The Scriptures speak of fearing God in several places and many are confused by this concept. The word "fear" has a lot of baggage associated with it in modern Western culture. This was not so much the case in biblical times, so we must understand the concept of fear in several different ways, to understand what fear of God is all about.
Type of Fear #1- Reverential Fear of the Creator:
"I sought the LORD, who answered me, delivered me from all my fears. Look to God that you may be radiant with joy and your faces may not blush for shame. In my misfortune I called, the LORD heard and saved me from all distress. The angel of the LORD, who encamps with them, delivers all who fear God. Learn to savor how good the LORD is; happy are those who take refuge in him. Fear the LORD, you holy ones; nothing is lacking to those who fear him. The powerful grow poor and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing. Come, children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD." - Psalm 34 5-12This verse sounds almost contradictory - we are told that God delivers us from our fears, gives us joy, and saves us. But, then we are told to fear Him. This kind of fear is reverential - meaning we are in awe of the might of God.
Have you ever had a moment of awe in God's creation? Think for a moment that God made it all - and we are in utter awe, and reverential fear, of how amazingly mighty God is. This is a humble attitude that reminds us that God is God and we are not. In humility we must acknowledge that God is all-powerful and we are very limited.
Type of Fear #2 - Fear of Judgment:
"Announce this to the house of Jacob, proclaim it in Judah: Pay attention to this, foolish and senseless people Who have eyes and see not, who have ears and hear not. Should you not fear me, says the LORD, should you not tremble before me? I made the sandy shore the sea's limit, which by eternal decree it may not overstep. Toss though it may, it is to no avail; though its billows roar, they cannot pass. But this people's heart is stubborn and rebellious; they turn and go away, And say not in their hearts, "Let us fear the LORD, our God, Who gives us rain early and late, in its time; Who watches for us over the appointed weeks of harvest." Your crimes have prevented these things, your sins have turned back these blessings from you." -Jeremiah 5: 20-25It almost sounds as if God is asking his prophet, Jeremiah, to scare others. But, in a certain sense, every sinner should fear God's punishment because he is perfectly good and we are sinners. We are guilty, God is innocent. Because of our guilt we deserve punishment and judgment. Instead, God is merciful and offers us His mercy and salvation, but we are capable of rejecting His gift by our sin. Even in the traditional act of contrition, this kind of fear is shown (and is enough for God to forgive us, even if it isn't as good as the higher act of love) - "I detest all of my sins, because of thy just punishment".
Though the fear of judgment is real, it should not be a goal of our spiritual life.
Type of Fear #3 - Fear of God's Perfection and Holiness
"Great and wonderful are your works, Lord God almighty. Just and true are your ways, O king of the nations. Who will not fear you, Lord, or glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed." -Revelation 15:3-4Perfect holiness and sin are incompatible, this is why God alone is holy (in fact holiness is THE trait of divinity) and in whatever small way His creatures share in that holiness, we are said to be "holy". Even before we enter heaven we must be purified from our sinfulness in order to see God face-to-face (Rev 21:27 says "nothing unclean shall enter into it" when describing heaven). God's holiness purifies us and removes our sin - but this process is painful, because we have to be "re-shaped" into the being we are supposed to be. Thus, we fear this harsh process.
Type of Fear #4 - Filial Fear - The Fear of Disappointing Our Father
One of the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit is "Fear of the Lord". This kind of fear is a gift given, because it perfects in us the virtue of Love of God. This is done out of a respect for God - not a fear of punishment.
Servile fear is the fear of being punished, and is not a form of true love. But filial fear is a fear of letting God down and disappointing Him. This grows out of a sincere love for God and His goodness and love of us.
Think of when you were a child. Many times you would not disobey your parents, because you feared punishment. But, when you mature, you do not do disobey our of love and respect for them. This is what is meant by filial fear, and is the reason why "fear of the Lord" is held in such high esteem in the Bible:
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" -Proverbs 9:10Even Mary rejoices in Fear of God:
"The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him." -Luke 1 49-50Paul tells us we should work toward holiness out of fear of God:
"Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God." - 1 Cor 7:1The last example of filial fear in the Bible I will give is Peter in Acts:
"Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, "In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him." -Acts 10:34-35It seems there is a natural progression of faith through each of these four fears:
- First, we know that God is God and creator of all.
- Second, we know God is all-powerful and will judge us.
- Third, we know that God is perfect and holy.
- Fourth, we know God is Father of each of us and we don't want to let Him down.
We will let Pope Benedict XVI have the last word:
This attitude of faith leads man to recognize the power of God operating in history, and thus to open himself to fear of the name of the Lord. In biblical language, in fact, this "fear" does not coincide with dread, but is the recognition of the mystery of the divine transcendence. Because of this, it is the basis of faith and is joined with love: "the Lord your God requires of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (cf. Deuteronomy 10:12).Fear the Lord and have no fear don't contradict one another, they go hand-in-hand with one another.