Fear or Conviction
Have you ever struggled to understand whether you are feeling fear or conviction in your Christian journey? Do you wonder what the difference is between fear and conviction? If so, you are not alone.
Like many others, I at one time struggled to understand the difference between fear and conviction. I was taught that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10). yet I also read in Scripture that God does not give us a spirit of fear, but rather God offers us Love, Joy, and a peaceful, settled mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)
Furthermore, it depends on what Bible translation you read as to whether you’ll see the word conviction in the Bible. (more on that word later) And, while every Christian has heard about the Lord convicting them of their sin, how would we examine what some call personal convictions?Read more: Fear or Conviction?
I used to have personal convictions for things like playing cards and watching television. I was taught to avoid these things so as not to put my relationship with Christ at risk. They were unholy. Others have personal convictions that they came to on their own and hold to themselves.
And then there are high-control and legalistic Christian groups that teach very rigid traditions that often morph over time into heaven or hell issues. Sadly, these fears over so-called convictions can turn into religious traumas that take years to heal, if they fully heal at all.
In this article, I will walk through the differences between Godly fear, convictions, and personal convictions. The goal is to help you determine if what you feel is in God directing your paths or fear placed on you by the traditions of men.
Is this Fear or Conviction I am feeling?
It is important to define what fear and conviction mean so that we can look at Biblical examples and life experiences to compare the two concepts.
First, fear is defined as an intense emotion caused by a belief that someone or something is dangerous and likely to cause pain. Fear is a learned emotion. As I child I learned to fear heights by falling. Or I learned a fear of fire by being burned. And I learned a fear of other people by how they treated me.
Often, healthy and unhealthy fears are taught to us by people in our family and community groups whom we look up to.
When we perceive a threat we experience intense emotional and physiological feelings that may trigger our automatic fight-or-flight response. Intense emotions such as fear, experienced constantly over time can be traumatizing and even detrimental to our health.
Throughout the past seven years, I have corresponded with hundreds of individuals who struggle with ongoing fear. One mother I spoke to who had left a legalistic organization had taken her middle-aged son to see their first baseball game.
Though this mother had been removed from the indoctrination of her former community for several years, words of fear kept circling in her mind. She remembered being taught that if you were in a sports stadium during the rapture you would be lost to an eternal hell. Halfway through the game, the intense fear caused this mother a panic attack. Was this experience fear or conviction?
Fear can be crippling, traumatizing, and unhealthy. If fear drives us to a panic attack it is not the kind of fear we read of in Proverbs 9:10. A Godly fear is one that should drive us towards Him, not to be terrified of punishment.
Secondly, conviction has multiple meanings: its primary use is in legal matters and secondarily the word refers to a strong, intensely held belief. I highlight belief because it is the root of both fear and conviction.
In general, when we are thoroughly convinced of something being true, we hold a conviction about it. I might also correlate a biblical conviction to repentance. When we become intently convinced that our actions are sinful, we turn away from those actions. Not for fear of punishment, but for righteousness’ sake.
It is important to be careful not to confuse biblical commandments with the commandments of men. (Mark 7:7) Legalism is often defined as when individuals and church leaders teach their opinions as commandments of Scripture. When an individual’s personal convictions become a corporate conviction that others must obey, it is a corporate conviction. This often leads to or is symptomatic of cults.
I had many personal convictions as an Oneness Pentecostal. Never wear a T-shirt in public. No movies or television. Nor facial hair. And definitely not shorts! My girls never wore pants. Never wore jewelry. Never went swimming in public. All, I would say, were personal convictions. However, there would be corporate punishment for breaking those personal convictions. So are they really personal convictions?
Biblically speaking there is no teaching about personal convictions. Let’s explore two key Bible passages that mention convictions.
John 16:7-9 states that the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ, will convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. The context here is important:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me;The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 16:7–9.
Contextually this is speaking of non-believers. People who have not placed their faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit can and does expose sin, and judgment to the world. He does this through His Word and His Body.
Also, the Greek word here for convict is elancho, meaning to expose or reprove. In the John 16 passage, I said that God exposes sin, as that is what the word means. In Matthew 18:15 we read of church discipline. The first step was to go to the brother (or sister) who sinned against you. And there, tell him/her their fault.
That word ‘tell’ is also elancho, or convict. In the body, we are to expose faults privately. After that, we expose the sin to two or three witnesses and then publicly.
Finally, in John 8:46 Jesus asks the people, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” Again, this was a very public example where Jesus asked directly who would reprove him of wrongdoing.
This is not to discredit or disprove personal convictions! However, it is important to distinguish whether or not they are biblical, or individual.
It is ok to stand on our own convictions. These are areas of our life we have strong beliefs about. I have very strong convictions about how I raise my family. Or how I perform my work. But I want to conclude by presenting this consideration.
Fear that cripples and traumatizes is not from God. God is not the author of confusion. Godly fear should humble us. It should direct us towards repentance. Ultimately, it should lead us towards loving God.
Additionally, convictions that are attached to the fear of social punishment or disgrace are not godly convictions. Those are corporate convictions. Often called standards. Read my article on Church Standards Vs. Laws to understand more of the difference.
Comparatively, through the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, we may be led to personal convictions. As in Romans 14:22, this faith is particularly personal between the man/woman and God. We need not share it. And we need not enforce it on others lest it becomes a commandment of man. Yet it may be valid and important for us individually.
Someone who struggles with alcohol addiction may avoid gatherings focused on drinking. Their personal convictions are a safeguard to them. In an article by Radiant Bible Church about Godly fear, they called Godly fear a ‘tremendous mercy’ that protects from danger.
I would also recommend reading the Got Questions article on Godly Fear.
Unhealthy fear produces anxiety while healthy fear or convictions protect and produce self-control.
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Ti 1:6–7.