‘Teach me thy way, O LORD, that I may walk in thy truth; unite my heart to fear thy name.’
The fear of the Lord is one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Isaiah 11:2-3 (along with wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, and piety), so clearly it is something that we should all think about and work to develop in our spiritual life. However, it seems to have become marginalised over the years, partially due to the negative connotations associated with the word ‘fear’ and partly because of a lack of appreciation for the need to truly revere God, and to see Him as utterly other than we are.
This latter issue is perhaps the by-product of a distorted version of the orthodox teaching that we are all made sons and daughters of God through baptism. That we are able to call God ‘Father’ and draw close to Him through Christ is an unbelievable privilege (something I have written about before here), but now it is more often seen as a given. That the God we are able to draw near to is the awesome Lord of all creation, terrible in His majesty and of irreproachable holiness, is something not taken into consideration so much.
For this is what the fear of the Lord is essentially about – to recognise God as God, as the source and ground of all Being, as One whom if we were to ever encounter Him, we would drop to our knees and shield our faces, feeling both unworthy and overcome with the sheer splendour before us (c.f.; Exodus 3:6; 24:17). By recognising Him as such, we thus also recognise the need to respect Him and obey Him, as the source of existence and fount of all goodness – fear of the Lord can also be read as awe of the Lord, and submission to the Lord.
So, with reference to the quotation at the head of this post, when we ask God to ‘unite my heart to fear thy name’, we are asking Him to give us a heart completely in obedience to Him, a heart that puts Him before anything else, precisely because He is God, our Creator and Lord. Another psalm, (this time 131:1), brings this out well also, when it says:
‘O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.’
Here the psalmist acknowledges the great gap between what we know (and also what we could ever possibly know) and the infinite wisdom of God. How often now do we hear of those (in academy, pulpit and pew) who seem to think they know better than God, can decide for themselves what it is He would want doing, and that perhaps He made a mistake in this or that area of revelation (or in the means given to preserve and interpret that revelation). Fear of the Lord helps us instead to adopt an attitude of humility before God, trusting that we do not and never can know it all, and that we must trust Him instead, who is all, and so is far beyond us in wisdom.
Another good example from the Psalms is 19:9, which includes within its wonderful rejoicing over God’s law a specific dedication to the fear of the Lord, and which reads:
‘the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever’
Here we get the impression that adopting the attitude of humility and reverence discussed above is something that is itself ‘clean’ – which suggests that it is a pure and honest position, and also that it can be cleansing of the one who adopts it. This tallies well with what we read in the sixth beatitude, where Our Lord says ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ – i.e.; if we include the fear of the Lord in our spiritual life, our hearts will be purified from ulterior desires, predisposed to receive all that God gives us, and so will better be able to grow in the life of grace, which indeed results in seeing God – both finally in Heaven, and right now, by discerning His will in creation.
The fear of the Lord is also a common theme in the Pentateuch, and is given particular emphasis in Deuteronomy, where Moses reiterates to the Israelites how important it is to order all their lives towards God. For example, in Chapter Ten:
‘And now Israel, what does the LORD your God require 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 soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good…
…You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen.’
These passages explicate further the connection between the two concepts seen in Psalm 86:11 – fear of the Lord and walking in His ways. For Moses, if the people of Israel were to love and serve the Lord, they must have it impressed upon them that He is to be held in reverence and awe, to be placed before all else. Otherwise, if He was not recognised by them as utterly holy (both in terms of being completely ‘other’ and completely perfect in His goodness), they would never take seriously the need to follow the commandments laid out by God for their benefit.
Like the loving Father He is, God knows that it is not enough to tell His children that certain patterns of living are constructive and certain others are destructive – they need to know that God is not only loving and merciful, but also very serious about their welfare, more so even than themselves, and that they are not dealing with a ‘celestial Santa Claus’ figure such as He has been turned into by many modern theologians. It is ‘a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God…for our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 10:31; 12:29) and this is something we need to be reminded of, lest we fall into complacency and forget our obligations, both to God and ourselves.
This leads me on to the other aspect of the fear of the Lord that has perhaps led to its falling out of favour – the negative connotations of the word ‘fear’. We know that God is Love, so what have we to do with fearing Him; also, what kind of faith is it that relies on fear for its continuation? These are important and valid points, and the movement to place greater emphasis on love as our primary motivation for following God and doing His will no doubt emerged for good reason – i.e.; an over-emphasis on fear of damnation. However, the balance now seems to have swung too far in the other direction, with many presuming upon both God’s kindness and our chances of salvation.
God is indeed Love, but because of this He wants the best for us, and does not want us to fall into sin – as it is bad for us, and makes us less than we were destined to be. He also knows that there is a possibility for us to become so wedded to darkness that we become blind to the light, to become so embroiled in subtly destructive ways that we cannot find our way out again. Thus, whilst it would be wonderful if everybody did the will of God out of the (undoubtedly much nobler) motive that they love Him, any sober assessment of our own interior lives will show that this is often not the case, and if we are to be kept from sinning, other means must be employed.
It is in these cases that I think fear of falling away is not wholly a bad thing – provided it is not used as a stick to beat people with, or to scare them into enjoying life in perfectly innocent ways, it can be a very good back up for most of us when we don’t feel like we love God as we should. Again, I would certainly not want a return to fear-mongering from the pulpit for its own sake, or to using fear as a primary motivation for getting people to believe (the degree to which this happened in the past I don’t know, but it certainly existed to some extent), but an honest conveyance of the dangers of presumption would I think actually help a great deal of people who would otherwise let their faith drift into complacency.
To return to the main theme though – that of reverence and awe of God as a fundamental Christian virtue – I would also argue that if we are to love God, this particular gift of the Holy Spirit is a necessary prerequisite. For if we do not recognise the great holiness and majesty of God, how far we have fallen short of what we owe to Him, and what He has established should be our true nature as human beings, then how are we ever to truly appreciate the greatness of the Incarnation and Atonement. The great and holy God humbled Himself, taking on our human nature, and suffered the ignominy of our rejection, finally allowing Himself to be subjected to crucifixion, and, out of love, bearing the weight of our sins on the Cross.
To see how great an act of love this was on God’s part, we must first see how great a condescension it was, how great and awesome He truly is, how little He needs us, and how serious our sins against Him are. If we do not have this prior commitment to a fear of the Lord, then it becomes very easy for our faith to become purely presumptuous, our hope to become reduced to temporal concerns, and our love to grow lukewarm, even cold. The fear of the Lord truly is then the beginning of wisdom (c.f.; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10; Sirach 1:14), in the sense that it teaches us the limitations of our own wisdom, the need to place God first in our lives, and the depth of the love He showed us in Jesus Christ.