If God is so loving, kind and compassionate, why does the Bible say we should "fear" Him? What exactly is the "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?
There are actually two types of "fear of the Lord" mentioned in Scripture. The first one, mentioned in Isaiah 2:10, 19 and 21, is not a gift of the 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 fearful dread. The 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). Jesus has redeemed, justified and sanctified them by His Cross and through Baptism. 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 Jesus did away with their sin and eternal punishment.
So Christians in a state of grace need not fear God's wrath. I 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". If we are perfected in love we can 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 those who fear God's wrath are not perfected in love (verse 18).
Yet Scripture elsewhere mentions "the fear of the Lord" as a virtue, and Mother Church lists it as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. So what does this virtuous "fear of God" involve?
As we saw above, Isaiah 2 uses the Hebrew word pachad to refer to the terror of evildoers. Yet in the Hebrew Scriptures, the most common word used in the phrase "fear of the Lord" is yirah, which primarily denotes piety and reverence. (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
The Creator of the Universe is awesome and powerful (Ps 47:7). Scripture says we should reverence God for such obviously awesome attributes as Power (Joshua 4:23-24), Majesty (Jeremiah 10:7), Justice (Rev 14:7), and Holiness (15:4). Yet the Lord's blessings (Ps 67:7), Goodness (I Samuel 12:24) and even forgiveness (Ps 130:4) are also mentioned as reasons to "fear (revere) God". 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, only with flippancy. It 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). Nothing need 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 awe in worship is possible without a concept of 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.
Hatred of Evil
Here Christ the Eternal Wisdom defines "the fear of the Lord" as hatred of evil. Exodus 18:21 states that 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).
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":
Obedience to God
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! Is this "fear of the Lord" becoming for a believer?
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 the 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).
Results of Obedience
"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." -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 thrid 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. but 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 the fear of the Lord are complementary. If we love God we will reverence and worship His awesome Divinity. The more whe love Him the more we will hate that which is contrary to God, namely evil and sin. The Spirit will help us turn from evil and desire to obey and please our Beloved in everything. Love and reverent "fear" are braided together in our walk with Jesus, and through them our spirits are braided into His own.
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