fear of God
Art depicting King David with the Ark of the Covenant. Thinkstock photo

In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” — the first Chronicle of Narnia by the British author C.S. Lewis — some children and their beaver friends come upon the lion Aslan for the first time.The sight of this great and glorious golden beast, a symbol of Christ, strikes terror in their hearts even as they fall in love with him.

“People … sometimes think,” Lewis comments on that moment, “that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (C.S. Lewis, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” New York: Collier Books, 1970, p. 123). 

The good and the terrible; something worthy of love and something worthy of fear. Can they be one and the same? Or are fear and love always mutually exclusive? More specifically, can we love God and fear God at the same time? 

The familiar text from St. John’s first epistle comes immediately to mind: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love” (1 Jn 4:18). 

At the same time, however, the Scripture in numerous other places commands us both to love God and to fear Him. In the Old Testament, for example, Moses insists that our love for God must be total: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt 6:5). Yet, just a few lines later, he adds, “The Lord, your God, shall you fear; him shall you serve” (v. 13). 

If we’re tempted to think that the command to fear was a passing element of the Law of Moses, destined to fade away with the New Covenant of grace, we need only listen to the instruction of our Lord Jesus himself. He repeated the exhortation of Moses about loving God with all we are (see Mt 22:37), but He also warned sternly, “I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him” (Lk 12:5, RSV). 

So we have a biblical dilemma: If perfect love casts out fear, how can we fulfill the commands both to love God perfectly and to fear Him? The answer lies in understanding first what we mean by love and fear. 

Movements of the Will

Ancient Christian writers — in particular, St. Augustine — often spoke of love and fear as opposite movements of the will. The will, of course, is that faculty of the soul by which we choose and act on our choices. 

From this perspective, to say that we love something is to say that our will is attracted to it, that our soul chooses it, “reaches out” for it, or is drawn to it as something desirable. On the other hand, to say that we fear something is to say that our will is repelled by it, that our soul has an aversion to it and shrinks back from it as something intimidating or undesirable. 

This imagery of motion draws in part from biblical language. The Old Testament uses the term “heart” to mean “will,” and when the Hebrew writers speak of loving and obeying God, they refer to a heart turned toward God or a soul attracted to God (see, for example, Ps 42:1-2; 1 Kgs 8:47-48). When describing terror, on the other hand, they write of a heart that falters, melts away or in some other way shrinks back from what it fears (Is 21:4; Ps 22:14-16).  

In this view, then, to love God is to see Him as good and thus desirable, and to act according to that desire. To love Him perfectly is to see Him as the greatest Good, the source of all Good, and thus to desire Him above all else and to act accordingly.  

Why Fear God?

If we find God desirable, then, why would we shrink back from Him in fear? What would it be about Him that, even as He attracts us by the beauty of His goodness, also repels us as intimidating? 

It’s certainly true that we sometimes have false views of God, creating in us a groundless, unhealthy fear. “I knew you to be a hard man,” said the servant to the master in Christ’s parable, and his misperception led him to bury his talent (see Mt 25:24-25, RSV). In a similar way, some people are so terrified that God will condemn them for anything less than perfection that they’ve given up trying to live the Christian life altogether. 

Even so, since we’re commanded to fear God, there must be something about Him that genuinely calls for a response of restraint: of shrinking back, of stopping short, of corralling our desires and our actions in accordance with what we know about Him. The Scripture and ancient Christian writers identify several such divine traits that make Him, as Lewis said, both “good and terrible at the same time.” 

➟ We fear God’s superlative attributes as our Creator because we are mere creatures.   

When God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind of a fearsome storm, He challenged the frightened man with these sobering words:  

“Where were you when I founded the earth?… Have you ever … commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place…? Can you send forth the lightnings on their way…?” (Job 38:4,12,35). 

Job’s reply provides us a useful lesson: “I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know. … Therefore I … repent in dust and ashes” (42:3,6). 

Like Job, we must learn that this kind of fear of God — a natural fear of the Creator by the creature — is healthy for us because it humbles us. It reminds us who we are by reminding us who we are not: the Boss.  

No wonder, then, that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prv 9:10, RSV). It teaches us who God truly is and who we truly are. 

➟ We fear God’s utter holiness because we’re sinful.  

Sin is a stain in our souls. When we come into the presence of a God who is wholly without such stain, we find the encounter painful. Why? When holiness meets sin, it “burns”; our God is a “consuming fire” whose perfect purity purges away our sin (see Dt 4:24; Heb 12:29).  

We fear God, then, because His very presence provokes in us a discomfort. As it was for Isaiah in the Temple, when we stand before a God who is “holy, holy, holy,” our sinfulness makes us cry out, “Woe is me!” (see Is 6:1–5). 

Once again, the fear is healthy. It’s a sign that the flaming coals of God’s righteousness are drawing close to burn us clean. 

➟ We fear God’s justice, because we deserve punishment and need chastisement.  

When we first learn the truth that there is a just God who “comes to judge the earth” (Ps 98:9, RSV), we fear Him, for we know we’re guilty. We rightly have “a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries” (Heb 10:27). 

Such fear can be healthy if it spurs those who have strayed from God to repent and seek forgiveness. If fear drives people away from hell, it can drive them straight into the arms of God.  

Meanwhile, even Christians trying to live according to God’s will may be chastised for the sake of their spiritual growth: “For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines” (Heb 12:6). We’re like little children who know that our father will correct us when we misbehave — and that knowledge helps us to behave the right away. 

This kind of fear, like the others, is our ally. “By the fear of the Lord man avoids evil” (Prv 16:6). It’s a fence to keep us from trespassing. TCA 

Paul Thigpen, Ph.D., is the director of adult faith formation for St. Brendan’s Catholic Church in Cumming, Ga. He is past editor of The Catholic Answer and the author of 37 books. Visit his website at www.paulthigpen.com