Fear is an unpleasant feeling caused by the anticipation of a negative event (Oxford English Dictionary). We feel sadness when something bad has already happened; we feel fear when we think something bad is going to happen .
Near the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi and his brothers find themselves in a treacherous situation. They have retrieved the brass plates and are standing outside the walls of Jerusalem with Zoram, the servant of a man who tried to kill them. Zoram is afraid that they will harm him. They are afraid he will inform others of their location. Nephi swears that Zoram will not be harmed if he stays with them. Zoram swears to remain with them. These oaths, solemn promises which constrain their future decisions, eliminate their fears (1 Nephi 4:30-37).
Just as Book of Mormon prophets feel sorrow for the sins and suffering of others, they also feel fear for the potential future suffering of others:
- After experiencing a dream in which two of his sons refused to receive God’s blessings, Lehi “feared exceedingly” for them (1 Nephi 8:4, 36).
- Lehi’s son Jacob was motivated to preach to his people because of his “anxiety for the welfare of [their] souls,” and even worried that he would do a poor job because of his “over anxiety” for them (2 Nephi 6:3, Jacob 2:3, Jacob 4:18).
- Alma told the people of Ammonihah that he felt “great anxiety even unto pain,” and urged them to repent.
These feelings of fear on behalf of another person can motivate us to provide warnings and advice. And because they are motivated by love, those feelings are good. Just as disciples of Christ “mourn with those that mourn,” they also fear for those who are likely to mourn in the future.
But we should be careful to ensure that our fears are well-founded. Many passages from the Book of Isaiah quoted by Nephi are intended to calm our irrational fears. “Fear not, neither be faint-hearted,” Isaiah said to Ahaz (2 Nephi 17:4). And to all of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, he said not to react when others are panicking: “neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid” (2 Nephi 18:12). The prophet had assured them that God would deliver them, so fear was no longer useful to them. (See 1 Nephi 22:17, 22.)
When the people of Alma were threatened by a Lamanite army, Alma counseled them “that they should not be frightened, but that they should remember the Lord their God, and he would deliver them.” In response to this counsel, the people “hushed their fears, and began to cry unto the Lord” (Mosiah 23:27-28). On this occasion, their fears were justified but were not leading to productive action. By reducing their level of fear, they were able to overcome their initial paralysis and begin to take meaningful actions, beginning with prayer.
What does it mean to fear God? The people of King Benjamin fell to the earth when “the fear of the Lord came upon them.” They recognized their own “carnal state,” and they knew that they needed God’s saving power. As Benjamin observed, they had become aware of their “nothingness” compared with God (Mosiah 5:1-2, 5).
Elder David A. Bednar has taught that the fear of God is different from other kinds of fear:
Unlike worldly fear that creates alarm and anxiety, godly fear is a source of peace, assurance, and confidence….
Godly fear is loving and trusting in Him. As we fear God more completely, we love Him more perfectly. And “perfect love casteth out all fear” (Moroni 8:16). I promise the bright light of godly fear will chase away the dark shadows of mortal fears (see D&C 50:25)” (“Therefore They Hushed Their Fears,” General Conference, April 2015).
Today, I will remember the roles of fear taught in the Book of Mormon. When I fear for the well-being of others (or of myself), I will take appropriate action. But I will strive to ensure that my fears are based on reason. And I will ultimately remember that my fear (reverence) for God can help me manage and even overcome my worldly fears.