“I am the One Who fished you out of the mud, Now come over here and listen to me.”A Meditation on the Fear of the Lord.

021713Perhaps it will be of help to develop a theme set forth in the Gospel this past Sunday. The Lord Jesus at one point rebukes the devil and says, Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Lk 4:8)

Jesus is tapping into the Old Testament vision of the “Fear of the Lord” as Deuteronomy says,

Fear the LORD your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. (Deut 10:20)

or again

Fear the LORD your God, serve him only (Deut 6:13).

I have written extensively on the “Fear of the Lord” HERE and HERE.   But for our purposes here let us reflect on the magnificent gift that it is to fear the Lord. And, if you don’t mind, I’d like to begin with the personal.

I want to say that I am awestruck, utterly astonished, at how good God has been to me. His gifts to me have amazed me. I do NOT deserve them and can only conclude that I received them for the benefit of others AND that God is utterly gratuitous, giving gifts simply because He is good, rather then because we are deserving.

I want to add that even the setbacks in my life have been “gifts in a strange package.” I have come to discover that even the dark passages, wherein I grew lost and angry, have now turned to bless me. My crosses have become the tree of life for me by His grace.

Let me repeat, I am utter astonished, dumfounded, amazed, astounded, bewildered, blown away, boggled, bowled over, overwhelmed, startled, stunned, stupefied, and taken aback by God’s love, grace and mercy.

Why do I say all of this (other this in profound gratitude)? Because, this is most fundamentally what it means to “Fear the Lord.” To fear the Lord is not a cringing fear, which waits for a punishing blow. It is a holy reverence, born in love and deep appreciation, indeed awe at Who God is, and how good and holy He is.

To fear the Lord is to hold Him in awe, It is to be amazed at what he has done for me.

In every Mass Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” What does it mean to remember? To remember is to have so present in my mind and heart what the Lord has done for me, that I’m grateful, and I’m different. It is to go to the foot of the cross and finally have it dawn on me that He died for me.

And as that happens, as I begin to realize what He has done, my heart is broken open, and love, appreciation and gratitude begin to flood in. A deep love and holy reverence, an awe begins to fill my heart.

This is the Holy Fear of the Lord.

And out of this Holy Fear, born in love and appreciation, I dread, that is I fear, the thought of ever offending God who has been so good to me.

This is the Holy Fear of the Lord. I invite you to visit the links above to see how this is born out in scripture.

In this fear, this appreciative love, we want to obey God, we are eager to serve and reverence Him, because He is good, not merely because he can punish.

I am mindful of an old rabbinic tale which meditates on why God, over and over again says, when giving the Law in Deuteronomy ends every command with the expression “I am the Lord.” (e.g. Lev. 22) An Old Rabbi, unnamed, says,

Let me tell you what God means when he says this! He is saying, ‘Look! I am the One who fished you out of the mud, Now come over here and Listen to me!

Indeed, yes Lord, You have been good to me! You have done more than fish me out of the mud, you have saved me from Hell, you snatched me from the raging waters and set me on firm rock. Yes Lord, I love you, and whatever you want, I want. Whatever you don’t want, I don’t want it.

This is the Fear of the Lord. Ask for this holy gift. It is the solution to many temptations.

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.

On Overcoming the Sin of Human Respect through the Fear of the Lord

At one level “human respect” seems a good thing. After all we ought to respect, honor and appreciate one another. What then is meant by the “sin of human respect?” At its core, the sin of human respect is that sin wherein we fear man more than God; where we more concerned with what people think of us and what we do, than what God thinks. This is an unholy fear, a sinful fear which is at the root of a lot of sins we commit as well as of many sins of omission.

Consider some examples:

  1. A man goes up to a group of other men who are gossiping and also speaking inappropriately about certain women in the office. Perhaps he knows that their disparaging comments about the boss are unfair or even untrue. He knows too that speaking of the women in the office using crude sexual imagery and lustful references is wrong. But, because he has walked up to this group and wants to “fit in” he joins the conversation as contributes to what he knows is wrong. He laughs at off color jokes and makes no attempt to steer the conversation in more appropriate directions. He does this because he fears rejection and is more more anxious as to what his co-workers think of him than what God thinks. He fears man more than God. That God is displeased with his actions is less of a fear and grief than that any of these men should be displeased.
  2. A young woman knows that sex before marriage is wrong and that this displeases God. However, she has dated a number of men now and has slept with most of them. She does this partly because she fears rejection. Perhaps if she does not give way to the desires of the young men she dates they will reject her and she will be alone. She thinks that a woman “has to do this” in order to be popular and desirable. She fears man more than God. What human beings think is more important to her than what God thinks. She may well minimize the displeasure of God by saying. “Oh well, God understands” but at the same time she maximizes possible displeasure of weak and fallible human beings by thinking that displeasing them would lead to catastrophe. She respects, that is, fears man more than God.
  3. A pastor of a parish has a mandate from God and the Church to preach the whole counsel of God. But over the years he has struggled to preach the hard things. After all teaching on things like abortion, fornication, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, Capital Punishment, and so forth, causes some people to be upset. He fears this anger, he fears offending people, he fears being misunderstood. Once, when he spoke about abortion, (because the Bishop said he had to) three parishioners came up to him and told him he should not bring politics into the pulpit. Once, early in his priesthood, he had mentioned divorce since the gospel was about that. A woman came up to him after Mass and said that she was divorced and felt hurt and “excluded” by his mentioning that divorce was problematic. Experiences like these have led the priest to “play it safe.” He always finds joke to start the homily and people love it (him). He chooses to preach only in abstractions and generalities. It is enough to exhort people to be a little more kind, a little more generous, but specificity he avoids. He does this because he fears man more than God. That God might be displeased that his people are not hearing the truth on the important moral issues of the day, or receiving proper instruction in the disciplines of discipleship is a vague and distant fear to this priest. But one person raising an eyebrow at what he says is enough to ruin his whole week. Thus he goes silent as a prophet and becomes a people-pleaser instead. He respects, he fears man more than God. This is the sin of human respect.
  4. A parent knows somehow that she is to raise her children in the fear of the Lord and train them in godly ways. But Oh, the protests when she tells them to clean their room or to go to bed, or to do their homework. It is just such a hassle to endure their anger and disappointment. Then too she remembers how stern her parents were and how she had vowed she would be nicer to her children. So, little by little, she lets her authority erode and the kids more often get their way. Her husband too is not a strong disciplinarian and he too wants to be thought of as a “cool” dad by his kids and his kids’ friends. Thus, God’s insistence on prayer, discipline and respect for elders, gives way to what the kids want. The oldest, a teenager, doesn’t even want to go to Church any more. But after all, “You can’t force religion on kids” they think. Here too, the parents fear their children more than God. They have greater respect for their children than for God.

So here are some examples of the “Sin of Human Respect.” This sin runs very deep in our wounded nature and, as we have seen, causes many other sins. Many people are desperate for attention, respect, acceptance and approval from human beings. Many of these same individuals, even the religiously observant, struggle to be nearly as concerned with what God thinks, or if He approves.

God has a simple solution to this: that we should fear Him and thus not fear anyone else. There is an old saying, “If I kneel before God I can stand before any man.” It makes sense that it is a lot easier to fear (respect) one, than many. Hence, the more we learn to fear (respect) God, the less concerned we become with what others think. Now, to be sure this is not an invitation to become a sociopath who cares not one whit what others think. We are to remain polite, groom ourselves, and not intentionally pick fights. But in the end we are instructed by the Lord to be freed of all the fearful trepidation of what others think.

To say this is a simple solution is a bit of an intellectualism to be sure. It is not easy to extract ourselves from this very deep drive of human respect. In fact it takes a life time. But the first step to any healing is to admit we may have a problem and begin to see it for what it is, understand its moves, and let the Lord steadily free us.

Perhaps some scripture quotes that address various aspects of this problem will be a fitting conclusion to this reflection

  1. Through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil. (Prov 16:6)
  2. Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD. (Prov 23:17)
  3. Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. (Prov 15:16)
  4. The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Ex 20:20)
  5. You alone are to be feared O Lord (Psalm 76:7)
  6. God is more awesome than all who surround him. (Psalm 89:7)
  7. I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side. (Psalm 3:4-5)
  8. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. (Jer 32:39)
  9. The Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” (Mark 12:14)
  10. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets (Luke 6:26)
  11. If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
  12. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (Matt 10:28).
  13. If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you(Jn 15:18-19)
  14. It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. (1 Cor 4:3)
  15. From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body. (Gal 6:17)
  16. We know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience (2 Cor 5:11).

In this video Fr. Frank Pavonne exhorts us to risk all as prophets of God and not to fear any one or anything more than God.

Risk It! A Meditation on the Sin of Human Respect and the Holy Fear of the Lord

At one level “human respect” seems a good thing. After all we ought to respect, honor and appreciate one another. What then is meant by the “sin of human respect?” At its core, the sin of human respect is that sin wherein we fear man more than God; where we more concerned with what people think of us and what we do, than what God thinks. This is an unholy fear, a sinful fear which is at the root of a lot of sins we commit as well as of many sins of omission.

Consider some examples:

  1. A man goes up to a group of other men who are gossipping and also speaking inappropriately about certain women in the office. Perhaps he knows that their disparaging comments about the boss are unfair or even untrue. He knows too that speaking of the women in the office using crude sexual imagery and lustful references is wrong. But, because he has walked up to this group and wants to “fit in” he joins the conversation as contributes to what he knows is wrong. He laughs at off color jokes and makes no attempt to steer the conversation in more appropriate directions. He does this because he fears rejection and is more more anxious as to what his co-workers think of him than what God thinks. He fears man more than God. That God is displeased with his actions is less of a fear and grief than that any of these men should be displeased.
  2. A young woman knows that sex before marriage is wrong and that this displeases God. However, she has dated a number of men now and has slept with most of them. She does this partly because she fears rejection. Perhaps if she does not give way to the desires of the young men she dates they will reject her and she will be alone. She thinks that a woman “has to do this” in order to be popular and desirable. She fears man more than God. What human beings think is more important to her than what God thinks. She may well minimize the displeasure of God by saying. “Oh well, God understands” but at the same time she maximizes possible displeasure of weak and fallible human beings by thinking that displeasing them would lead to  catastrophe. She respects, that is, fears man more than God.
  3. A pastor of a parish has a mandate from God and the Church to preach the whole counsel of God. But over the years he has struggled to preach the hard things. After all teaching on things like abortion, fornication, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, Capital Punishment, and so forth, causes some people to be upset. He fears this anger, he fears offending people, he fears being misunderstood. Once, when he spoke about abortion, (because the Bishop said he had to) three parishioners came up to him and told him he should not bring politics into the pulpit. Once, early in his priesthood, he had mentioned divorce since the gospel was about that. A woman came up to him after Mass and said that she was divorced and felt hurt and “excluded” by his mentioning that divorce was problematic. Experiences like these have led the priest to “play it safe.” He always finds joke to start the homily and people love it (him). He chooses to preach only in abstractions and generalities. It is enough to exhort people to be a little more kind, a little more generous,  but specificity he avoids. He does this because he fears man more than God. That God might be displeased that his people are not hearing the truth on the important moral issues of the day, or receiving proper instruction in the disciplines of discipleship is a vague and distant fear to this priest. But one person raising an eyebrow at what he says is enough to ruin his whole week. Thus he goes silent as a prophet and becomes a people-pleaser instead. He respects, he fears man more than God. This is the sin of human respect.
  4. A parent knows somehow that she is to raise her children in the fear of the Lord and train them in godly ways. But Oh, the protests when she tells them to clean their room or to go to bed, or to do their homework. It is just such a hassle to endure their anger and disappointment. Then too she remembers how stern her parents were and how she had vowed she would be nicer to her children. So, little by little, she lets her authority erode and the kids more often get their way. Her husband too is not a strong disciplinarian and he too wants to be thought of as a “cool” dad by his kids and his kids’ friends. Thus, God’s insistence on prayer, discipline and respect for elders, gives way to what the kids want. The oldest, a teenager, doesn’t even want to go to Church any more. But after all, “You can’t force religion on kids” they think. Here too,  the parents fear their children more than God. They have greater respect for their children than for God.

So here are some examples of the “Sin of Human Respect.” This sin runs very deep in our wounded nature and, as we have seen, causes many other sins. Many people are desperate for attention, respect, acceptance and approval from human beings. Many of these same individuals, even the religiously observant, struggle to be nearly as concerned with what God thinks, or if He approves.

God has a simple solution to this: that we should fear Him and thus not fear anyone else. There is an old saying, “If I kneel before God I can stand before any man.” It makes sense that it is a lot easier to fear (respect) one, than many. Hence, the more we learn to fear (respect) God, the less concerned we become with what others think. Now, to be sure this is not an invitation to become a sociopath who cares not one whit what others think. We are to remain polite, groom ourselves, and not intentionally pick fights. But in the end we are instructed by the Lord to be freed of all the fearful trepidation of what others think.

To say this is a simple solution is a bit of an intellectualism to be sure. It is not easy to extract ourselves from this very deep drive of human respect. In fact it takes a life time. But the first step to any healing is to admit we may have a problem and begin to see it for what it is, understand its moves, and let the Lord steadily free us.

Perhaps some scripture quotes that address various aspects of this problem will be a fitting conclusion to this reflection

  1. Through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil. (Prov 16:6)
  2. Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD. (Prov 23:17)
  3. Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. (Prov 15:16)
  4. The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Ex 20:20)
  5. You alone are to be feared O Lord (Psalm 76:7)
  6. God is more awesome than all who surround him. (Psalm 89:7)
  7. I  lie down and sleep;  I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.  I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side. (Psalm 3:4-5)
  8. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. (Jer 32:39)
  9. The Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” (Mark 12:14)
  10. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets (Luke 6:26)
  11. If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
  12. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (Matt 10:28).
  13. If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you(Jn 15:18-19)
  14. It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. (1 Cor 4:3)
  15. From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body. (Gal 6:17)
  16. We know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience (2 Cor 5:11).

In this video Fr. Frank Pavonne exhorts us to risk all as prophets of God and not to fear any one or anything more than God.

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