The Old Testament idea of Fear of the Lord (FOTL) is often misunderstood in ways that can do real damage to our understanding of Catholic (and other Christian) faith. So when CBS advanced student Sandy Everett did a “deep dive” into FOTL, she gave the OEEC permission to share what she discovered with Bible Blog readers. What follows is the first of two installments.
The term Fear of the Lord (FOTL) has always piqued my interest. Over thirty years ago when I first began teaching CCD, as it used to be called, we simply taught the concept of FOTL as a real fear of the almighty greatness of God. A “shake in your boots” type of fear. A healthy fear of God knowing that all we have is due to his great power. No one ever questioned it. It was easy.
I took a break from teaching when my husband and I first started our family, then went back to teach about ten years later. As I was preparing a confirmation lesson on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, I realized that FOTL had been replaced by the more politically correct term of “Wonder and Awe” of the Lord God. At that time I was told, “We don’t do the ‘fear’ thing anymore. Our faith is about having a relationship with God based on love.” While I did agree with that, it just felt hollow not to teach FOTL anymore.
While learning about Fear of the Lord in Proverbs this year in my Catholic Biblical School (CBS) studies, I wanted to better understand FOTL—not only for my own spiritual growth, but for the children I teach. Was it possible I wasn’t explaining it correctly? I was pretty sure I was missing something. So I began to “dig” a little and as a result, I have come to really believe that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (Prov. 1:7)
To understand the meaning of FOTL, one must first recognize that there are two types of fear. Both types of ‘fear’ depend on the relationship one has with the person or deity they fear. Servile fear is based in fear by force. This is found among slaves. Slaves fear their master because the master forces the fear upon them. It is not a healthy fear. It builds resentment and causes obedience for the sake of survival.
The other type of fear is filial fear. This is the type of healthy fear one sees between two people who love one another, such as one (hopefully) finds between a parent and a child. Filial fear also produces obedience, but there is a big difference. A child obeys because she or he trusts the parents, and parents ask for obedience because they want what is best for the child. This type of healthy fear builds trust and ultimately love for one another. Often my children must obey me without knowing just why they are to obey. Sometimes it is a “blind obedience” that evolves into love.
For example, when I would take my young children to the store, they would have to hold on to the shopping cart while in the parking lot. They didn’t like to do this. They wanted to dart out in the parking lot to the entrance. Yet they would hold on to the cart while I got the baby out of the car just because I told them to. My voice and their fear of disappointing me was enough of an incentive for the children to obey. I wasn’t being mean, I was trying to make them safe. They didn’t always understand the rules, but their “filial fear” of their mother kept them safe.
Later, as they became teenagers, usually just my voice and the fear of disappointing me was enough for them to obey the curfews set in place. They feared me when they disobeyed and came to understand that the curfews were there to protect them, not to confine them. Because we had an established relationship, the filial fear was a positive fear instilled and fostered in them. I loved them and gave them boundaries and they loved me and wanted to please me, so they followed my rules and loved and respected me.
The same follows with our relationship with God. We have a filial fear of God and want to please him. We obey his commands, even when we do not understand why they are there, simply because we trust that God has our best interests at heart. God loves us and wants what is best for us. The commands are there to help us, not hinder us. Because we understand our place in nature, that God is our creator and we are God’s creations, we respect and obey. Once we understand this relationship, the particulars of our love relationship with God fall into place.
Sandy Everett, CBS Class of 2019, is a member of St. Mary Parish in Simsbury and is finishing her third year of study in the Hartford Catholic Biblical School. Her further reflections on “Fear of the Lord” will follow in The FEAR in Fear of the Lord, Part 2.