What Does it Mean to Fear the Lord?

By: Msgr. Charles Pope

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:

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