What relationship with God is expressed by the words “to fear God”?
Different words are used to express a relationship with God. We can believe in God, love him, and serve him. Sometimes we hear the words “to fear God.” This expression is hard to understand, but since it is not rare in the Bible, it is worth reading a few texts attentively in order to try and grasp their meaning better.
First of all, there is fear as a background of all religions. Manifestations of the divine generate strong emotions, at times even panic and terror. They both fascinate and frighten. There can be no encounter with the unexpected reality of God without a moment when we are unsettled. It was this way from the appearance of God on Mount Sinai down to the first Easter morning: the woman who came to the tomb “were afraid” (Mark 16:8). But in the Bible, in almost all cases, the emotions awakened by a manifestation of the divine are immediately followed by the words: “Do not be afraid.” Religious fear or awe is not a value in itself. It is not meant to last, but should lead to confident trust.
In other contexts, fear of God is a lasting and not a transitory reality. “Fear of the Lord is pure, lasting for ever” (Psalm 19:10). The explanation of this unchanging fear is not to be found in a religious emotion, but in the political language of the time. Treaties of protection stipulated that those benefiting from this protection should fear and serve their protector faithfully. In God’s covenant or pact with Israel, the same words express a faithful commitment to God: “What does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to follow all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul?” (Deuteronomy 10:12). Fearing, loving and serving God are all synonyms here. Fear of God is no longer an emotion but a stable attitude of faithfulness to the covenant.
In the psalms, fearing the Lord means “keeping his covenant and faithfully following his precepts” (Psalm 103:18). “Those who fear the Lord” form “the great assembly” of the faithful gathered together in the Temple to worship God (Psalm 22:26). In this context, fear of the Lord corresponds approximately to what we would call religious devotion. That is why it can be taught: “Come, children, listen to me; I will teach you fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:12). “Teaching fear of the Lord” does not at all mean to awaken fears, but rather to teach prayers and the commandments, to initiate someone into a life of trust in God. “You who fear the Lord, trust in him” (Sirach 2:8).
When we recognize how the Bible uses the word “fear,” we can translate it in many cases by “worship” or “love,” and translate “fear of the Lord” by “faithfulness.”
Can fear of the Lord still mean anything for us today?
The current unwillingness to speak of fear of God is certainly justified, insofar as the language of fear has clouded over the fact that God is love. To avoid this danger, as far as possible another vocabulary is employed. Nonetheless, in both Testaments, there are passages where fear of the Lord is the key expression that cannot easily be replaced.
According to the prophet Isaiah, the fear of God eliminates the fear of human beings. “This was how the Lord spoke to me when his hand took hold of me and he taught me not to follow the path of this people, saying, ‘Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy; do not dread what they dread, have no fear of that. The Lord your God you will proclaim holy, him you will dread, him you will fear.’” (8:11-13). It is obvious that Isaiah is calling for courage and trust, but he calls that trust dread and fear! This is a rhetorical expression, but it is also more than that. Isaiah knows that fear in uncontrollable. So it is as if he was saying, “You are unable not to fear. Well then, fear God! Focus on God all the energy that animates your fear.” This fear of God that absorbs all other fears is not easy to define, but it is certainly the source of a great inner freedom.
Shortly afterwards in the book of Isaiah, fear of the Lord is a charisma of the Messiah: “On him will rest the Spirit of the Lord: the spirit of wisdom and insight, the spirit of counsel and power, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2). Fear of the Lord is a gift of the Holy Spirit, just as much as wisdom and power! This gift can also be called humility. Fearing the Lord means recognizing God as the source of all good. This attitude of transparence was at the heart of Jesus’ life: “I do nothing of my own accord. […] It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his works” (John 8:28 & 14:10).
The apostle Paul wrote, “With fear and trembling work out your salvation, remembering that God is the one who operates in you both the will and the operation” (Philippians 2:12-13). Since Paul affirms that salvation comes from faith, “working out salvation with fear and trembling” must be an aspect of faith. Faith is not a facile assurance, but a “trembling” trust, a trust that is alive, surprised, vigilant. Our salvation is a miracle that God “operates in us,” and that is why we must be fully attentive to it. “Working with fear and trembling” means becoming aware that every instant is an encounter with God, for God is at work in us at every moment.
“Fearers of God, praise him; all the race of Jacob, honor him; revere him, all the race of Israel!” (Psalm 22:24). The progression of the verbs is surprising: “praise, honor, revere the Lord”! Here, fear is prayer that has reached the point where it no longer knows what to say: praise that has become astonishment, silence and love.
Letter from Taizé: 2004/4