Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
When we first read this, we might think it means we need to be worried for our eternal future. Even anxious. Maybe even stressed out. Just look at the words!
FEAR – A painful emotion or passion excited by an expectation of evil, or the apprehension of impending danger. Anxiety.
TREMBLE – To shake involuntarily, as with fear, cold or weakness; to quake; to quiver; to shiver; to shudder.
Are there examples in the scriptures where people are told to suffer a painful expectation of impending danger? Yes.
Wherefore, verily I say, let the wicked take heed, and let the rebellious fear and tremble; and let the unbelieving hold their lips, for the day of wrath shall come upon them as a whirlwind, and all flesh shall know that I am God.
But behold, and fear, and tremble before God, for ye ought to tremble; for the Lord redeemeth none such that rebel against him and die in their sins; yea, even all those that have perished in their sins ever since the world began, that have wilfully rebelled against God, that have known the commandments of God, and would not keep them; these are they that have no part in the first resurrection. Therefore ought ye not to tremble? For salvation cometh to none such; for the Lord hath redeemed none such; yea, neither can the Lord redeem such; for he cannot deny himself; for he cannot deny justice when it has its claim.
1 Nephi 22:23
For the time speedily shall come that all churches which are built up to get gain, and all those who are built up to get power over the flesh, and those who are built up to become popular in the eyes of the world, and those who seek the lusts of the flesh and the things of the world, and to do all manner of iniquity; yea, in fine, all those who belong to the kingdom of the devil are they who need fear, and tremble, and quake; they are those who must be brought low in the dust; they are those who must be consumed as stubble; and this is according to the words of the prophet.
Finally, I bid you farewell, until I shall meet you before the pleasing bar of God, which bar striketh the wicked with awful dread and fear. Amen.
When talking about the enemies who oppose the servants who go forth to preach the gospel for the last time, the Lord says:
For when the Lord shall appear he shall be terrible unto them, that fear may seize upon them, and they shall stand afar off and tremble.
Those scriptures all talk about the wicked needing to fear and tremble, which makes sense, there is great impending danger for them. But what about the righteous? Does God expect the righteous to have a painful expectation of evil? Is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ that we have anxiety about impending danger for the rest of our lives? If so, why did the Master say the opposite?
Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
According to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary:
In scripture, fear is used to express a filial or a slavish passion. In good men, the fear of God is a holy awe or reverence of God and his laws, which springs from a just view and real love of the divine character, leading the subjects of it to hate and shun every thing that can offend such a holy being, and inclining them to aim at perfect obedience. This is filial fear. Slavish fear is the effect or consequence of guilt; it is the painful apprehension of merited punishment.
Fear for the righteous is awe and reverence for God that leads them to shun everything that can offend God. Many modern English translations will use worship instead of fear to better convey the correct meaning. What about trembling?
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
Rejoice with trembling? Like, be so happy that you can’t sit still? That would mean we serve the Lord with awe and reverence, and jump for joy. That doesn’t sound like a gospel of anxiety, that sounds like a gospel of love. Not a gospel of apprehension or dread, but a gospel of hope.
Because Paul was talking to righteous Saints when he told them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, it’s most likely that he meant “work out your salvation by serving God and rejoicing.” Here are some more scriptures from the Old Testament (the scriptures Paul had as a reference) that tell us how the righteous should “fear”:
I am a companion of all them that fear thee, and of them that keep thy precepts.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:
That thou mightest fear the Lord thy God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command thee, thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son, all the days of thy life; and that thy days may be prolonged. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the Lord God of thy fathers hath promised thee, in the land that floweth with milk and honey. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
Here is what some of Paul’s contemporaries wrote about fearing God:
A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always.
Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear:
And here’s what Paul himself wrote:
2 Corinthians 7:1-2
Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. Receive us; we have wronged no man, we have corrupted no man, we have defrauded no man.
Fear for the righteous doesn’t mean dread, it means respect, love, and awe. It means keeping God’s commandments, which is what the righteous do. If the righteous are supposed to have a painful apprehension of merited punishment, why did Christ say the opposite?
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.
These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.
It wasn’t just Jesus that told the righteous they need not have anxiety.
1 John 4:15-18
Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.
I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Paul himself wrote:
2 Timothy 1:7
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
Yes, for those living in wickedness, punishment awaits them. But our message to them should not be repentance to avoid punishment. It should be on the benefits of turning to God. The joy, peace, and happiness that comes from accepting Christ. For those who have accepted Christ and are trying to obey him as they understand his will for them, the gospel is supposed to be joyful, not dreadful.
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
For those that come unto Christ, the yoke is easy. We still have to do the work, be when we take his yoke upon us the burden is light. He did not say “Come unto me, and have depression and anxiety that you’ll never be good enough, and worry whether I will accept you or not.” The wicked have reason to fear. The righteous have reason to rejoice.
1 Nephi 22:22-23
And the righteous need not fear, for they are those who shall not be confounded. But it is the kingdom of the devil, which shall be built up among the children of men, which kingdom is established among them which are in the flesh—For the time speedily shall come that all churches which are built up to get gain, and all those who are built up to get power over the flesh, and those who are built up to become popular in the eyes of the world, and those who seek the lusts of the flesh and the things of the world, and to do all manner of iniquity; yea, in fine, all those who belong to the kingdom of the devil are they who need fear, and tremble, and quake; they are those who must be brought low in the dust; they are those who must be consumed as stubble; and this is according to the words of the prophet.
In parting, let’s remember the whole reason Christ came.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned.