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Fear of the Lord

30 November, 1999

Teresa is bewildered by the suggestion that we should ‘fear God’. Bernard McGuckian SJ explains the background to such a teaching and the richness to its worth.

I have always been puzzled by the teaching that we should fear God. This does not square with my idea that our God is a God of love. We are not afraid of someone we love. Teresa. Perhaps at Confirmation time you, like me, were taught that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit was ‘fear of the Lord’. It was because this expression can be misunderstood that in recent decades children have been taught to refer to this gift as `awe and wonder in God’s presence’. This development makes sense. We are all attracted and even excited by the idea of ‘awe’. It implies a spontaneous reaction to something ‘awesome’ or ‘wonderful’.


However, the consecrated expression ‘fear of the Lord’ is not about to disappear, as the Americans say, any time soon, simply because of a possible misunderstanding by children. It is too well established in all the English translations of the Bible. To avoid any misunderstanding, theologians have always distinguished between servile and filial fear.

‘Servile’ comes from the Latin for slave while ‘filial’ comes from that for child. Servile fear is essentially self-centred. It simply wants to avoid punishment. Filial fear is different. It wants to avoid causing any kind of hurt. ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Ps. 110:10). These words of the Psalmist invite all of us to step onto the first rung of the ladder of holiness.

Writing as far back as 1736 a Scottish scholar, Andrew Cruden identified in the Scriptures about 500 uses of ‘fear’ or words derived from it. ‘Fear of the Lord’ was different from all the other forms of fear mentioned. ‘Fear of God,’ he wrote, ‘means that reverence for God which leads to obedience because of one’s realization of his power as well as of his love to man’.

One of the big differences between fear of the Lord and many of the other forms of fear is that it is something that has to be learned. It is different from the fear of a wild animal or of falling off a cliff – something that comes naturally to us. ‘This fear is the trembling of human weakness frightened of suffering what we do not want to happen to us. We do not learn what we ought to fear. Rather, the things we fear themselves instil their own dread in us.’ (St. Hilary of Poitiers, AD 367)

Fear of the Lord, however, is more like the fear of a good child about causing hurt to his mother. It is a fruit of nurturing in love. As he matures, the child grows in the understanding and wisdom appropriate to his age. This learning process leads eventually to a situation where he would do anything rather than deliberately cause his mother pain.

Similarly, a follower of Jesus Christ is not afraid of God; he is afraid of offending God. He only wants to do what pleases God in all situations. He does this because of his love for God but also because, in any case, it is always the right thing to do. People who act like this are rightly described as ‘God-fearing’. ‘There is only one kind of wound to be feared and that is when the mind is wounded by giving consent to sin’. (St. Francis Xavier, 1552)

St. Ignatius (1556) encouraged people to do everything out of love for God. However, shrewd observer of the human condition that he was, he had a fall-back position. If love of God, he reasoned, will not persuade them to do what is right, perhaps fear of hell might be another option worth considering. In other words, if fear of offending God cuts no ice with a person, then, perhaps fear of eternal punishment might do the trick. This has proved effective in more than one case.

Thomas Merton claims that the much mocked and maligned sermon on Hell in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist brought about his conversion, eventually leading him to Catholicism and to a Cistercian vocation. His initial servile fear developed eventually into something more filial.

Another great hunter of souls who lived about 1,000 years earlier than Ignatius, St. John Chrysostom (AD 407) made a fascinating observation in one of his sermons. He noted how little children were afraid of masks but not of fires. They would have no hesitation about going right up to the flames of the bonfire in their excitement but would shriek in terror when some fellow with a big grotesque mask over his face pretended to go for them. His adult hearers got the message loud and clear. Make sure that in all circumstances you fear only what you ought to fear. Do not be afraid of death but rather the consequences of a Godless life.

Fear, even when it takes the form of the virtue of ‘fear of the Lord’ does not have the last word. Like faith and hope it produces its good fruit here in time. Eventually it gives way to the perfection of love something much more important and which never ends. ‘In love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear implies punishment and whoever is afraid has not come to the perfection of love’ (1 Jn.4:18). 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.