By Rosemarie Scott

If God is so loving, kind and compassionate, why does Scripture say we should "fear" Him?  What exactly is fear of the Lord, which is considered a gift of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:2-3 Douay), and how does it relate to our walk with God?

Two Kinds of Fear

The fear of the Lord is a much misunderstood concept, perhaps in part because there are actually two types of "fear" of the Lord mentioned in Scripture.  The first, mentioned in Isaiah 2:10, 19 and 21, is not a gift of the Holy Spirit; it is the abject terror of an unrepentant sinner before the justice of God.  Some translations render this as "the terror of the Lord" (Revised Standard Version) or "dread of the Lord" (Revised English Bible).  The original Hebrew word is pachad, which always indicates a terrified dread.  The Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) contains a parallel passage (6:15-17), in which evildoers try to hide in terror of God's justice.

Ultimately, God will have to judge those who do evil and refuse to repent at His loving call.  Such people have every reason to dread that day.  Yet those who are in Christ are "not appointed to wrath" (I Thessalonians 5:9).  Our Lord has redeemed, justified and sanctified them by His Cross and through Baptism. As long as they remain in a state of grace, they are not children of wrath, but regenerate children of God.  "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1), for Our Savior did away with their eternal punishment.

So Christians in a state of grace need not fear God's wrath.  I St. John 4:17-18 says "In this way love is perfected among us, so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like Him.  There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love".  Those who are perfected in love will have humble confidence on Judgement Day and always.  Perfect love drives out all fear of divine punishment.

So for those who are in Christ, the "fear of the Lord" does not involve abject terror or dread of divine justice.  In fact, Saint John says that any who fear God's wrath are not perfected in love (verse 18).

Yet Sacred Scripture elsewhere mentions "fear of the Lord" as something virtuous, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  So what is this "holy fear"?  In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word used for this fear is yirah, which denotes piety and reverence rather than abject terror.  This is why some modern translations say "revere the Lord" rather than "fear the Lord".

A careful study of Scripture will reveal that "the fear of the Lord" involves the following elements:

1. Reverence and Awe

"Let all the earth fear the Lord, and let all the inhabitants of the world be in awe of him." (Psalm 33:8)

The Creator of the Universe is Almighty and awesome (Ps 47:7).  His attributes such as Power (Joshua 4:23-24), Majesty (Jeremiah 10:7), Justice (Apoc/Rev 14:7), and Holiness (15:4) certainly inspire awe and reverence in His creatures. Yet Sacred Scripture says that Our Lord's blessings (Ps 67:7), goodness (I Samuel 12:24) and even forgiveness (Ps 130:4) are also reasons to "fear" Him!  God's wonderful love and goodness should inspire awe and worship in our hearts.

Such reverence does not conflict with an intimate communion with God, but it does conflict with flippancy, which is disrespectful. The fear of the Lord acknowledges the "otherness" of God, which deserves recognition and respect on our part. Yet God's infinite "otherness" does not subtract from the fact that He is our loving Abba Father.  "For thus says the High and Exalted One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the spirit of the contrite" (Isaiah 57:15).

God is exalted above creation, yet "in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).  He knows us completely, loves us infinitely and is with us always (Ps 139:1-2).  God's Majesty does not keep us from Him because He willingly humbles Himself to fellowship with us (Ps 113:4-9; 138:6).  His holiness does not bar us from His Presence because whe have become the righteousness of God in Jesus (2 Co 5:21). No created thing can keep us from our loving Abba, for we have communion with Him through Jesus by the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:18).

God deserves our reverent worship and desires our close fellowship.  As we draw closer to Him in prayer, we will see that there is no real contradiction between the two.  A proper respect and awe in worship is possible without perceiving God as a cold, distant Deity.  The more we get to know Him, the more we shall see how the Majesty and immanent Love of God are reconciled.

2. Hatred of Evil

"The fear of the Lord is to hate evil" (Proverbs 8:13)

Here Christ, the Eternal Wisdom, defines "the fear of the Lord" as hatred of evil.  Exodus 18:21 states that those who fear God hate coveteousness.  Job is said to have feared God and turned from evil (Job 1:1, 8). Proverbs 3:7 warns us to "fear the Lord and turn away from evil".  If we hate evil we will turn away from it (Proverbs 16:6, Job 28:28).

The popular "Novena to the Holy Spirit for the Seven Gifts" defines the fear of the Lord as follows:

The gift of Fear fills us with a sovereign respect for God, and makes us dread nothing so much as to offend Him by sin.  It is a fear that arises, not from the thought of hell, but from sentiments of reverence and filial submission to our heavenly Father. It is the fear that is the beginning of wisdom, detaching us from worldly pleasures that could in any way separate us from God. "They that fear the Lord will prepare their hearts, and in His sight will sanctify their souls."
When David teaches "the fear of the Lord" in Psalm 34, he says, "Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.  Turn away from evil, and do good, seek peace and pursue it" (vvs 14-15). Turning from evil should lead to doing good.  This brings us to the third meaning of "fear of the Lord":

3. Obedience to God

That he may learn to fear the Lord his God by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes" (Deuteronomy 17:19)

Abraham, our father in faith, proved that he feared God by obeying his command to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:12).  Moses told the children of Israel to "Fear the Lord...to walk in all His ways and love Him" (Dt 10:12, 20).  Centuries later, the Prophet Samuel counseled the Israelites to "fear the Lord and serve Him in truth with all your heart" (I Samuel 12:24).  Isaiah 50:10 makes another clear association between the fear of God with obedience and trust in Him, as do Psalm 86:11; 112:1; 128:1 and Ecclesiastes 12:13.

What should be our motivation in obeying God? Some people obey because they fear the divine wrath if they don't.  Though it may cause one to obey God's commandments for a while, fear of punishment is not the highest motivation for serving God.  It may even contain some hidden selfishness:  "I serve God because if I don't He'll do something to me-which I will find inconvenient.  So serving and obeying God is in my best interest!". Hardly a perfect motive!

Jesus says, "If you love Me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15).  Obedience should spring from our love for God.  That is a much better motive than fear of punishment.  Love is freely given and does things out of a desire to delight God.  It is unselfish, gives all the glory to Our Lord, and seeks no other reward but pleasing Him (although God's justice will always reward such obedience - Matthew 6:4,6,18).

Of course, both our love and obedience should be inspired and empowered by the Spirit of Grace.  Then it will be God's work within us, not natural good works (see the articles on Grace elsewhere in this web site).

Fear and Love Together

"Whoever has my commandments and keeps them is one who loves me, and whoever loves me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him....If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make our abode with him." -St. John 14:21,23.
Here Jesus lists three results of our loving obedience.  First, the Father will love us.  Yet Psalm 103:17 states that "the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting to those who fear him"!  God loves both those who fear Him and those who love Him.  As we saw before, some Scriptures say that obedience comes from the fear of God and others from love for God. Notice a pattern?

The second result of loving Jesus is that He will disclose Himself to us.  This means He will reveal something intimate about His Person to one who loves Him.  Yet Psalm 25:14 tells us that "The secret of the Lord is for those who fear him".  The original Hebrew word translated as "secret" indicates a confidential, intimate dialogue between friends.  Another interesting parallel.

The third result is the abiding presence of the Father and Son in one's soul.  God promises to dwell with, commune with, guide, protect and perfectly satisfy the spiritual longing of those who love Him.

Is this also the case for those who fear God? Yes; God watches and delivers those who fear Him (Ps 33:18). They receive long life, abide before the Lord forever, and know His love and faithfulness (61:5-7).  His salvation is near to them (85:9); they are blessed in every way (112:19), for He satisfies and saves them (145:19). God remembers them, calls them His own and spares them (Malachi 3:16-17) and the Sun of Righteousness rises on them (4:2). His mercy continues even on their families (Luke 1:50; see Proverbs 14:26-27). This is all unmistakeable evidence of God's abiding presence and love in their lives.

As we saw above, the fear of the Lord involves hatred of evil.  Yet Psalm 97:10 says "Hate evil, you who love the Lord"!  We also discussed above how we should mingle our reverence toward God with love.  The only conclusion one can draw from this is that, far from being opposites, love for God and holy fear are complementary.  If we love God we must reverence and worship His awesome Divinity.  The more we love Him the more we will hate that which is contrary to God, namely evil and sin, and fear displeasing Him by committing sin.  With the help of His grace, we will obey His righteous commandments out of love and fear for our Heavenly Father.

The Holy Spirit, the Substantial Love of the Father and the Son, is also the "Spirit of Holy Fear", Who gives us the gift of the fear of the Lord.  He will help us turn from evil and desire to obey and please our Beloved in everything.  Love and holy fear are braided together in our walk with Jesus, and through them our spirits are braided into His own.

Let us Pray:

Come, O blessed Spirit of Holy Fear, penetrate my inmost heart, that I may set Thee, my Lord and God, before my face forever.  Help me to shun all things that can offend Thee, and make me worthy to appear before the pure eyes of Thy Divine Majesty in heaven, where Thou livest and reignest in the unity of the ever-Blessed Trinity, God world without end. Amen.

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