Fearing God is a difficult concept for us to understand. We know that God is loving and compassionate and merciful so fearing a God like that sounds backwards. 1 John 4:18 even says that "perfect love casts out fear" and that there is "no fear in love."
How can we reconcile these things?
I think the key (at least for me) is to think of these concepts relationally rather than characteristically.
In other words, instead of interpreting the idea of "fearing God" as a desciption of God (i.e. God is scary), I need to see it in the context of who God is and how I relate to Him.
So, God is loving and merciful and compassionate. God is also righteous and just, perfect and holy. There is nothing inate about these characteristics that would make me fear God. Yet when I put myself in the picture, fear can easily sneak in. When Peter recognized Jesus' deity he told Christ to get away from him because he was a sinner. God's holiness is scary because it causes us to recognize our imperfection.
WHY WE FEAR GOD
For an imperfect analogy consider this: you are going to try out for a singing competition for which there will be only one winner. The first contestant sings and their performace gives you a renewed confidence. Why? Because you listened to them and judged their abilities. You decided that you would do better than they did and that made you feel better about your chances to win. There is another contestant before you. This singer nails it. They hit every note with perfect pitch and inflection. How are you feeling now? Their perfection makes you acknowledge the areas in which you fall short.
Jesus says that evil hates the light because light exposes evil deeds (John 3:19-21).
When prophets of old encountered God they fell flat on their faces and trembled. They were gripped with fear. Meeting God exposes every ounce of imperfection within us and that is scary because He is also the judge of the world. God is almighty.Even complete knowledge of all of God's goodness and mercy cannot curb this reaction.
This is why we try to hide. It is why when my son has done something he knows is bad or wrong he tries to either conceal it or hide himself. It is why Adam and Eve tried to hide from God in the garden.
God is mysterious.There is a mystery about God and we tend to fear what we do not know. Proverbs 9:10 is insightful here: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
FEARING GOD IS A GOOD START
The Bible lets us know that how we begin our journey is not how we will end it. God is transforming us, His Holy Spirit is sanctifying us. As spiritual beings we should always be growing and maturing in Christ. This is true for individuals and whole people groups. Galatians 3:24 tells us that the Law was a tutor that would lead us to Christ. When Christ came, there was no longer a need for the tutor. When the new covenant was established, the old covenant became obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).
So Proverbs tells us on more than one occassion that fearing the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear is not the goal, it is not the finish line, it is where we start.
FEAR AND LOVE
Let's look at fear and love quickly. Fear is, in this context, very selfish. I should obey they Lord because I fear His wrath. That is not a wrong reason to obey, but it is selfish. I do what is right for my own good. I will do what is right because it saves me and preserves my life.
Love, on the other hand, is unselfish. Love can be sacrificial. I will do what is right, even if there are consequences, because I love God and want to please Him. You see how the target of pleasure has switched from "me, me, me" to God? When I get to know God (Pr 9:10) I will gain understanding of who He is and how He will act. His perfect love is expressed as His Son being sacrificed for my sins. If I can perfectly love Him, I will obey His every command. Now, even sinful me can have confidence in approaching God because the blood of His son covers me and washes away all sin and imperfection. When perfect love is present, there is no room for fear.
I read another proverb today: A servant pampered from youth will turn out to be insolent (29:21)
And how about this famous verse, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him."
As a father I know that it is good that my son fears me. When I come home from work he is the first one at the door, welcoming me with a hug or something exciting to tell me about. He does not run and hide and cry when I return. Yet he fears me and I discipline him and these are good things. If he had no fear,he would have no reason to listen to me or obey. No reason except for love. Though I am sure that he loves me, his love is immature. His little mind has a hard time piecing together that obedience is an act of love. As he grows and matures his love will mature and gradually replace fear.
So YES, the least we can do is fear God, but may we all have the goal of a perfect and mature loving relationship with our Maker and Creator!
Fear the Lord - beginning of wisdom (Pr 1:7, 9:10)
Know the Holy One - understanding (Pr 9:10)
Trust the Lord - blessing, prosperity, safety (Pr 16:20; 28:25; 29:25)
Love the Lord - obedience (Deut 11:1; John 14:15)