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The Fear of the Lord as a Means to Truth and Courage

January 22nd, 2009 by Jason · 2 Comments

For the college group I lead we’re reading in Ecclesiastes for the next few months.  Last week we talked about how such a skeptical, some would say heretical, book made it into the canon.  The dominant interpretation of Ecclesiastes is that it is framed by a narrator who brackets the beginning and end of the book with an orthodox reading.  However, I’m not fully convinced of this because there is a common thread of thread throughout the book: the fear of the Lord. But what exactly is fear of the Lord?  Like many moderns, I find I’d rather ignore this aspect of faith, even when it does keep coming up in strange books like Ecclesiastes.  Honestly, I normally either dismiss it as a throwback to Old Testament days of an inscrutable and mean-spirited deity or water it down to mean simply reverence or awe.  Both interpretations lead to the same practical outcome: basically ignoring it.  But check out just a sampling of verses, from both OT and NT, that talk about this fear:

Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God. (Ecc. 8:12-13)

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.  (Ecc. 12:13)

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Prov. 1:7)

‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5)

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)


So, we have this continuous thread, not only throughout Ecclesiastes, but also the whole Bible.  In fact, one of the names for God is “the fear of Isaac” (Gen. 31:42).  However, part of me really wants to just settle it with that 1 John verse and relegate this whole fear of the Lord thing to a pre-Christian emotion or tweak it to something more comfortable like “respect.”  A couple things prevent me from doing so, though.  At the top of the list is the Luke 12 verse, which is not only spoken by Jesus but uses fear in a sense that sounds more like awful, gut-shaking terror than “our God is an awesome God.”  The other reason is that when you look up the word used for fear in these verses, it really means fear—there are other words for awe and reverence.  In fact, the New Testament verses (and the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew in many cases) use the greek word phobias, from which we get the English word phobia.

Does that mean we need to get back to to hellfire and brimstone, a God under whose inscrutable power and anger we can only cower?  That may be a place to start, but hellfire and brimstone is a bad place to end because it’s not fearful enough. Josef Pieper in chapter V of his book (most of which is online; go Google Books!), Faith, Hope, Love, is helpful here in giving a little more depth and theological history to the concept of the fear of the Lord.  Pieper points out that fear is simply a part of human existence, because at the root of our fears is anxiety in the face of nothingness.  Simply by nature of having being we fear our being can be diminished or ultimately come to nothing (something Ecclesiastes talks about quite a bit).  If fear is a given, then sinful fear is when we what we fear is out of line with reality (just as sin is also disordered love).  That appears to be at least part of what Jesus is getting at in the Luke 12 verse: to fear a human more than God is to ascribe more power to the creature than the Creator.

Pieper then goes on to distinguish between “servile” and “filial” fear of the Lord.  Servile fear has at its root a fear of punishment for sin, similar to what “fire and brimstone” is meant to evoke, I suppose.  Pieper points out that this sort of fear can be of the Holy Spirit, and I can imagine if tyrants and child abusers had some of this fear the world might be a saner place.  However, the fallout of fundamentalist and other traditions that capitalize on this sort of fear with reckless abandon have also shown that it can lead many to hate or cower before God as much as it might move some people to love God.  Furthermore, Pieper points out that servile fear should decrease as one grows in the knowledge of the love for God and as one is bound closer to the ultimate Ground of Being.

“Filial” fear, however, doesn’t decrease, but rather increases as one loves God more, because it fears sin itself, rather than the consequences of sin.  Filial fear sees sin as more “evil” than the punishment that comes from sin, because sin is seen to be a turn to nothingness.  This sort of fear increases as one knows oneself and loves God for God’s sake, because a turn towards nothingness, defecting from God is both always possible and more and more undesirable.

There are also some more positive virtues that fear of the Lord may be associated with.  Pieper thinks that filial fear also guarantees that the virtue of hope does not become a false platitude, “a presumptuous anticipation of fulfillment,” by keeping before us the fact that fulfillment has “not yet” happened.  I’m less convinced of this, simply because it is the faithfulness of God that guarantees hope, not our anticipation of fulfillment.

I am more convinced in its ability to push us towards truth, however.  Alison, in writing his essay on homosexuality that I discussed in the last post, invokes this sort of fear as the impetus for seeking truth in community.  If we are motivated by a fear of God—a fear of sin because it turns away from being—it moves us to seek out voices that challenge us “lest our own irresponsibility, our own hardness of heart and defect of vision perhaps be carrying us down a route that is too easy….”  Especially when moving into new territory, such as the direction Alison wants to go in regards to homosexuality, it is important in order that “where what I say is crazy, this be rectifiable before it is too late.”

A final virtue a fear of God may incubate is Christian courage.  Here I would simply point you to the excellent documentary on Sophie Scholl, a Lutheran woman who, at 20 years old, refused to fear Hitler more than God and was killed for that refusal.  This prayer of hers (from here) captures much of what I’ve been discussing: the nothingness of sin, the reality of walking always with that nothingness at our side, and the hope, however intangible it may sometimes feel, found in the God of Jesus.

I’m still so remote from God that I don’t even sense his presence when I pray. Sometimes when I utter God’s name, in fact, I feel like sinking into a void. It isn’t a frightening or dizzying sensation, it’s nothing at all—and that’s far more terrible. But prayer is the only remedy for it, and however many devils scurry around inside me, I shall cling to the rope God has thrown me in Jesus Christ, even if my numb hands can no longer feel it.

Tags: prayers · spirituality · theology

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Truth in Paradox, More Thoughts on Ecclesiastes // Jan 30, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    [...] Thus far, though, I’ve found a wealth of wisdom in Ecclesiastes.  Last week’s discussion on the fear of the Lord proved fruitful and now I’m finding more than I expected in the contradictions that are [...]

  • 2 Peter // Mar 15, 2009 at 4:20 am

    One must always read Sacred Scripture as a whole and never take particular verses out of the context of that whole. When one reads the whole of Luke 12: 4-7, one cannot help but be comforted by the “sparrows” verses. And, when one adds Lk. 21: 18-19 to the mix, one is again comforted that, through the grace of God, one will, hopefully, endure. We can always add the “lillies of he field” to the mix. My, how we are loved!

    I am always pleased to see Herr Pieper quoted.