Coming to a deeper understanding of the Fear of the Lord

In the last two weeks, I have received several requests to explain the “Fear of the Lord.” In the post where I wrote on Hell, some were dismissive of the concept (a doctrine of the Church) as being too severe. Others supported it and thought we had “lost any notion of the Fear of the Lord.” the following week when I wrote on the love of God, some thought me guilty of a soft, mushy of God and thought I offended against the fear the of the Lord. But I do not think fear and love are opposed.

Since the notion has come up several times in the last two weeks, it may be helpful to present this reflection on the biblical notion of the Fear of 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.

20 Replies to “Coming to a deeper understanding of the Fear of the Lord”

  1. The problem of “church speak.”

    Part of the problem for us is that scripture does NOT speak of “fear of the Lord.” That is, scripture was not written in English, and neither was the Summa. And it is that translation of the original Hebrew/Greek/Latin words into the English word “fear” that is contributing to the misunderstanding. Because, sorry to say, despite some valiant efforts, continued explanations of “fear” in this usage are like trying to ram a square peg into a round hole — it simply does not fit without twisting and distorting the word. The English word “fear” simply cannot be reasonably disassociated with terror and distress.

    Besides, it is quite reasonable to conclude that if “fear of the Lord” did not mean “fear of the Lord,” but actually meant “fear of offending the Lord” and/or “fear of being separated from the Lord,” then scripture would say these latter two phrases, but it does not. Rather, it says “fear of the Lord” period, without the qualifications. Thus, if it is to mean something than what it actually says, then the English word “fear” is the problem and it must go.

    According to a cursory look at the Latin version of the Bible at New Advent, the Latin word is “timor” or “timore” or “timete,” accounting for the different tenses of Latin. Now, there is, in fact, an English word that is fairly close and likely derived from the Latin — timorous.

    Perhaps, as with “one in being,” we ought to simply jettison the word “fear”?

    Of course, then the question arises, what does “timorous” mean? And it is true that some of the definitions include variations on “fear” and “dread,” but it seems to me that the closest definition to what we are speaking of here is “timid,” which again is close in spelling and sound to the Latin “timor,” etc.

    The word “timid” has the related meanings of “respectful awe” and “meek” and “unassertive” and “humble” and “submissive,” which is the attitude we should have before the Lord. The antonyms of “timorous” and “timid” likewise describe what we should NOT be before the Lord, namely, brazen and audacious and impertinent and insolent and presumptuous and arrogant.

    So, get rid of the church speak “fear.” And take up instead the church speak “timorous.”

    1. Although I fully accept the use of ‘consubstantial’, I do think ‘one in being’ is unfairly maligned. I think the reason most people, me included, have trouble with the phrase ‘fear of the Lord’ has more to do with our fallen nature than with vocabulary.

    2. I think the problem is one of widespread poor religious (and general) education, together with an equally widespread willingness to even deliberately misinterpret Scripture. With a little education, it is easy to distinguish a man cleaving to his wife vs. a butcher cleaving a joint of meat, or a boat that is fast in the water from one which is tied fast to the dock; with a decent religious education, it is possible to distinguish the various meanings and shades of fear.

      But I don’t entirely agree that it is a bad thing that we use the English word fear. For one thing, although the different kinds of “fear” are different, in practice they are often mingled and shade into one another. As a result, even servile fear of God (which has its place for those not in a state of grace!) can be a pedagogue that leads us to a more reverent “fear”.

  2. Thank you so much for this treatment of ‘Fear of the Lord’. I think I will have to download this and use this for some reflective time at our upcoming Deacon’s Retreat. Our theme for this year is Fidelity and this may fit in very well.

    God bless you Msgr. Pope and may He bless you with many more years in which to spread His Word faithfully!
    Deacon Jimmy in Houma, LA

  3. Thank you Msgr. Pope. As I read your post I was struck by how much this sounded like the Act of Contrition. Of course we dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell but beyond that we know we have failed becuase we Offended God by our sins. The Act does not say punish us or we deserve punishment but it goes on to say with Your Grace we will amend our lives.

    All the recent posts on Hell etc were very interesting on many levels. I learned a great deal from the posts and comments but in semi-total it seems necessary to take the teachings in as much aggregate as one can handle. This makes it very hard to summarize and understand but one could get way off in the weeds by leaving off parts. The Mass seems like the best summary of course. We confess our sins, we glorify God. We listen to God and his teaching and then when we are ready we are united with God in the Eucharist. “The Peace of the Lord which passes all understanding…”

    I fail to understand how anyone can see the teaching of the Church in any level of totality and with an open mind and not believe.

  4. IMO the tone is set ‘at the beginning’. The story of man with God opens with Paradise. What’s to fear about that? 🙂
    A pessimist might say, ‘Fear of losing it!’, which is the point of ‘fear of displeasing Jehovah’ as the meaning of ‘Fear God.’ De 5:29 Douay says, “Who shall give them to have such a mind, to fear me, and to keep all my commandments at all times, that it may be well with them and with their children for ever?” “… that it may be well” is the key; cf. Isa 48:17,18.
    Certainly a God who “is love” would want to instill that kind of fear, and not a morbid one.

  5. First of all, there seems to be a quality usage of deductive logic in mentioning, early in the article, that worldly fears are not applicable here because that act of mentioning frees my focus so that distractions are gone, rather than resisted, which resistance could well divert part of my efforts to grasp the inductive part.
    Interesting that the pamphlet guide to The Rosary, which I picked up at a local Catholic Church, has a mention of the Transfiguration as being inspiring as a Holy Fear of God.
    At any rate, I feel a disagreement with Bender (with respect earned by what I’ve learned from his comments here) because there seems to be a tendency to look at God within our finite perception. I must admit that I probably do that because I cannot see into the infinite so as to get a full understanding but, I do attempt to acknowledge that the infinite is there and try to accept it.
    God’s use of our free will seems to include a willingness to watch us as we withdraw, even as His love yearns for our closeness. His seeming willingness to to see us suffer even the painful consequences of our negative actions as we move away looks, to me, like His love overpowering His self interest, all for our sake so that we can thoroughly experience our learning process. This is a thing I fear, somewhat like fearing climbing up the side of a mountain in order to better learn mountaineering skills. As the climb progresses higher my fear grows and I’ve taken care to apply what I’ve learned and to increase that learning with a meticulous accuracy. Falling from a mountainside would be terrible but; not as terrible as a fall from grace, especially since my worldly attempt at metaphor (including the advantages of fear) would necessarily fall short of what I seek to describe. Yet, in both cases, if I don’t effectively seek to apply the lessons which have been given then, there will come a time when the instructor will not be available to catch me from falling.
    Online references indicate;
    Merriam-Webster Dictionary; “Middle English, from Medieval Latin timorosus, from Latin timor fear, from timēre to fear”
    Oxford Dictionary; “late Middle English (in the sense ‘feeling fear’): from Old French temoreus, from medieval Latin timorosus, from Latin timor ‘fear’, from timere ‘to fear”
    At any rate there’s a passage that I have recently mentioned before in these pages but, feel could well be mentioned again.
    Proverbs 2:1-8 “1 My son, if you accept my words
    and store up my commands within you,
    2 turning your ear to wisdom
    and applying your heart to understanding —
    3 indeed, if you call out for insight
    and cry aloud for understanding,
    4 and if you look for it as for silver
    and search for it as for hidden treasure,
    5 then you will understand the fear of the Lord
    and find the knowledge of God.
    6 For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
    7 He holds success in store for the upright,
    he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
    8 for he guards the course of the just
    and protects the way of his faithful ones.”
    This feels, to me, to be re-inforced by;
    Psalm 2:10-12
    “10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
    be warned, you rulers of the earth.
    11 Serve the Lord with fear
    and celebrate his rule with trembling.
    12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
    and your way will lead to your destruction,
    for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
    I remind myself that I do not necessarily understand since many things can induce trembling, including joyful ecstasy.

  6. Good comments all around… I know I fear many things… Fire, gravity, bees and the list goes on and on.. Yet all these things are also blessings unto themselves.  A healthy fear is balance.

    Holding the paradox of life and death, the way of the cross and resurrection,  is what I value so much  within the Church, helping the faithful hold the paradoxes of our existence.

     I have faith that if we are commanded to love, pray and heal our enemies,  God in his undeserved kindness, will deal with me in the same spirit of his command (Colossians 1:19,20) for we all are broken and fallen.

    This quote came to mind while contemplating Fear…”God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” – Voltaire


    That gentle Cure of ARS once asked someone:

    Do you want to see my relics? He then took them to the graveyard and showed them some of his parishoners who were buried there.

    A holy priest helps make us saints indeed.

    MSGR, this article should be taught and trumpeted in all the communities, RCIA programmes, schools, magazines and shouted from the hilltops. This is really inspirational for us all. It is in essence acknowledging the FIRST COMMANDMENT.

    ……..Let us ponder on FILIAL fear of the Lord every spare moment we can to remind us of our Almighty and loving Father and our only destiny IS to be with Him on earth and eventually in Heaven . His DIVINITY encompasses our body and soul for ETERNITY. The incomprehensible magnitude of His love for His children is unfathomable if I think about it. I suppose that is why He can say very clearly

    I Am who I Am………how TRUE!

  8. As a Lutheran confirmand, I was drilled on the Ten Commandments:

    Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. (What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.)

    as was my maternal grandmother, in Big Falls Wisconsin in the 1920s:

    Du sollst nicht andere Götter haben neben mir. (Was ist das? Wir sollen Gott ueber alle Dinge fuerchten, lieben und betrauen.)

    So we Lutherans definitely have a diet of fear…

      1. да, Hадзвичайно добра or, yes very good in the language often used in the Byzantine Catholic in Canada, especially west. “Yes, extremely good.”

  9. Thank you for this piece, Msgr Pope. I must admit I have not overcome some of my servile fear of God from my younger years cathechism classes – being a cradle catholic, the early cathechism classes were most about punishment for sins and sinners. I am only beginning to adopt more the filial fear of God.

    BTW, you did not include Prov 9:10 – something I am still pondering and trying to understand. Any possibility this could be Part II ofthis article?

    God Bless.

  10. Msgr. Pope and Cynthia BC
    My oh my, your readers comments are running real deep today. I can’t compete that’s for sure.
    But I’m so glad I read the comments to the end because Cynthia’s German grandmother taught her well.
    I was not a Lutheran but grew up in Germany with many Lutherans in my class and I was taught the same words
    in my Catholic religion class.
    All the people who read and respond to your blogs are well rooted in their faith. The people around me where I worship are definitely not of that same caliber.
    Loved your “jawohl”, you are one of kind!

    1. I inherited my maternal grandmother’s catechism; it includes the Psalms and Augsburg Confession in addition to the Small Catechism. The book is among my more treasured possessions. Although she was born and reared in the US, she was in a community of German immigrants. Her Baptismal and Confirmation certificate are auf Deutsch.

      My paternal grandfather came from Germany in the early 1920s, sponsored by a Lutheran community to attend seminary and to minister to German immigrants. Until World War II made German unpopular, during his ministry in Lancaster County PA, granddad conducted one service in English and a second in German.

      Unfortunately neither of my parents knew more than a few words of German and thus did not pass the language on to my sister and me.

  11. It seems to me that people often mistakenly think they have the servile fear you describe when they are just generally afraid and likely fear appearing judgemental or being judged more than they fear the wrath of God. I have rarely met a person genuinely afraid of the living God of the Universe in the servile sense you mention. God is truth, so they would fear believing or doing something in error. Nearly everyone I know hates correction. A fool hates correction. A wise man heads correction. Servile fear of the LORD would rather be shamed than in error. Would that every human being had some sense of this servile fear and our pews and confessionals would be full and reverence would be restored. Also, the lines for communion would rightly be a lot smaller. Imperfect contrition is just that type of fear and a person can get to heaven by God’s grace with a real servile fear of the God (I Cor. 3), not some made up modern, tolerant God.

    Until my 4 year old has enough sense to be afraid of the consequences of being hit by a car, I’ll be content for him to be afraid of the consequences of being whacked by his dad if he goes near the road. We need more servile fear in this day and age to then help some by God’s grace come to see the filial fear available in our brother Christ.

    Paul calls Christians that already have this servile fear to the higher calling of love, or the filial fear of offending because of love, not fear of offending because of damnation. There is no fear of God today. The sin of presumption fills our Church at every level. For example, I am reminded of the lesbian in your diocese that boldly approached when clearly warned not to approach for her soul’s sake. I am also reminded of those poor pro-abortion politicians being uninhibited to approach and bring judgement down on their heads. “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord” (I Cor. 11:29)

    I wish I had a greater fear of the LORD that I might have a greater love.

  12. For many within a few hours’ drive of the coast, a visit to the beach is a summer ritual.

    As I’ve sat in my beach chair, I’ve observed varying degrees of fear of the ocean. Some will go so far out that they’re only just within range of the lifeguard’s whistle; others can bear no more than to let the waves splash over their feet. I myself am not particularly adventurous, and seldom venture more than waist-deep.

    The ocean is not just a big swimming pool. On a calm day waves lap lazily at the shore; on a stormy one the ocean’s waters can erase whole communities from the coastline. Even as developing technology allows us to measure the ocean’s depths and to see life that exists in an environment we could never survive, the ocean is no less mysterious. Even those who spend their lives in or near the water have a fear of the ocean’s power and mystery.

    Those who see God only as “Jesus is My Friend who Loves Me Just the Way I Am” and feel no need to make any attempt to live in accordance with Church teachings are being dismissive of God’s power. Granted the depth of His power is far beyond our ken, but we should fear it, as any sensible swimmer fears the ocean’s currents.

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