This is perhaps the most misunderstood of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We take our English words too literally.
I understand how an Old Testament image of God would foster a sense of fear. Look at Sodom and Gomorrah and you see God’s wrath. God’s punishments on Israel are almost vengeful. Fear and anxiety seem to be a wise choice so that we not offend God. Add a description of hell as an eternal consequence and you’ve got the making of real paranoid fear of the Lord.
Jesus reveals a loving father who forgives sins. He will discipline us but with love. When a parent disciplines their child, it is to teach and show their love for the child. Most people have rejected corporal punishment because it does not engender the learning desired. Corporal punishment may result in a fear of the parent that damages the family relationship. The parent-child relationship helps us to understand the fear of the Lord.
A child who knows his parent’s love will have a fear of displeasing their parent. This is the essence of fear of the Lord. We reject sin not because of the punishment we deserve but because of our love of our Lord.
Catholics speak of an Act of Contrition, an expression of sorrow for our sins. A perfect act of contrition is when we are sorry because what we have done violates the love of God. An imperfect act of contrition is when we are sorry because we fear the punishments of hell. The mercy of God is available to all who are sorry for their sins, perfect or imperfect contrition.
Some Christians who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior do so to avoid the fires of hell. Others do so because of a growing personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That personal relationship is the foundation for fear of the Lord.
Scripture describes fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom. It involves a sense of wonder and awe at the greatness of God. It includes a knowledge of the personal love God has sown for all of us. It prepares us to see the wisdom of God’s plan and our place in that plan.
Fear of the Lord includes reverence, respect, humility, and a childlike faith. When we say “Oh, my God!” we mean “Oh, my most awesome and wondrous God who has revealed Himself in my life!”
Father Patrick Toner is pastor at Saint Joseph Catholic Church, 140 West Ave., Plain City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-873-8850.