Old Testament Fear of the Lord (FOTL) is often misunderstood in ways that can do damage to Christian
faith. Sandy Everett, Catholic Biblical School (CBS) Class of 2019, shares further reflections from her “no nonsense” approach to faith.
As Catholics, we are told to harbor a filial “fear” of God. We want to please him in the same way spouses, out of love for one another, usually want to please one another. We obey God’s commands even when we do not understand why they are there, simply because we trust that God loves us and wants what is best for us. God is our creator and we are God’s creations, so we respect and obey God’s desires for us. Once we understand this relationship, the particulars of our love relationship with God fall into place.
I think this is where confusion exists. Today, many people believe they need to “have a personal relationship with Jesus” and no longer have the Fear of the Lord(FOTL) many of our parents had. While I do believe, in fact, that we are called to a personal relationship with Jesus, I think we also need to remember we are not on the same plane. In seeking a personal relationship with God, some people try to bring Christ (God) down to our level and consider themselves equal with God. Therefore they no longer want or feel any need to fear the Lord. But God is God, and we are not. As God’s creations, we need FOTL simply because of who God is. We respect and obey Jesus (God) because of who we are. We do not know what the end game is going to be, but we defer to God’s will because we understand our place in the history of salvation.
That’s why we must trust in the power and mightiness of God. And that begins and ends with a healthy form of filial fear. In the Old Testament, I am sure, there was some of the servile fear thrown in as well. I think that is why Christ refines this FOTL in the Gospel of John 15:15 where he tells his followers, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” In this way, Jesus establishes FOTL for new generations. The OT filial fear has been “filled out” by the teachings of Christ.
The Book of Proverbs tells us that one needs the Fear of the Lord just to begin to understand God. And in Proverbs 29:17 we are reminded that it is through discipline that children give delight. God must discipline His creations in order for us to learn (gain understanding) and give him joy. When we disobey God, we should fear disappointing God and, by the same token, when we obey and give God glory, we are enabled by grace in Christ to share God’s divinity (CCC 1391). In Proverbs 2:5 we are told that it is only when we have this filial FOTL that we begin to understand the knowledge of God.
Fear of the Lord brings not only wisdom and knowledge of God, but other blessings as well. Proverbs 10:27 states that those who fear the Lord will live long lives, suggesting that God has established His rules and commands to protect us not to hinder us. It is out of love freely given that God has established this type of relationship with humanity. Again, this is reiterated in Proverbs 14:26-27 where it states “the FOTL is a fountain of life turning one from the snares of death.”
In Proverbs 3:7 and 8:13 we discover that by fearing the Lord we at the same time turn from evil. We are told that pride and arrogance are the ways of evil, and when we try to be more than or equal to the Creator we are full of pride and arrogance. Humility therefore is part of filial FOTL. In being humble and understanding/accepting our place as a creation, we are expressing FOTL daily. Not the “shake in your boots” fear, but submitting ourselves humbly in loving relationship with One who is greater that we.
In Proverbs 15:16 and 33, Fear of the Lord lessens anxiety and gives humility, once again reminding us that humility is a good thing. Being humble is a virtue in the Christian world. Not to be confused with humiliating, which is not a virtue (though with the right attitude, humiliation can help us get to humility). According to the CCC 2559, “humility is the foundation of prayer,” and FOTL gives us humility. Sobering.
Proverbs 16:6 states, “By steadfast loyalty guilt is expiated, and by the Fear of the Lord evil is avoided.” Evil is avoided because once we understand the order of the relationship between God and us, once we have FOTL, we respect and obey God out of love and God protects and guides us out of love. In Old Testament covenant language, if we are loyal to God, God is loyal to us.
To me, it seems clear that the terms wonder and awe are too superficial for the real FOTL that God desires of us. Pope Francis in his homily on June 11, 2014 reminds us that FOTL is not servile fear “but rather a joyful awareness of God’s grandeur and grateful realization that only in him do our hearts find true peace.” He continues to say that this type of fear is “the attitude of those who place all their trust in God and feel protected, like a child with his father,” and is a gift that “allows us to imitate the Lord in humility and obedience.” Pope Francis reminds us that FOTL is an “alarm” to remind us when we are not on the right path and that sometimes we need to have “the holy fear of God to draw” us back into the fold. I love that “holy fear of God.” Pope Francis doesn’t mince words.
So surprise! Fear of the Lord really is a gift—a gift that is often misunderstood because many of us have negative connections to terms such as fear, obedience and submission. The terms ‘wonder and awe’ have replaced ‘fear and obedience,’ not because fear and obedience are incorrect, but because of the prejudices so many people have to those terms. I am not sure where it happened that people perceived that fear was wrong. I fear fire, meaning I have a healthy respect for fire and understand that if I play with it, I might get hurt. I fear the Lord. I have a healthy respect for the One who created me. I can only begin to understand God and what his plan for me is in the history of my salvation by obeying His commands and following His will, for I trust that God will protect me along my path. I mean, how could He not? I am His creation and He loves all he has made.
Sandy Everett, CBS Class of 2019, is a member of St. Mary Parish in Simsbury. Her initial reflection on “Fear of the Lord” appears in this blog as The FEAR in Fear of the Lord, Part 1.