Do we have a healthy fear of the Lord? The very idea of “fearing” God often causes confusion because people think of fear in relation to snakes, spiders or heights, for example. But the “fear of the Lord” we are called to is not a servile fear or a cowering away. Rather, it is fear in the sense of awe and reverence, acknowledging the majesty of the God who loves us and calls us to love him in return. This fear is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit received at Baptism and strengthened at Confirmation. It is mentioned often in the Scriptures, as well as in the writings of the Saints, and it is essential in our relationship with God.
What is this gift of “fear”?
In Sirach 1: 14-20, we read:
To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…To fear the Lord is wisdom’s full measure…To fear the Lord is the crown of wisdom making peace and perfect health flourish…To fear the Lord is the root of wisdom and her branches are long life.
This reveals that to have wisdom, we must first have a fear of the Lord. But still, what does it mean to fear the Lord?
In our earthly lives, we can acknowledge two basic kinds of fear we can experience. One is considered a healthy fear. As an example, respecting the dangers associated with heights, we are cautious leaning out of a fifteen-story apartment window in fear of falling and losing our life. But there are also unhealthy fears where we can develop phobias that cause us to fear even when it is irrational, such as refusing to even stand on a diving board over a pool because of a fear of heights.
Further insight into understanding fear and how it relates to God is given by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae (Prima Secundae Partis, Q43, 1, contra):
…Augustine says: “There can be no doubt that there is no cause for fear save the loss of what we love, when we possess it, or the failure to obtain what we hope for.” Therefore, all fear is caused by our loving something…
He continues (Prima Secundae Partis, Q43, 1, obj 1):
…fear, of itself and in the first place, regards the evil from which it recoils as being contrary to some loved good: and thus fear, of itself, is born of love. But in the second place, it regards the cause from which that evil ensues: so that sometimes, accidentally, fear gives rise to love; in so far as, for instance, through fear of God’s punishments, man keeps his commandments and thus begins to hope, while hope leads to love…
Healthy fear is based on love
As Aquinas informs us, fear is based on love and not wanting to lose what we love. So a healthy fear of the Lord means we love God above all things and, therefore, do not want to forsake him. It means we recognize we are creatures completely dependent on God for our existence and that all our blessings are bestowed by him. We acknowledge that he is our loving Father who loves us unconditionally, desires us to be with him in heaven and is the only source of the unending joy, peace and happiness we all long for. In our fear of the Lord, we stand before God in awe and reverence, mindful of our unworthiness. We acknowledge the horror of sin and the depths of God’s love in response to our disobedience. With sin being an offense against God, we strive to avoid all transgressions and temptations, but, if we fall, we repent, do penance and convert our hearts with urgency knowing that the consequences.
We are cognizant through the teachings of the Church it is in this life that the gift of grace, merited for us by Christ, is offered to us all, and this grace saves us. And we are acutely aware that if we reject God and his grace, he will respect our free choice without coercion. Refusing God’s love, we are separating ourselves from a relationship with him in this life, and, if we persist in this state, then after death we will remain separated from God for all eternity. This healthy fear of the Lord allows us to never forget that hell – which is a state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God – is a real possibility for us all (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033). Knowing the reality of hell, we recoil from the misery and torments of the damned, but this is not the primary motivating factor for this gift of the Holy Spirit. Rather, at the heart of our fear of the Lord is love, and a holy fear of the Lord is alive within us when we do not want to lose a relationship with the one we love.
The Gift of Fear of the Lord
In a General Audience June 11, 2014, Pope Francis spoke beautifully about this gift of the Holy Spirit and his words eloquently emphasize the power of this gift:
The gift of fear of the Lord…does not mean being afraid of God: we know well that God is Father, that he loves us and wants our salvation, and he always forgives, always; thus, there is no reason to be scared of him! Fear of the Lord, instead, is the gift of the Holy Spirit through whom we are reminded of how small we are before God and of his love and that our good lies in humble, respectful and trusting self-abandonment into his hands. This is fear of the Lord: abandonment in the goodness of our Father who loves us so much…
Fear of the Lord allows us to be aware that everything comes from grace and that our true strength lies solely in following the Lord Jesus and in allowing the Father to bestow upon us his goodness and his mercy. To open the heart, so that the goodness and mercy of God may come to us. This is what the Holy Spirit does through the gift of fear of the Lord: he opens hearts. The heart opens so that forgiveness, mercy, goodness and the caress of the Father may come to us, for as children we are infinitely loved.
When we are pervaded by fear of the Lord, then we are led to follow the Lord with humility, docility and obedience. This, however, is not an attitude of resignation, passivity or regret, but one of the wonder and joy of being a child who knows he is served and loved by the Father. Fear of the Lord, therefore, does not make of us Christians who are shy and submissive, but stirs in us courage and strength! It is a gift that makes of us Christians who are convinced, enthusiastic, who aren’t submissive to the Lord out of fear but because we are moved and conquered by his love!…
Yet, we should take care, for the gift of God, the gift of fear of the Lord is also an “alarm” against the obstinacy of sin. When a person lives in evil, when one blasphemes against God, when one exploits others, when he tyrannizes them, when he lives only for money, for vanity, or power, or pride, then the holy fear of God sends us a warning: be careful!…May fear of the Lord make them understand that one day all things will come to an end and they will have to give account to God.
Cultivating a Healthy, Holy Fear of the Lord
This gift of fear of Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as the Scriptures proclaim, so let us ask God to help us cooperate with his grace and make this gift more manifest in our daily lives. Let us cultivate this gift through prayer, frequent reception of the Sacraments, daily examination of conscience, Eucharistic adoration and regular meditation on what it truly means to fear the Lord.
As we strive to develop a healthy, holy fear of the Lord, let us contemplate on these words from the book of Sirach (2: 7-18):
You who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy; and turn not aside, lest you fall. You who fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not fail; You who fear the Lord, hope for good things, for everlasting joy and mercy. You who fear the Lord, love him, and your hearts will be made radiant…
Woe to timid hearts and to slack hands, and to the sinner who walks along two ways! Woe to the faint of heart, for it has no trust! Therefore it will not be sheltered. Woe to you who have lost your endurance! What will you do when the Lord punishes you? Those who fear the Lord will not disobey his words, and those who love him will keep his ways. Those who fear the Lord will seek his approval, and those who love him will be filled with the law. Those who fear the Lord will prepare their hearts, and will humble themselves before him. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, but not into the hands of men; for as his majesty is, so also is his mercy.