Monday, February 1, 2016

How having a 'fear of God' can be helpful in our spiritual lives.

Scripture tells us that the fear of God is the first stage of wisdom, and this is found in Proverbs 9:10.  It does seem to be contrary to what Jesus came to reveal to us about God, and that God is love.  If God is love, and we do believe that he is, then where and how does fear have a part in love?  How do we understand this in our spiritual thirst and yen for holiness?  John’s epistle tells us that there is no fear in love, and that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).   These two passages from sacred scripture do seem to be antithetical to each other, resulting in us asking then, which one is right?

In essence, they both are.  Wisdom is after all, the ability to act and think using insight and understanding.  What we understand and what our insights give us about God ultimately has to be precipitated on the belief that at the heart of our fundament is that God is the very cause of our being, and that our universe ultimately has to orbit around him.  A man is then truly wise if all his actions and his motives in life demonstrate this in clear and vivid ways.  Coming before God is then akin to seeking an audience with a being who has so much above us in terms of authority and power.  Anyone who has had the experience of physically meeting a ‘larger than life’ figure would be unnerved by this prospect.  Taken in this light then, the ‘fear of God’ would be similar to be holding someone in complete awe.

But on the level of language alone, it is natural to think that the fear of God denotes a fear of being punished by him.  Spiritual writer Timothy Keller uses a refreshing analogy to have a healthy and helpful understanding of this ‘fear’.  Imagine, he says, that you are introduced to a person whom you have always held in great admiration.  You reach out to shake his/her hand, and it strikes you that you are actually in the process of meeting this person.  Think of someone who is totally star-struck and is at a loss for words.  You are trembling and sweating at the same time, and find yourself breathing to a point of being out of breath.  You are ‘suffering’ not because you are fearful of being punished by this person, but because you are very afraid of either doing or saying something that may spoil the moment or end up being inappropriate.  There is a combination of both a joyful admiration admixed with a fearfulness. 

If this is a common experience when it comes to meeting a human person, how much more is this then a proper response when it comes to God! 

As a priest, I have tried to help my congregation come to a healthy understanding of this fear of God by drawing on yet another analogy.  Think of a man and a woman living in the full knowledge of their marital love and the vows that they made on their wedding day – vows that would bring them strength when their times are tested, and vows that when kept and respected become powerful indications that God’s love for us all have an eternal and unconditional dimension.  When this ‘full knowledge’ of the severity of these vows is lived out, there is yet another dimension that is present – that of fear – a holy fear that causes each person in this covenant to never want to be untrue or unfaithful to a relationship that has such deep and abiding implications. 

Any unfaithfulness or dishonesty that occurs then truly will aggrieve and mar this beauty.  It is, as Keller also says, like the fear that we have when someone places an exquisite, utterly beautiful and priceless vase in our hands.  We tremble when we think of this, not because the vase can hurt us.  It can’t!  But we are terrified of the possibility of our hurting it!  In the same analogous way, God of course cannot be hurt by us, but we can, and often do, aggrieve God by our actions – the same God who has always been holding us in love, and has saved us from eternal damnation.

The modern mind will always find ways to skirt around the issue of needing to be in fear of God.  After all, isn’t the clarion call heard from so many that the ultimate liberation of the human heart is when one is totally free and lives with wild abandon and with no fear at all?  The very notion of fear in a relationship seems to show a weakness than strength, and powerlessness rather than a confidence. 

Words can only convey that much of a truth.  We all know that.  Yet, we also know that as much as words are limited, they convey a truth that goes deep.  The ‘fear of God’ suffers the same way.  Heard wrongly, it makes God out to be an ogre.  Taken positively, the relationship that we have with the Divine can only grow and blossom.


  1. Dear Fr Fong,

    Thank you very much for this post! I have always wonder why should I even fear God when he is so full of love for us. Now I do understanding the true meaning of this fear.

    Thank you and have a blessed week ahead.


  2. “If God is love, and we do believe that he is, then where and how does fear have a part in love?”

    There was a time in our mission school days when it was compulsory practice for all students entering secondary school – from Sect One up to Sect Three - to be imbued with a rudimentary knowledge of English Literature and the English Language - so as to equip them to be conversant with the culture of the “civilised.” So, two periods a week was set aside for this noble goal.

    In my first year, I remember how agonising and terrifying - it was for most of us, children from non-English speaking backgrounds - to endure the lessons in phonetics. It was a dread, very much akin to fear. It was not made any easier when the acerbic comments of the teacher dripped with disdain. These sessions proved a success, academically –the palpable tension and paralyzing fear of the students, notwithstanding. Most did well because of the fear of punishment. The experience left a humiliating, bitter taste of defeat that time could not erase. There was a negative-ness, a sense of loss .......that was demoralising.

    In our third year, however, we had a young Irish nun, a passionate lover of Keats, R. Burns,Tennyson, Wordsworth and Shakespeare..... among many other notables. How she made us chortle with mirth and laughter with crazy rhymes, limericks and sonnets and shed tears over stories like “The Mill On The Floss” and “The Scarlet Letter”. Most of us loved her dearly . We feared her frowns, whenever we did not do well enough, for we did not want to disappoint nor hurt her. It was a reverential fear, a ‘holy’ fear. It was a fear that motivates - motivating us to excel.......a productive fear.

    I believe that this is the type of healthy fear that is meant in the Scriptures........when it mentions having the ‘fear of the Lord’ – such as when Paul tells the Corinthians about desiring to obey God in all things................ “with fear and trembling.”

    God bless u, fr


  3. Dear Fr. Luke,

    Thank you for clarifying this commonly misunderstood term 'the fear of God'.
    I like the way you explain the fear of God using the analogy of someone placing an exquisite, utterly beautiful and priceless vase in our hands. There's the fear of breaking the vase yet we know we do not want to break it...we love it and we want to treasure it.

    Another point that struck a chord in me is about holy fear in marriage that causes each person in this covenant to never want to be untrue or unfaithful to a relationship that has such deep and abiding implications.

    What came to mind was, the love behind the 'holy fear'. It's because we love that person (eg. our spouse) so much that we do not want to hurt him/her. It's when that 'love' becomes selfish, when we place ourselves before the other person that the 'holy fear' diminishes and the other form of fear creeps in.
    Possibly that is when unfaithfulness or dishonesty occurs, thus marring the sacred beauty of marriage.

    When couples do get back together after an episode of unfaithfulness or countless episodes of dishonesty, can this scarred marriage still be seen as beautiful and sacred? Can this 'holy fear' in marriage be restored?

    I suppose in our relationship with God, we will still have this 'holy fear' despite the countless number of times we have hurt God. Could it be that each time when we sin against God and then reconcile with him, that 'holy fear' is restored?

    Lastly, I wonder if you could also clarify on the 'sin against the Holy Spirit'. This puzzles me too.

    Thank you, Fr. Luke for enlightening readers like me. :)


  4. Thanks frLuke. Glad i check out the older posts and read this. My fear is not of God but losing Him. Yes, the more precious He is, the more i am careful of my relationship with Him and so my prayer is "Lord, even if i let go of Your hand, please do not let go of mine."