According to Pope Francis, “The fear of the Lord, the gift of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t mean being afraid of God, since we know that God is our Father that always loves and forgives us,…[It] is no servile fear, but rather a joyful awareness of God’s grandeur and a grateful realization that only in him do our hearts find true peace.”
From a theological perspective “fear of the Lord” encompasses more than simple fear. Robert B. Strimple says, “There is the convergence of awe, reverence, adoration, honor, worship, confidence, thankfulness, love, and, yes, fear.” In the Magnificat (Luke 1:50) Mary declaims, “His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.” The Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) finds Jesus describing the judge as one who “…neither feared God nor cared for man.” Some translations of the Bible, such as the New International Version, sometimes replace the word “fear” with “reverence”.
It can also mean fear of God’s judgment. The fear of God is felt because one understands the “fearful expectation of judgement”. Still, this is not a fear that leads one to despair, rather it must be coupled with trust, and most importantly, love. In Psalms 130:3-4, it is said, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.”
In the New Testament, this fear is described using the Greek word φόβος (phobos, “fear/horror”), except in 1 Timothy 2:10, where Paul describes γυναιξὶν ἐπαγγελλομέναις θεοσέβειαν (gynaixin epangellomenais theosebeian), “women professing the fear of God”, using the word θεοσέβεια (theosebeia).
Roman Catholicism counts this fear as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. In Proverbs 15:33, the fear of the Lord is described as the “discipline” or “instruction” of wisdom.Writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Jacques Forget explains that this gift “fills us with a sovereign respect for God, and makes us dread, above all things, to offend Him.” In an April 2006 article published in Inside the Vatican magazine, contributing editor John Mallon writes that the “fear” in “fear of the Lord” is often misinterpreted as “servile fear” (the fear of getting in trouble) when it should be understood as “filial fear” (the fear of offending someone whom one loves).
According to Jerry Bridges, “There was a time when committed Christians were known as God-fearing people. This was a badge of honor.”
Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto coined the term numinous to express the type of fear one has for the Lord. Anglican C. S. Lewis references the term in many of his writings, but specifically describes it in his book The Problem of Pain and states that fear of the numinous is not a fear that one feels for a tiger, or even a ghost. Rather, the fear of the numinous, as C. S. Lewis describes it, is one filled with awe, in which you “feel wonder and a certain shrinking” or “a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant of or prostration before it”. It is a fear that comes forth out of love for the Lord.
Why Fear God, Not Man
The Bible urges us to fear God, not man. It says: “The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10) This fear is, not a morbid dread, but a healthy concern over displeasing our Life-Giver. It is a term that is closely related to love. Why, though, should we fear God and not man? Let us consider five reasons.
1 Jehovah is the Supreme One. Jehovah is far more powerful than any human. By fearing God, we take a stand on the side of the Almighty, to whom “the nations are as a drop from a bucket.” (Isaiah 40:15) Because God is almighty, he has the power to defeat “any weapon whatever that will be formed against” those who are loyal to him. (Isaiah 54:17) And since he will determine who is worthy to receive everlasting life, we are wise to let nothing stop us from learning about him and doing his will.—Revelation 14:6, 7.
2 God will help and protect us. “Trembling at men is what lays a snare, but he that is trusting in Jehovah will be protected,” says the Bible at Proverbs 29:25. The fear of man is a snare because it can cause us to shrink back from professing faith in God. God assures us of his saving power: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not gaze about, for I am your God. I will fortify you. I will really help you. I will really keep fast hold of you with my right hand of righteousness.”—Isaiah 41:10.
3 God loves those who draw close to him. The apostle Paul wrote these touching words: “I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor governments nor things now here nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creation will be able to separate us from God’s love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39) If we learn to trust in and obey God, we can enjoy the unbreakable love of the Universal Sovereign. What a privilege!
4 We appreciate all that God has done for us. Jehovah is our Creator, the one who has made life possible. In addition, he has provided not just the necessities of life but also the things that make life enjoyable and interesting. Indeed, he is the Source of every good gift. (James 1:17) David, a faithful man who appreciated God’s loving-kindness, wrote: “Many things you yourself have done, O Jehovah my God, even your wonderful works and your thoughts toward us . . . They have become more numerous than I can recount.”—Psalm 40:5.