shows that we are made to know God in such a way that our hearts tremble at his beauty and splendor. It shows us that entering the life of Christ involves a transformation of our very affections, so that we begin actually to despise—and not merely renounce—the sins we once cherished, and treasure the God we once abhorred.
This is why singing is such an appropriate expression of a right, filial fear. “Clap your hands, all peoples!” cry the sons of Korah in Psalm 47;
Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared. (Ps. 47:1–2; see also Ps. 96:1–4)
In fact, the fear of the Lord is the reason Christianity is the most song-filled of all religions. It is the reason why, from how Christians worship together to how they stream music, they are always looking to make melody about their faith. Christians instinctively want to sing to express the affection behind their words of praise, and to stir it up, knowing that words spoken flatly will not do in worship of this God.
How Hearts Change
Since the fear of God is a matter of the heart, how you think you can cultivate it will depend on how you think our hearts work.
Take, for example, Martin Luther. He grew up believing that if you work at outward, righteous acts, you will actually become righteous. However, his experience soon proved that wrong. In fact, he found, trying to sort himself out and become righteous by his own efforts was driving him into a profoundly sinful fear and hatred of God. An outward appearance of righteousness he could achieve, but it would be nothing more than a hollow sham.