Fear of God

One of the unique features of Christianity and Judaism among world religions is the idea that God is to be feared. Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, considered the fear of the Lord to be among seven gifts of the Spirit, the others being – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety. The “Novena to the Holy Spirit for the Seven Gifts” says,

The gift of fear fills us with a sovereign respect for God and makes us dread nothing so much as to offend Him by sin. It is a fear that arises, not from the thought of hell, but from sentiments of reverence and filial submission to our heavenly Father. It is the fear that is the beginning of wisdom, detaching us from worldly pleasures that could in any way separate us from God. They that fear the Lord will prepare their hearts, and in His sight will sanctify their souls.

The NIV tends to substitute ‘reverence’ for ‘fear’ indicating that more than simple fear is intended. In Scripture, one meets God at the intersection of worshipful adoration and holy awe characterized by unspeakable reverence, mesmerizing glory and paralyzing power – here is the idea of the fear of the Lord. One is simultaneously awestruck, speechless, defenseless, exposed, utterly vulnerable and yet magnetically drawn, compelled and simultaneously free.

The fear of the Lord is linked to wonder and awe, an awareness of the glory and majesty of God who is the essence of perfection – perfect knowledge, perfect goodness, perfect power, and perfect love. It is here on this ground that humans are separated from God; He, as ancient kings who merely reflected an earthly version of His throne, is placed in an altogether different class. Aquinas calls this ‘filial fear,’ which is differentiated from ‘servile fear.’ Filial, from filius, means son and is what a child would experience with reference to offending his father. The second term is from the Latin servus, meaning slave, and is of a lesser quality, it is a mere fear of retribution. The first is concerned with the relationship; the second is preoccupied in a narrow self-interested way with consequences. The first is disappointed with self in a nobler sense. The valued honor and name of the father as well as the family are at stake, and the regret is profound; the second is not looking at long-term effects of behavior, only this moment, only the avoidance of penalty. The regret here is that one was caught.

The fear of the Lord is said to be the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). Proverbs 9:10 adds, “… and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Such reverence positions us to begin the learning process – as finite, dependent creatures. It is foundational. Thomas Aquinas says that wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel are cognitive; while fortitude, piety, and the fear of the Lord are volitional. The fear of the Lord “fills us with a sovereign respect for God, and makes us dread, above all things, to offend Him.” This is essential for a healthy prayer life. Psalms 130:3-4 declares, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.”

  • This teaching is from The Praying Church Handbook – Volume I – Foundations. Find this publication at: www.alivepublications.org.

  • This teaching can also be found in one of our new ebooks, Fear of God and Prayer, ready to download to your mobile device.

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