Often when we hear the expression “fear of the Lord/God,” it conjures up images and experiences from our past of a God who is out to punish, who is on the watch to see if we are good, or who visits people with bad things if we are not good. Unfortunately, those images and experiences color our relationship with God and makes it hard to draw close to a God that is understood, even if unconsciously, as vindictive or someone to be feared.
However, in the tradition of spirituality, beginning with the First [Old] Testament, fear of the Lord is the sixth of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced in Isaiah 11:2-3: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon [Immanuel]: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength [= fortitude], a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord” [NAB]. In Hebrew fear of the Lord translates הפחד מאלוהים [apachd malohim]. This phrase “relates to the virtues of hope, love and temperance” and to “a sensitivity to the activity of God and reverence for God’s majesty,” wherein one longs for union with God and avoidance of giving offense to God; it is not to be understood “in terms of human fear or terror.” To this list of gifts was added the seventh, piety, an addition in the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Bible, so that the gifts would number “seven…connoting plentitude.”
The phrase might best be translated as “awe of God,” for at root the Hebrew carries the sense of reverence and worship of God. Moreover, “in the Old Testament ‘fear of God’ often becomes synonymous with obedience to the commandments of Yahweh,” according to the scholar Walther Zimmerli. In most instances of humans encountering God in the Hebrew Scripture, “the phrase ‘fear of the Lord’” refers to “the commitment of humans to God through covenant…never…the human being overawed in God’s presence”; nor does “the fear of the Lord…inspire fight, flight, or despair,” that is, fear responses. In Deuteronomy, “fearing God implies obeying and serving God…one cannot fear God and mistreat another person” because all are members of the covenant of God. The consequences of covenant relationship with God and neighbor means that “fear of God is associated with care of the dependent and vulnerable,” provides “a check on wickedness and exploitation of others,” and seeks “people’s lasting good and flourishing,” that is, “working for the promotion of human rights.” Daniel J. Harrington expresses fear of the Lord in this way:
Fear of the Lord is an attitude of proper respect for God, based on a realistic appreciation of who God is and who we are. It expresses itself in actions that are appropriate to a servant of God. Fear of the Lord is not a recipe for passivity and inaction. Rather, it is the beginning of true wisdom.
The phrase “to fear God/the Lord” is one of the most frequently cited phrases in all the Bible, with over 150 citations, with the version, “to fear God/the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” appearing nine times (Job 28:28; Ps 111:10; Prov. 1:7, 9:10; Sirach 1:14,16,18, 19:17; and Isaiah 43:35). Predominantly in the wisdom literature, fear of the Lord is also described as pure (Ps 19:10); “prolongs life” (Prov 10:27); “is a strong defense” (Prov 14:26); “is a fountain of life” (Prov 14:27); “is training for wisdom” (Prov 15:33); “is glory and splendor” (Sir 1:9); “warms the heart” (Sir 1:10), “is wisdom and culture” (Sir 1:24); and “is the treasure of Zion” (Is 33:6). In none of these descriptions of the fear of the Lord, is there a hint of being afraid, but rather partaking in aspects that are life-giving, as if to say that is who God is.
A related expression for one who draws close to God to do as God desires, is that of a God-fearing person. Eight such persons are called God-fearing in the Bible: Joseph in dealing with his brothers (Gen 42:18), Moses in choosing elders with whom to share his leadership (Ex 18:21), Elisha (2 Kgs 4:1), Hananiah (Neh 7:2), Judith (Jdt 8:8, 8:31, 11:17), Job (1:9), Susanna (Dan 13:2), and Cornelius (Acts 10:1,22). “God-fearing” is a favorite expression for Benedict — a quality to look for in the leaders and in the deans.
In Benedict’s rule, the Latin for God-fearing is always timens Deum. Fearing God, expected of every monk, is clearly seen as the first step of humility: “the first step of humility, then is that [one] keeps the fear of God [timorem Dei] always before [one’s] eyes (Ps 35:2) and never forgets it. [One] must always remember everything God has commanded, always keeping in mind that…all who fear God [timentibus Deum] have everlasting life awaiting them” (RB 7.10-11). Benedict follows the Biblical understanding of covenantal relationship with God: a God-fearing monk is obedient to whatever is asked and can anticipate eternal life. To reinforce this teaching on obedience to what God wills, Benedict quotes Psalm 35/36:2. The fear of God in this psalm “implies actual intimacy with God, knowledge of [God’s] love, and utmost confidence in [God’s] fidelity.”
Timens Deum contrasts sharply with pavor and perterritus, Benedict’s words for fear and terrify thoroughly, which appear on Prologue 48: “Do not be terrified thoroughly by fear immediately and run away from the way of salvation, which must be begun by a narrow beginning.” Thus, the God-fearing monk is not afraid or terrified in his/her search for God in the community, but rather s/he draws close to God in prayer, lectio, the Divine Office, in interactions with members of the community covenanted with God, aware that it is God’s grace that makes possible intimacy with God and the ability to love one’s fellow members.
Recently at Sister Karen Martin’s Perpetual Profession ceremony (August 15, 2020), I reminded her and the community in the words of Henri Nouwen of blessed memory the following:
Community life is not a creation of human will but an obedient response to the reality of our being united…we are community not because we like each other or have a common task or project but because we are called together by God. God seems pleased to call together in Christian communities people who are humanly speaking, very different, who come from different cultures, classes and countries…Each person must love the others with all their differences and work with them for community. These people would never have chosen to live with each other. Humanly speaking, it seems an impossible challenge. But it is precisely because it is impossible that they believe that God has chosen them to live in this community. So then [with the grace of God] the impossible becomes possible.
In other words, it is God who makes possible our becoming God-fearing, that is, we draw on God’s Holy Spirit to grant the gifts necessary to learn to love as the Divine One loves—totally, unconditionally, and in a covenantal relationship of desiring the best for others, a love given freely and wholeheartedly. This “God-fearing” way to love takes a lifetime of drawing close to the One who alone embodies loving unto death and beyond. One can never presume one has accomplished fear of the Lord; however, others may glimpse such in wise elders, in self-sacrificing parents and grandparents, in altruistic teachers, volunteers, and exemplars of servant leadership.
May we all look on such God-fearers around us, thank them for their example and hold our hope and trust in God to ask that we become models of grace, that is, treasurers of God-fearing love for those, who are vulnerable, exploited and longing to be seen as blessed in God’s eyes.
George P. Evans, “Gifts of the Holy Spirit,” The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, edited by Michael Downey (Collegeville, MN: A Michael Glazier Book/The Liturgical Press, 1993) 438.
William Wilson, New Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1987) s.v. “fear,” p. 159.
Walther Zimmerli, Old Testament Theology in Outline, as cited by Kason A. Fout, “What Do I Fear When I Fear My God? A Theological Reexamination of a Biblical Theme,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 9.1 (2015) 25.
Daniel J. Harrington, “Fear of the Lord,” America 199.15 (November 10, 2008) 39.
Samuel Terrien, “Psalm 36,” The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003) 314.
Henri Nouwen, as cited by Vü Tién Long, “The Grace of Community Life,” https://dhformation.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/the-grace-of-community-life/.