‘Fear of the Lord’ is a bit misleading

By | May 12, 2009

Remember when you were 10 and you accidentally broke your mother’s favorite vase? No, that wasn’t about the fear of the Lord. (Fear of the wrath of God, maybe.)

The “fear of the Lord” is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. (The others are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge and piety.) All seven are first found in the Book of Isaiah (11:2-3), listed as attributes of Emmanuel.

“Fear of the Lord” is similar to piety because both refer to reverence toward God. But “fear of the Lord” as more than that. It also has to do with affection — which may seem a little odd when paired with the word “fear.”

The Hebrew word from which “fear” in “fear of the Lord” is translated is yara or yirah. It actually has to do with “flowing” — sort of like a natural rhythm. (In modern usage, Yara is a girl’s name, usually meaning sweet as honey — which also flows.)

Proverbs 9:10 tells us “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” As in “all other knowledge starts here.” So, think of flowing, as a spring that rises up from a source.

“Fear of the Lord,” as a gift of the Spirit, usually has two parts: fear — as we would feel towards something powerful and compelling, as well potentially dangerous — and reverence, in the form of awe. It also has something to do with respect, as we would have toward our parents. (Don’t forget that broken vase.)

But it’s all a complicated mixture – that sort of flows together and carries us along.

What was the source of your distress about breaking your mom’s vase? Yes, part of it would have been because she would be mad. But wouldn’t she also have been sad? And who wants to make their mother sad?

“Fear of the Lord” is more like that. We don’t want to make God angry — but not so much from fear as from not wanting to make God sad. (It’s a bit theologically simplistic to try to explain God as angry or sad, but the image works.)

“Easton’s Bible Dictionary” explains “fear of the Lord” as “a fear conjoined with love and hope, and is therefore not a slavish dread, but rather filial reverence.”

In one of his first speeches after being named to the Chair of Peter, Pope Benedict XVI explained that biblical “fear of the Lord does not coincide with dread, but is the recognition of the mystery of the divine transcendence. Because of this, it is the basis of faith and is joined with love.”

And John Mallon, in a 2006 article in “Inside the Vatican,” built on the pope’s teaching and said that “a person truly in love actually fears doing something that would hurt the beloved or create distance in the relationship.”

So “fear of the Lord” refers to loving God so much that we want to please him and are “fearful” at the idea of in any way hurting the relationship we have with God.

You don’t want to hurt someone you love — and if that someone is your parent, you would want to do everything you could to make them pleased with and proud of you. We don’t want our mother to cry — we want her to smile.

It’s the same with God — “fear of the Lord” makes us want to see God’s smile flowing naturally our way because of our attempts to be like him and follow the ways of his son, Jesus — who called God “Abba.”

Sources: “Easton’s Bible Dictionary;” www.ccel;.org; www.ancientHebrew.org; www.insidethevatican.com; and www.catholicculture.org



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