Faith Forum: Why say, ‘Fear of God’?

By Father Charles Bober

In a recent homily, our parish priest said, “It is good sometimes to put the fear of God into people’s hearts.” I am bothered when people talk about “fear of God.”  If He is such a loving God, why should we ever be afraid?       

In the context of a homily, one might assume that the preacher is reacting to those who seem to live their lives with no thought of accountability for their actions.  “Fear” in that case would infer an expectation that at some point one would pay the price in judgment before God. 

This approach is related to what people felt long ago when they experienced powerful and unexplained events and thought that they originated from God. Because of the unfathomable aspect of such events, fear became associated with God.

Later refection and teaching reasoned that this feeling of fear was better expressed as a feeling of awe, wonder and humility.  Fear then was an understandable reaction to the “otherness” of God in the face of our limited humanity.

There is also an additional notion of fear in relation to those we love.  We are afraid of hurting or disappointing them.  We are afraid of not being sufficiently grateful.  We can have such feelings in regard to parents, loved ones and God.

Scriptures record examples of all of these fears. We read of God’s “fearful and terrible deeds” (Ex. 34:10).  Such fear is also found with Moses before the burning bush.  Yet, the Book of Exodus also speaks of God speaking of love:  “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4).

For the people of Israel, then, fear came to be understood more as reverence in the presence of the Almighty or awe at God’s wonderful deeds.  It is in this context that the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament proclaims, “fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom” (Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; and Prv. 1:7). 

With all of this as a background, the New Testament describes the awe that overcame the disciples as they experienced the works Jesus performed (Mk. 4:41, Lk. 5:26).  Following the Lord’s glorification, the early Church continued its awe (and fear) as it witnessed the deeds accomplished by the power of the Spirit (Acts 2:43 and II Cor. 5:11).

From all of this, there seems to be several meanings we might attach to the word “fear.”  Among these is a type of fear that is rooted in the reality of God’s otherness, there is also a fear of punishment and one that is related to a fear of loss or separation. 

Most of us deal with fear in our lives.  One Scriptural passage which might prove helpful for our reflection is found in the First Letter of John:  “Love has no room for fear; rather, perfect love casts out all fear.  And since fear has to do with punishment, love is not yet perfect in one who is afraid.” (I John 4:18).

Photo credit: Dena Koenig Photography