The Fear of the Lord

In seminar we’ve been reading Genesis, Exodus, and Job these past two weeks, and something that often comes up is the meaning of the “fear of the Lord.” When people do good things it’s usually explained that they do so because they fear the Lord, as when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, or Moses agrees to keep the Commandments. That is difficult for us to come to terms with: I imagine that it would be more resonant to hear about someone doing things we can hardly imagine doing out of love of God rather than fear. If it said that Job loved and trusted God, and that therefore he acted as he did would, I think, be easier for us to understand than to hear that he feared him. Still hard to read, as when St Ilian has spikes driven through his skull by order of his father, and says “O God, may I not stop from praising Thee!” That’s difficult to imagine or comprehend, but only in extremity, not in feeling. Fearing the Lord, on the other hand, is more difficult to comprehend in feeling than in result; it’s easier for us to accept sacrificing one’s own son than it is sacrificing him from holy fear.

As most of us have heard, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but what does that mean? When God is actually present, He seems more like to say “do not fear,” as happens in several places

The other day I read (upon the recommendation of someone from church) a letter by an Orthodox nun to a former calvinist, which is much more closely aligned with how some of my classmates and I seem to feel about fear and love for God. It begins:

I was glad you called this weekend and let me know how you are doing. It sounds like you have a pretty good case of Calvinist-Jansenist indigestion: uncomfortable and debilitating, but not inevitably fatal… Our gerondissa at St. Paul’s calls it the Medieval Sickness, a combination of moralistic nitpicking, pride,secretiveness,lack of faith in God, and lack of belief in the compassion of God. It makes one pretty joyless, prone to ill-considered and short-lived bursts of ascetic effort (often as not alternating with equally ill-considered and short-lived bursts of carnal distractions of one sort or another), often melancholy, often judgmental. If you know much about the early history of New England colonization, you can see that the Puritans represent the acme of this spiritual type.

Those who have this mindset tend, by nature or training, to see God always as the stern, unappeasable Judge, whose dealings with man are always based on law and justice, and who demands of us an exact fulfillment of rules and rubrics. And we, in fulfilling these, do not really hope for, or believe in, the transfiguration and renewal of our souls and minds. At best, we hope that our scrupulous fulfillment of the Law will induce God to overlook our flaws and sins which we, in our heart of hearts, feel remain always with us, unforgiven, unchanged, and unchangeable. In such an atmosphere, one’s spiritual life is not really a journey into communion with God through repentance and deification, so much as a dreary pendulum of efforts to appease an inscrutable and implacable God, interspersed with the outbreaks of resentment and frustration this causes us. Naturally, as you have observed, this leads either to a mental breakdown, or to the abandonment of participation in church life, which we come to feel is not “working” for us.

The gist seems to be that there’s a certain kind of fear that’s more closely aligned with neurosis than with holiness. But then we’re reading Exodus and God commends those who fear Him and threatens those who don’t with death. I still cant’ quite get at the fear, even then — I imagine something like a passage in Narnia where one of the children (I can’t remember which) says that perhaps she wouldn’t so much mind if the lion ate her, considering it was Aslan. At Great Vespers we sometimes chant a lovely hymn from the Psalms, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked; alleluia” — one of the lines is “serve the Lord with fear and rejoice in Him with trembling, alleluia” which seems somewhat more comprehensible, but only somewhat, and mostly because of how lovely it sounds.

I’ve heard protestant ministers preach on it, and they (being wont to emphasize personal relationships with God) have tended to explain the puzzle away by saying that when the Bible says fear what it really means is something like “awe and respect.” The thing is, what they really seemed to be saying is that what they would feel toward God in those circumstances might be more like awe and respect, and so that must be what the writers of Scripture meant as well.

I don’t have an answer, it just seems that there’s something there — perhaps a shift from the Old Testament to Christianity? Or a peculiar hubris of our current society? Or something about how we speak of God as one of whom we might be in awe?


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