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 because we love 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 overall, 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, a fear born in love of God that experiences him as Abba, a fear whereby he hold God is awe. 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) Obviously here, 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 and hold in awe.
  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 synonym 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 then is the Fear of the Lord? What does it really mean to “Fear the Lord?” Mindful that something as deeply rooted in love as the Fear of the Lord is, words alone cannot fully describe the experience of fearing the Lord, 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 who is our loving Father).
  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 cutting our self off from 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 bathe 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. We get ready to go and meet a God who we love and hold in awe. We know he is holy and so we strive to receive the holiness with out which none of us can see God (cf Heb 12:14)

Scripture in the Wisdom Tradition and especially in the Psalms lays out a very through description of the Fear of the Lord. Since the data is extensive I cannot put it all here in the post, but 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 the Fear of the Lord, 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.

Briefly here are some of the themes explored in the PDF. The fear of the Lord is: reverential joy, stable delighting in the Law of God as a sure just guide, the joy of reverential praise, being open to instruction by God, delighting in God’s revelation, experiencing hope and God’s unfailing love, his deliverance and providence. The Fear of the Lord is to experience an undivided heart, to experience God’s greatness and glory, His compassion and righteousness, His wisdom and power. The Fear of the Lord is experience delight in the commands of God, to keep them, in trust and in love.  Each of these statements is drawn from the psalms and the PDF lists the verses that spell these qualities out, qualities of the Fear of the Lord.

28 Replies to “What Does it Mean to Fear the Lord?”

  1. When we need to go to such extensive lengths to say that “fear” does not really mean fear, as it is commonly understood, when a word has become so laden with alternate meaning as to cause confusion if use is continued, perhaps it is time to find a better word to translate the original.

    In a faith that seeks understanding, maybe there is a place for dynamic equivilence in translation after all.

      1. I recognize that fundamental Catholic words needs explanation in our modern. However, I see that as all the more reason to not have dynamic equivalences. In the short term, I think new words would be useful, but in the long term, I feel it is best to use the same words in the same unchanging ways because the truth reviewed by those words are unchanging. If we use Red today, Rust tomorrow, Rose the following week, and Crimson the next month. When historians go through they would need 4 explanations instead of one to show the equivalence of each of the word in the context it is used. Therefore there are 4 times the number of ways people can misunderstand the teachings of the Catholic Church over time. Lastly, if two scholars use two different words because they are talking about different time periods, there will be great confusion. Let’s say Red today means the color red and Rust means the oxidation of iron. Tomorrow Rust is the more “accurate” description of the color red and Red is a reference to a type of lipstick brand. There will be great confusing for one scholar to use Red and another to use Rust to argue over the same teachings.

        By having an authoritative use of words in an authoritative source, all future inquiries can go back to the original text. At the same time modern explanations can be done for the words without changing them.

        1. I tend to agree with Joseph. The Greeks had several different words that today are all represented by our one word “love,” but that is our language…I think it is useful, even if there is potential for misunderstanding, that a single word can have several meanings. It also aids literary forms such as poetry.

      2. This is the first time that I’ve really seen a good explanation of the “Fear of the Lord”… it has not been well explained to me by others that I have asked about it, and I am instinctively repelled by the traditional sense of fear, as I can’t imagine any parent who truly loves their children leading them through the fear of punishment and not inspire them with love.

        It doesn’t feel to me that the primary purpose of the Bible is for historians to uncover as archaeologists, but instead I believe it is to inspire the everyday man with righteousness and the love for God. If the bible can be translated into different languages like Spanish, French, Hindi, Chinese, Russian, etc. so that all people can better understand it, it should be translated into the vernacular for each culture. Historians and archaeologists can figure it out … they need something to occupy their time anyway.

        If the everyday man is to misinterpret the words, the influence of the bible will be greatly diminished. In this case, perhaps nothing much will be left for historians to decipher.

  2. Thank you, I never reliazed what they meant to fear God. I always thought I was supposed to afraid of His wrath and I never have feared Him in that way. Besides nobody kicks me in the pants more than myself when I fail and I find myself crawling to Him on my knees crying and beggng for forgiveness and strength.

    It seems (and this is a personal self observation) that I need to be free of sin in order to maintain a feeling of self worth. When I feel worthy I can feel His love for me in the form of (I think) the Holy Spirit. So your exacly dead on, I don’t want to loose that feeling of His love. At that is what I fear.

    Just the ramblings of an uneducated sinner.

    1. Hi Kevin,

      From what I understand, our worth is not from what we do or don’t do. That’s has more to do with our state in life and state in holiness. Instead our worth is ever present because God ever-loves us.

      At the same time, because we recognize that great love God has for us, we really can kick ourselves when we fail to live up to the love. We aren’t worthless. We are in Sin. Which is horrible, but God is still with us and is waiting to run down the hill to give us a hug and put the ring back on our fingers if we start heading home instead of spinning in circles with worry and doubt.

      1. I’m kinda confused in that what we do or don’t do seems to be joined at the hip to our state of holiness. But I totally get you when you say our worth is ever present to God. At any rate, I think my best course of action is to just stay on the farm, do my work and not put my Father in a position where He has to await my return.

        In my RCA class last week the Father gave a lecture on that very text of the prodigal son you alluded to. Normally it’s a Sister that does the teaching so this was a special day. But the Father said something that just blew me away. He said that it is very hard to live a life without sin but…it can be done.

        My conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism has been full of surprises.

  3. In CCD, I ask my students “Who here wants to be the one who makes make their mom cry?” When none of them raise their hand, I ask them why, and two things always get mentioned. One response is that they do not want to get punished for making their mom cry. The other response is that they love their mom and so do not want to see her hurt. It seems to make for a good introduction into discussing “Fear of the Lord”, as well as some other topics.

    As for Bender’s idea, I am torn between the ideas of ‘reclaiming the language for God’ or developing different language. For example, do we point out that ‘homophobia’ is a misnomer because it implies over-reaction and/or an irrational fear, when it reality it is most times (excluding bullying, etc) a proper and rational fear? Or do we leave the term alone and try to construct a response that more realistically expresses what we believe? Or both?

    1. Dennis,
      I don’t understand how you are applying the concept of “fear” as proper and rational in the context of homosexuality. Perhaps word choice is important there.
      I find it interesting in this discussion of how to understand “fear” that you use the “mom” analogy to demonstrate a relationship with God rooted in love. Often a masculine image can be seen as distant and rough, and cause only a sense of the “servile” fear Msgr referred to, but the feminine image seems to convey to your class more of a sense of love and devotion. I wonder if we would be allowed (in our culture) to ask “Who wants to make their dad cry?” I’m guessing the opnly way to phrase it would be “Who wants to provoke the anger of their father?”…

  4. Bender,
    While I can loosely “agree” with your sentiment regarding dynamic equivalence. I think the very “act” of walking through the “understanding” of the “Fear of the Lord” has greater effect. And I also believe that even in day to day conversation words that everyone knows the “meaning” of – from time to time – mean different things to different people. It’s the heart-to-heart communication that has the best chance of communicating understanding – IMHO – which is text speak for – In My Humble Opinion … 🙂

  5. I agree 100% with Bender and I would ask Msgr. Pope his thoughts on why servile fear, a term I’ve never heard of before, was all that was inculcated into us Catholics when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties?

      1. Not sure, Michael but I do think the balance was a bit off, especially given the over-reaction of the 1970s beige Catholicism, aka “do no harm” Catholicism. It seems clear that the often fear based catechesis of the 1950s was radically cast overboard by the children of the 50s and early 60s. Why it was taught this way is not known to me.

  6. I think your distinctions are quite well made; fear in this case almost becomes a positive, an “awe.” I somewhat agree that the dynamic evolution of language has *almost* rendered fear an inappropriate word, immediately evoking the idea of the terror of divine punishment, but that is a difference matter. Such a connotation makes fear quite negative, even to the point of making us cowardly. With the proper qualifications, however, it can be rendered into something quite different: it is a corollary to love, an afterthought or conclusion rather than a premise. All fear is born from love, since we only fear separation us from something we love. And since that fear ought to be in proportion to our love for God, it is in some sense the only fear that matters.

    1. It may take the experience of seriously offending a loved one, and being unquestionably at fault, to really drive the concept home…there truly are few things more terrifying…and when it happened I was a complete mess until I was sure of forgiveness.

  7. “Holy Fear” to me is proper reverence, the idea that one not get too “chummy” with the divine, tremendous, mysterious aspects of God…I can claim to be friends with my dad as an adult, but as a child I wouldn’t have gone to him and said “Hey [first name], what’s up?” (Actually, I probably still wouldn’t do that.) God is Father, but He remains God.

  8. Thank you for that explanation on what it means to fear God. I have read many opinions and explanations on the subject and I got the most understanding from this site. Thank you!

  9. I too really appreciate this explanation. I received much from it. Will there be a filial fear of God in heaven? (I hope I can express the reason I think this question is relevant here.) If a filial fear is associated with the fruit of a godly life, which is well argued on this page using scripture, then a fear of displeasing our Father and being separated from Him is a proper meaning in the context of a godly life. Unless there is a means of actually being separated from God in heaven, which I see nowhere taught and don’t believe myself, then the fear of God is no longer a characteristic of saints in heaven. (This being similar to the way faith will no longer be necessary in heaven since God will no longer be “unseen” in a Hebrews 11:1 sense.)
    The real reason I ask the question is this: If this filial fear of God is a very high form of godliness on this side of heaven, then is it not an experience that requires that we be sinners in some sense every moment on this side of heaven. Is it not rooted in the only thing in this world that could separate us from God and displease Him, namely our sin? If this is true, then we are left with two possibilities: either sin is never fully removed from our experience fully in this world and thus there is always a need to fear God, or sin can be fully removed from our experience in this world and therefore there is no longer a need to fear God. I would presume the first of these to be the case. I’m chasing a bit of a rabbit here, but I think it does speak at the heart of why even a filial fear of God is necessary even for those who are in Christ on this side of heaven. (Is anyone still out there finding this great page in 2012 as I did?)

  10. This is a good post. Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Knowledge. Humility is fear of the Lord, which by inference is that awareness that “I am nothing without Christ”. can only be “Known” through a direct Experience with The Father, as in the Divine Kabod. Reverential Awe and Respect and really any words will never fully grasp the concept without having first experienced His Kabod, then it can be understood. And in some ways, yes, it is almost ‘scary’ but frighteningly awesome beyond words which does make Fear of the Lord appropriate. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of the Knowledge of God, the knowledge of God is wisdom and with wisdom comes understanding and within that context the Scriptures are then more fully understood. Feat of The Lord is also the feat one would have in be afraid they would lose that which we love the most of all. Keeping Him fresh and foremost and Trusting Him is feat of the Lord as only can one be vulnerable and willing to Trust that which is Hopeful which is Faith. Remaining in His Mystery of never seeing His Face but fully Trusting is also a Fear of The Lord. The Sense of “Knowing” I think can be better understood through the Hebrew lexicon YADA.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing. It is evident that this is God breathed!!!! It is beyond helpful!!! Keep on listening to The Lord and being a light!!!

    1. I feel disconnected from Fr Barron on this issue as well. Nevertheless his work for the Church is a great one that few of us can deny. He remains a great evangelizer

  12. One thing I disagree with in the second video is when it says, “And I know that when he sees me it won’t be beauty that he longs to hold.” This is ridiculous. God made women beautiful. And IT WILL be beauty that he longs to hold, and it will be the love that he finds in her heart too. It is just too bad that so many things in life are just not well thought out, like this song. This foolish sentiment, that the husband does not care about how his wife looks and does not long for her physical body is just that, foolish.

  13. Luke 12:5
    New International Version (NIV)
    5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

  14. Thank you very much for this discussion about “fear of the Lord”. I have been researching on what the Bible says about making good decisions, and Proverbs 1:7 seems to establish the foundation – “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. My thinking before I read this post was, while it might be relatively easier for somebody who has been walking with God to make decisions out of love for Him, it would be more unlikely for somebody who has not been following God to make decisions out of love. But even such a person could probably see the painful consequences of not following God’s commands, and that might be enough to stop him on his tracks – and look for a way back. Admittedly, he might be motivated more by self-interest (avoidance of painful consequences), but I believe God meets us wherever we are.

  15. As an Evangelical I find the article very excellent and illuminating. It is also a correct view and I commend the Msgr. Charles Pope for a great explanation.

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