What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?

To modern ears the word “fear” is almost wholly negative. We usually associate it with threat or perhaps with some negative experience like pending punishment or diminishment. And yet, over and over the Scriptures lift up the value of the “Fear of the Lord” and encourage us in this regard. As you may already know or at least suspect, the word “fear” has different senses or meanings.

Distinctions –St. Thomas in the Summa, drawing on the Fathers of the Church as well as ancient philosophy distinguishes different kinds of fear based on the object of that fear. So, to begin there is worldly fear (wherein we fear some evil or threat from the world), and there is human fear (wherein we fear some evil or threat from others) (II IIae 19,2 & 9). Now neither of these fears concern us here since God is not the object of these fears. Our concern here is the “Fear of the Lord,” wherein God is the object of fear.

Now as to the Fear of the Lord, here too a distinction is to be made between servile fear (fear of punishment) and filial fear (whereby a son fears to offend his father or to be separated from him) (II, IIae 19.10) Now it is not servile fear but filial fear that is the Gift of the Holy Spirit and which Scripture commends. Hence, when Scripture says we should “Fear the Lord” it does not mean that we should run and hide because God is going to punish us, but rather that we should receive the the gift of the Holy Spirit wherein we dread to offend God or be separated from him. This, I hope you can see, is a very precious gift. And although the word “fear” tends to elicit negative reactions, I hope to show you that the Biblical world experienced the Fear of the Lord as a very great and highly prized blessing.

But first we have to be clear to emphasize that the fear towards God comes in two ways but only one of those ways is considered the Gift of the Holy Spirit and rightly called “The Fear of the Lord.” Scripture therefore has to be read with some sophistication. It is important to know which kind of fear is being discussed to understand the text. Consider a few examples from the New Testament:

  1. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 Jn 4:18) – Here is described servile fear (fear of punishment). The text teaches us that Love puts sin to death. And, since we no longer sin, we no longer fear punishment. Servile fear of God is not evil or wrong but it IS imperfect since it has to do with the imperfection of sin. Ultimately we are to be free of servile fear and hence it is seen as a negative thing even though it can have some salutary effects. For example, fear of punishment can be a motive to avoid sin. But it is an imperfect motive since it does not come from our love of God but more from our love our self and our comfort or well-being. Servile fear is not therefore commended by Scripture but neither is it condemned.
  2. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, “Abba, Father (Rom 8:15). Notice again that servile fear is something to be freed of. This freedom comes by the Holy Spirit who replaces our servile fear with a filial fear, fear born in love of God that experiences him as Abba. So Holy Fear needs to replace servile fear.
  3. Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the  fear of the Lord. (Acts 9:31) Obviouslyhere,  Holy Fear is described, not servile fear. The early Christians are being encouraged by the Holy Spirit and this elicits in them a Holy Fear, a fear born in love that dreads offending Abba, the Father they love.
  4. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear  God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17) Note again the connection of fear to love. In the context of our love for the brethren we are told to fear the Lord. But the context here clearly suggests that fear is being used as a synonymn for a higher form of love. In other words, as much as we should love the brethren, even more so we should love God and that love is described as the “Fear of the Lord.”

What is the Fear of the Lord? Alright then. But what does it really mean to “Fear  the Lord?” Ah!  I am mindful of the words of St. Augustine when he was asked to describe the inner life of the Trinity. He said, “If you don’t ask,  I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.” In other words, fully defining the Fear of the Lord is problematic since it is deeply tied to love which is also hard to define in a mere words. If I were to define love to you as “a movement of the appetitive will toward a desirable good or person” you might want to strangle me for being such a geek! “Don’t ruin love by defining it like that!” you might say. Words sometimes get in the way. But with that caution in mind let me advance a few thought on the Fear of the Lord.

  1. The Fear of the Lord is rooted in our relationship to God as his adopted Children. As we have already discussed, the Fear of the Lord is not servile fear (having to do with punishment) it is filial fear (the dread of offending or being separated from God).
  2. The Fear of the Lord is rooted in our love for God. We really love God, with all our heart! He is Abba, Papa, Father. He has given us everything and we deeply love and reverence him. The thought of offending him fills us with dread! We cannot bear the thought that we have offended God in any way, we love him too much.
  3. The Fear of the Lord is rooted in our admiration for God. Through this gift of Holy Fear we hold God in awe. We are filled with wonder as we contemplate his glory and all he has done. This wonder and awe, inspire deep respect in us for God and an aversion to offending him. We respect him too much to ever want to mar our relationship with him.
  4. The Fear of God is rooted in our desire for unity with God. Love seeks union. We instinctively know that sin mars the union of love and can even sever it. We thus come to fear sin that creates distance between us and God. Because we desire union with God, the gift of Holy Fear causes us to fear ever losing the intensity of that union.
  5. The Fear of God is rooted in our appreciation for God’s Holiness. God is Holy and the gift of Holy Fear strikes within us a deep awareness of this holiness as well as a deep understanding that we must be made holy before coming into his full presence. The gift of fear helps us to appreciate that we do not simply walk into God’s  presence in the spiritual equivalent of jeans and a T-Shirt. Holy Fear inspires us to be clothed in holy attire, to get ready to meet God. Just as we might bath and wear fine clothes to visit a world leader, we reverence God enough to be robed in righteousness by his grace before we go to meet him. Holy Fear makes us serious about this preparation.

There is more but I must end. I have attached a PDF that reflects on how the Fear of the Lord is portrayed in the Book of Psalms. What is valuable about the Book of Psalms is that it is largely Hebrew poetry. Now in Hebrew poetry the rhyme is in the thought not the sound. Thus, we can learn a lot about what the ancient Jews thought about  by studying the rhyme. If you’d like to do further study or see some of the theme above echoed in the psalms you can view it here: Studying the Fear of the Lord in the Psalms

27 Replies to “What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?”

  1. Seems that from a young age we are taught both the servile and the filial fear in the Act of Contrition: “…and I detest all my sins, because of Your just punishments. But mostly because they offend You, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love…”
    At least the filial is emphasized over the servile.
    Thank you for once again addressing a difficult concept.

    1. Yes, I have always liked the traditional Act of Contrition since it honestly expresses that admixed with perfect contrition is often imperfect contrition. It’s not only honest, but as the Church teaches, even imperfect contrition is sufficient for absolution.

  2. Yes, here we run smack dab into the limitations of language — and the problem of explaining to people that a certain usage of a particular word does not mean what everyone thinks it means, it doesn’t mean what it’s common usage means, but means something else entirely. For example, having to write a big long post (or spend a lot of time explaining it in person) on why “fear of the Lord” does not mean “fear” of the Lord (or being fearful or afraid or terrified), but means something other than what the word “fear” would imply in every other usage of that word.

    In this particular case, although one proper sense of the phrase is that of “filial fear,” defined as “whereby a son fears to offend his father or to be separated from him,” the problem I have (and others no doubt) is that I really would not call that “fear.” I might call that “concern” or “a desire not to offend, etc.,” but I would not call that “fear.” (Perhaps “anxious not to offend, etc.” comes closest to fear, but anxiety is anxiety, not fear.)

    The other sense of “fear of the Lord” (no. 3) comes a little closer — an overwhelming awe and realization of just how great God is and how small we are in comparison, which might provoke a reaction that an observer might call fear-like (I think Pope Benedict in Jesus of Nazareth used the examples of those times when the Apostles fell to the ground when Jesus did something really big, like walk on the water), but that too, I would not consider to be “fear.”

    I guess this is a long way of saying — I wish that somebody in the thousands of years of history had come up with a newer and better word than “fear” to describe what is (misleadingly) called “fear of the Lord.” Whenever you try explaining it to someone, you end up spending most of your time explaining that it does not mean “being afraid of God,” etc. but something else. And if you are lucky, they will not respond with, “well then why do we say ‘fear of the Lord’?”

    Won’t somebody please invent a new word? (Maybe it is less of a problem in the original Hebrew, Greek, Latin, etc.)

    1. A lot of the modern Catechetical materials for children have replaced the traitional “fear of the Lord” with “wonder and awe.” Not sure what I think of that since I like tradition. Nut, as you say, language has a way of moving on and sometimes we have to adapt.

      1. I thought maybe God has been around for eternity and knew how to express himself by now. I also thought he was the same yesterday, today, and forever. I think that when he used Daniel as a prophet and made clear the coming of “Alexander the Greek” (not our version “Alexander the Great”), he knew that the world was going to be speaking Greek by the time Jesus came and that a Greek version of the Old Testament (the Greek Septuagint) would be dominant to the world. I think he made sure the world was consistently referred to as the Greeks throughout the New Testament. And I think the language used in Greek was properly translated as “FEAR”. I think the word you are referring to is respect.

        I live in a world where people constantly say “I respect your opinion” and then continue to do whatever they were going to do. God said to “Love the sinner, hate the sin”. Jesus said you will repay every penny. And for all those who just respect God’s opinion, but don’t “believe and obey”, they will spend eternity separated from God alright, in Hell.

        I don’t think God is playing around. I think Jesus’ sacrifice was a serious solution to a serious problem we have. I think confession and repentance are very serious too. And I think if you just respect God’s loving little opinion and keep on sinning, just wishing you didn’t, you won’t have enough fear of the Lord to seriously attempt to obey Him.

        I don’t care what any early father’s interpretation or input is if it changes the definitions God Himself used through His chosen apostles and His chosen prophets. I believe “fear” means “fear” which leads to respect but does not mean respect.

        1. Ok Henry, I am not sure if you’re responding to a commonet or to the article but I ma not sure anyone is saying fear means merely respect. I agree with you respect has become a watered down word in some aspects. I do recal repsonding to a comment here that some one may have wished for a word that was clearer and more distinct, not needing long explanations. I think it is possible to be sympathetic to this insight but at the some time not call for a replacement of the word for the reasons you state.

          1. Just to add a further comment–and I hope I won’t be flagged for “piling on”–the problem with citing translations of the Greek (or Hebrew or Latin) is that sometimes the words we use to translate them are carried over from earlier years, during which the sense in which we use the terms change. For instance, in The Gallic War, the translation I read commonly has Julius Caesar saying, “Caesar feared that …” where a closer sense-translation might be “Caesar was concerned that …”. Another example that springs to my mind is one brought forth by the late French philosopher Claude Tresmontant, who pointed out in The Hebrew Gospels that the Greek word pistis, which English Bibles translate as faith, doesn’t refer to a blind belief in the unproveable or unknowable but rather an objective acceptance of an established fact. Finally, I remember many modern examples–real and apocryphal–where translators failed to capture the sense of either the language they were translating into or out of, such as the Chinese sign that promised, “Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead.” This is why vernacular translations of Scripture take so long and so many scholars to produce, and why they get revised every couple of decades. I too agree we can’t quite replace “fear” with “respect”. But I also wish English had, among its million words, a better term than “fear” to describe the correct attitude.

          2. Well for the record, just about every English translation I know of, in fact all, translate the Hebrew and Greek as “fear” So as much as you or I might wish for a better word, it seems the trouble is in the Hebrew and Greek. Perhaps we just have toa accept that this what God wants and we’re suppose to wrestle with it.

  3. Thank you for this article. When I was 18 years old I was always asking ‘What do we mean by Fear of Lord?’ With experience I came to learn and experience it. Your article has been of help to me.
    Kind regards.

  4. Msgr, that was just about the best explanation I ever had. Thank you. It is much like the filial fear we had as children of offending our Mothers. We dereaded doing any thing wrong because it made her sad and we loved her enough that we did not want her to be sad or disappointed in us. That to me is very similar the the filial fear we would like to have of God. Indeed it is a Gift and fortunate are those who have it.

    1. I too had some pretty powerful expereinces of perfect contrition toward my mother and agree it is for many the closest we get at a human level too expereincing the fear of the Lord.

  5. My fear is definitely centered around the loss of God in my life. I take confession VERY seriously. If I use the The Lord’s name in vain in any way, I go right to confession, even if I was just there last week or a few days ago. (Admittedly it’s one of my toughest to conquer but I am working on it.) I just can not fathom receiving the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ with mortal sin on my soul. It’s not so much a fear of being damned for that sin, that’s certainly a big part of it, as it is offending God even further and becoming seperated from him. Besides taking the Lord’s name in vain, in my opinion, is the most agregious of all. All other sins are more personal to me. For example, I am greedy so I pursue more wealth. It’s directed at money and acquiring it. Taking the Lord’s name in vain is a strike directly at the Lord, almost like a personal attack, like punching him in the stomach. And I would never do that to anyone important in my life, let alone my true savior and the only one in this world who has never let me down. Everytime I do it I feel like instantly God has left me and until I repent I am no longer receiving his Grace. It is torture to feel that way but it is nothing compared to the feeling of making things right with a good confession. God Bless you Father and thank you for this post. I often end my prayers by saying to the Lord, “I just don’t want to lose you”. And I hope I never will.

  6. In my past I put together a presentation based on information I picked up at a retreat. The subject was Love vs Fear. These were set up as both the basic human emotions and the opposite of each other. Corallary terms to each were set up and shown to be the opposite of each other, God vs Satan, Happiness vs Worry/Despair, etc. When the model was built it was easy to see that a life of love was preferable to a life of fear! Scripture was used thoughout such a 1 John, and Matthew 6.

    Fear of the Lord had to be handled early and carefully. I didn’t have filial love in my vocabulary, but turned to Webster (the dictionary Webster) to come up with “Respect for the Lord. Thank you for making this much easier.

  7. It’s taken me a while to think this over, so I hope the response helps fill the gap and puzzlement expressed by Bender as to the meaning of ‘fear’.
    I don’t believe yet that the concept of ‘reverence’ has been suggested. This might be a help.
    In thinking over my ‘fear’ with respect to myself, I find that I am considering my limitations, either my own, or those that I must be aware of in relation to other people or society generally. After all, I have found in the past that I am really very capable of ‘getting into trouble’, and thus I think it at least expedient, that I fear this happening again.

    I also think that fear is associated with our fear of ‘sin’. For example Kierkegaard wrote a book on faith, called ‘Fear and Trembling’ a term which I think he found in the old Testament, describing the faith situation of Abraham, and how someone in that situation today might be considered a little ‘insane’. So, for Kierkegaard, fear is associated with the existentialist concept of ‘angst’, or ‘anxiety’, which is the modern concept similar to what we refer to as ‘sin’, or going against the ‘limitations’ set by God. This is the reason, primarily, why I am associating the word ‘fear’ with our own sense that we can easily trespass against God or ‘others’, and thus no longer be in reverence, or awe, but overstep our boundaries, and end up in the state of angst, or sin. Thus there would be a polarity in the concept – reverence/awe-(awe also means fear) and fear of being irreverent! That the best I can do. Thanks Msgr. Pope. As usual, a great post.

  8. So I think Fear of the Lord, includes both a servile and a filial fear. The first is a fear of our possibility to trespass against the love held in the filial fear, I would say.
    Like Abraham. I realize why now the son as a possible sacrifice expresses for me this fear of overextension of self. Would Abraham really wanted to sacrifice his son. He must have been in a state of angst, -fear and trembling- but God’s love removed that servile fear and through faith he was able to accept the ram that God had prepared for him to offer up in sacrifice. Just realized this aspect of the story. Sorry if I’m a nuisance. I didn’t comment, until I connected it with the Kierkegaard text, which offered to me some support; and I just realized that yes, I would include servile fear also, within the concept of Fear of the Lord. That’s why I think that fear is the best word to use; it covers the whole gamut from reverence and awe, to fear of trespass and angst. Thanks.

  9. Msgr, I find the ease with which you refer to various teachers in the Church down through the ages impressive. The challenge for me to describe just how that might feel for me. Why don’t I give it a shot? First I realize that I am graced by the presence of God. That means that I am very happy in a deep sort of way involving my whole being. At that point my mission is to be attentive to every detail for this One who is present to me in such an intimate way that I am inclined to forgo the more formal reference, “Father,” in exchange for perhaps the more intimate reference, “Daddy.” I have a sense of constantly being on my toes, which I would equate to “Fear of the Lord.” That means that I have a level of confidence that try as I might, the likelihood that I will mess up is high resulting in distinct unhappiness. I can pray privately for God’s forgiveness, but that lacks a sense of reality. When I pray that prayer for forgiveness with a priest, the priest can help me feel the reality of God’s forgiveness in a way that I do not easily experience on my own. In this way I again experience the closeness of God’s presence. Yes, that is grace. Yes, I have unmerited happiness. In a few words, I suspect that is what you meant.

  10. When we speak of the Fear of the Lord, I think both St. Thomas and the contemporary theologian, John Pieper, would lead us into the conclusion that it is a true fear. Fear not in that it has evil, per se, as its object, but fear that has the consideration that one draws close to that which is so much greater than man, man faces his own destruction in an attempt to become it. Thus, we find ourselves trembling and fearful of God. This forms a threshold, if you will, by which all other gifts, virtues, and merits may pass into man’s heart, mind, and soul. Without true fear, one cannot have either piety or reverence of God. Likewise, by this Fear, the true Fear, we gain wisdom and discernment, for by fear we are able to come closer to Him in the right manner and mode, permitting us, too, to find ourselves in declining sin and evil.

    Peace to you.

    1. Yes, thanks for this. I think there is a tendency in today’s soft world to want to explain away fear so that it is no longer fear at all. But there is, as you say, a real fear involved with fear of the Lord.

  11. Raised in a Southern Baptist church, forced by my parents to be in attendance every time the doors were open and hearing the threat of “hell fire and brimstone” in virtually every aspect of my church experience, I learned at a very early age that “fear the Lord” meant just that. Fear, afraid, scared were all synonyms for one of the many “relationships” I had with the Lord; reverence, awe, respect and gratitude were some of the others….but there was never then nor has there ever since been any confusion in my mind that fearing the Lord meant just that. Fear, be afraid of, tremble in the presence of, what the Lord made happen to unrepentant sinners and be in awe of the grace and glory awarded to those who followed his commandments, loved their neighbor and believed that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, arose on the third day and sits at the right hand of God the Father is what I was taught to believe and what I believe to this day. Fear means fear no matter what spin you put on it in any attempt to water down the complexity and difficulty of living a truly “Christlike” life.

  12. I have always wondered what it mean to FEAR THE LORD. Every time I would read those words in scripture, I would say to myself “why would I fear someone who loves me?” Now I understand the difference between servile and filial fear. Thank you!

  13. Thanks for the explanation. Also, in response to some of the comments, I think that a better word for fear still will not do. Knowledge of the scriptures is only half the battle. Understanding it through experience and insight is the other half.

  14. Thank you, I think I finally more clearly understand what fear actually is. I shouldn’t fear that I will be punished for sinning, but fear leaving God because of my choices, the fear of never getting a chance to meet Him. That is truly something to fear

  15. Which would be a greater fear, being afraid to live for what might come next when you’ve been standing at the brink of it, while at the same time being afraid to die for not knowing what would happen when you do? I’ve been there, and can understand the concept from that stand point. From there, I could understand in retrospect , “he who loves his life will lose it, but he who loses His life on account of Me will find it”…it can’t be understood from one side of the fence and from the Other Side of The River you can look back and wonder how amazingly ignorant you were but for the Grace of God you’ve died and live again entering into The Resurrection Life. His Ways are not our ways and His Thoughts are not our thoughts. For His ways are Higher than our ways and His Thoughts are higher than our thoughts. So in all your way acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths or be forever lost in Darkness, separate in nature from The Light. It’s turned all around, upside down and inside out.

  16. I am a catechist in the Buffalo Diocese. I teach 7th & 8th grade classes. My priest assigned me the task of fully explaining two gifts of the Holy Spirit to my classes. (piety and fear of the Lord) This explanation helps me find the right thoughts and language to explain this great gift from God. Thank you.

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