⛲ “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,” says the Book of Proverbs.
😨 Many of us would find have read verses like these, and went right ahead without thinking about what this means. Aren’t we supposed to love God? Why is fear considered such a positive quality by the biblical authors? What did they understand that we don’t today?
⛪ Today, we learn how the Orthodox Church understood this “fear of the Lord” and stressed its practical importance in our life as Christians; how it can be used as a shield against sin and the armor we need on our path to salvation. We look at the wisdom of St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Basil the Great, and St. Philoxenos of Mabbug to clarify this concept and its application to our lives. We also learn that this “fear” is not opposed to love, but is instead the beginning of the road to “perfect love” (1 John 4:18).
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The text of the graphic is also provided and expanded below –
Should We Fear God?
In our last post in this series, we learned that the “Fear of God” in the Old Testament especially can be seen as code for the expected human response to God, which involves specific rituals and ethical actions.
In this post, we will explore how the Saints of the Holy Church have interpreted the emotional dimension of this fear. This kind of fear, properly understood, is recommended by Christ and His Holy Saints to help us live as true Christians.
To Fear God or To Love God?
St. Augustine of Hippo (+AD 430) explains to us –
“There is no fear in love.” (1 John 4:18) But in what kind of love? “Perfect love casts out fear.” However, let fear make the beginning, because “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) Thus, fear prepares a place for love. But when love begins to inhabit, the fear which prepared the place for it is cast out.
If there is no fear, there is no way for love to come in. As we see in sewing, the thread is introduced by means of the needle; the needle first enters, but unless it comes out, the thread does not come into its place: so fear first occupies the mind, but the fear does not remain there, because it enters only in order to introduce love.
Two Kinds of Fear
Now if fear must leave when love comes in, how should we understand David when he says, “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.” (Psalm 19:9) What fear is this, then?
St. Augustine continues, “It is one thing to fear God lest He cast you into hell with the devil, and another thing to fear God lest He forsake you. The fear by which you fear lest you be cast into hell with the devil, is not yet “pure”; for it comes not from the love of God, but from the fear of punishment: but when you fear God lest His presence forsake you, you embrace Him, you long to enjoy God Himself.”
The “impure fear” departs as soon as love enters, but the “pure fear” lives alongside the love of God and endures forever.
Fear Is A Beginning
Like many other Fathers and Mothers of the Church, St. Basil the Great (+AD 379) emphasizes that fear is the necessary starting point of the Christian faith, and love is the perfection –
“Since ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’ (Proverbs 1:7), let those who are earthly-minded be taught through fear. In fact, fear is necessarily employed as introductory to true religion. But love, now taking over, brings to perfection those who have been prepared by a fear that is capable of knowledge. To the whole earth, therefore, Scripture advises fear. ‘Let all the inhabitants of the world be in awe of him.’ (Psalm 33:8) … In short, let them be in awe of no one else, and let nothing move them except the fear of God.”
Christ Urges Us To Fear
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” – St. Matthew 10:28
Mor Philoxenos of Mabbug (+AD 523) advises us to fear nothing except the judgement of God, “Take hold of this fear in your soul and do not fear any other thing … There is nothing in the world fearful for the soul that has sensed the fear of God. The trembling of tribulations is not considered anything for one who has in him the trembling of the fear of the justice of God.”
How Does Fear Help Us?
Mor Philoxenos of Mabbug, in his Memre on The Fear of God, helps us understand how this fear is beneficial to us.
“Because of two things it is necessary for us to fear God: either because we have sinned or in order that we might not sin. Whoever remembers the faults that he has already committed should be afraid of the punishment of his vices. Whoever believes that he is pure and has no faults in the past should be afraid lest he grieve God by the faults that are coming.”
Mor Philoxenos says that “the fear of God is both a protector and a healer.” It is the wall protecting us against sin by the constant memory of God, and the wise healer chasing us to repentance when we have committed sin.
“But when you are alone by yourself, and the walls of the house and the roof shelter you on all sides, here the armor of the fear of God is necessary for you, because in darkness sin is easily accomplished. Here you should alert your soul to the memory of God and stand up like a champion against the sin that attacks you in order to defeat you, and against the hidden enemy who battles against your life by the movements of your desire.”
“It is fitting for our nature to fear God. Then [the ability] to love him is given to us by his grace. A human being is not worthy to love God, except that God lowers himself in order to be loved by a human being. Love is the result [or endpoint] of fear. Until one has labored and toiled and sown in fear, he cannot harvest love.”
Although the modern world emphasizes loving over fearing God, the ancient Church makes it clear that one is not opposed to the other. Like how children are guided by both love and fear, our Lord teaches us to obey the commandments through fear until we reach the perfection of obedience out of pure love. Therefore, the wise will learn to use the “fear of God” as a weapon in the spiritual battle.
May God grant us that godly fear. Amen.
- St. Augustine of Hippo. “Homily 9 on the First Epistle of John.” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, edited by Philip Schaff, vol. 7, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/170209.htm.
- St. Basil The Great, and Agnes Clare Way. “Homily 15 (on Psalm 32).” Saint Basil: Exegetic Homilies, Catholic University of America Press, 1963.
- Mor Philoxenos of Mabbug, and Robert A. Kitchen. “Memra 6 and 7: On The Fear of God.” The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug: A New Translation and Introduction, Cistercian Publications, United States, 2013.
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