And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. —Matt. 10:28
We ought to fear God. This might seem to be an obvious point given Our Lord’s clear commandment to do so, but in some of modern Christianity it is a point that is often under appreciated, misunderstood, or even outright denied.
The Scriptural and patristic corpus lauding the virtue that is the fear (φόβος) of God is enormous. In addition to Our Lord’s gospel commandment above, the Most-holy Theotokos proclaims in her Magnificat that the Lord’s mercy “is upon those who fear Him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50); St. Paul tells us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12); St. Paul also tells us that the fear of the Lord was the impetus behind the evangelistic ministry of the Apostles (2 Cor. 5:11); in Hebrews 10:26-31 Paul again lays out what a positively “fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God”; St. Peter tells us to fear God (1 Peter 2:17); in St. John’s Apocalypse we are told to “fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come.” (Rev. 14:7).
In the Old Testament, it is revealed that the fear of the Lord: “is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10); “is pure and endures forever” (Ps. 19:9); “is blessed [for those who] walk in His ways” (Ps. 127:1); “is glory and honor and gladness and a crown of joy” (Sirach 1:11); “is the crown of wisdom, causing peace and complete health to shoot up” (Sirach 1:18); “is all wisdom” (Sirach 19:20); “surpasses all; to whom can the one who masters it be compared?” (Sirach 25:11) (Having a complete canon is crucial, it turns out.) And that’s just a small sampling from the wisdom literature!
One popular take on fear of God is that ‘fear’ is really simply awe or reverence, not fear of admonishment, punishment, or judgment. While fear can mean something like reverence, and while reverence and awe are always elements of what make up a healthy fear of God, the Scriptural and patristic witness about fear of God can not be simply reduced to this. In the aforementioned passage from Matthew 10:28, for instance, the context makes abundantly clear that the fear of God we ought to have is fear in its primary sense, that is: dread, terror, fear. How else could wretched sinners dare to present themselves in the presence of the All-Holy Creator of All, other than in fear?
The context of many other passages also necessitate we use this primary or holistic meaning, while there is rarely warrant for insisting on the secondary meaning to the exclusion of the primary.
Furthermore, the testimony of the Fathers of the Church on the virtue of the fear of God resounds loud and clear. Saint after saint extols the fear of God in the most colorful tones, while constantly voicing the necessity of the constant remembrance of death and the fearful judgment seat of Christ. And much of the Church’s hymnography does the same. To give just a taste:
- “Now let each man enter into his own conscience, and reckoning up his transgressions, let him call himself to a strict account, that he be not condemned with the world. For fearful is that court, awful the tribunal, full of trembling the accounts, a river of fire rolls along.” —St. John Chrysostom
- “Die daily, that you might live eternally, for the one who fears God will live forever. ” —St. Anthony the Great.
- “He who fears God will pay careful attention to his soul and will free himself from communion with evil.” —St. Thalassios the Libyan
- “Those who possess the fear of God are the furthest from telling lies, because they have an honest judge, their own conscience.” —St. John of the Ladder
- “Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.” —St. John the Dwarf
- “No one can love God consciously in his heart unless he has first feared Him with all his heart. Through the action of fear the soul is purified and, as it were, made malleable and so it becomes awakened to the action of love.” —St. Diadochos of Photiki
- “When a man walks in the fear of God he knows no fear, even if he were to be surrounded by wicked men. He has the fear of God within him and wears the invincible armor of faith.” —St. Symeon the New Theologian
Many of those who attempt to downplay—or reject—the significance or value of fear of God in the spiritual life will point to 1 John 4:18 (and only to 1 John 4:18), which declares that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Given everything else the Scriptures and the Fathers have to say in praise of the fear of God, it obviously can’t be the case that St. John is denigrating it. Rather, in unison with the voice of the Church, this points to the progress of spiritual life, which advances from fear to love.
The foundation of our spiritual life is fear of God; its perfection is the love of God. This is certainly true, but what is often missed from a non-Orthodox perspective is that perfection in love is not attained the moment one first believes, but rather it is fought and struggled for throughout one’s life. Through our ascetic struggles, in which we cooperate with the grace of God in our lives, we move from fear to love, but fear is necessary throughout, until that struggle is completed. And for we beginners in the Christian spiritual life—which is no doubt most of us in the western world today—fear is especially indispensable and crucial, as it forms the foundation of that spiritual struggle.
St. Maximus the Confessor elucidates this concept:
Fear of God is of two kinds. The first is generated in us by the threat of punishment. It is through such fear that we develop in due order self-control, patience, hope in God and dispassion; and it is from dispassion that love comes. The second kind of fear is linked with love and constantly produces reverence in the soul, so that it does not grow indifferent to God because of the intimate communion of its love. “The first kind of fear is expelled by perfect love when the soul has acquired this and is no longer afraid of punishment (cf. I John 4:18). The second kind, as we have already said, is always found united with perfect love. The first kind of fear is referred to in the following two verse: ‘Out of fear of the Lord men shun evil’ (Prov. 16:6), and ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Ps. 111:10). The second kind is mentioned in the following verses: ‘Fear of the Lord is pure, and endures forever’ (Ps. 19:9. LXX), and ‘Those who fear the Lord will not want for anything’ (Ps. 34:10. LXX).
For Maximus, there is a mode of fear that is inextricably bound up with love and which matures alongside it which is not to be overcome, but is perfected in and through its union with love.
St. Anthony the Great is quoted above as saying that “the one who fears God will live forever,” but he also said at one point in his life (later on, perhaps) that “I no longer fear God, but love him.” St. Anthony is not denouncing fear of God as folly. Rather, this is another testimony to fear’s foundational character in the spiritual life, which finds its perfection in love. But you can’t leap directly to the latter without being well-versed in the former. And even for those who reach perfection in this life, fear of God is not so much expelled as it is transfigured.
It’s a temptation for Christians to think that fear itself has been banished permanently, simply by virtue of being Christians. In one sense, it has: we no longer are bound to fear the tyranny of sin, death, and the devil in our lives. Christ has defeated His foes decisively, and we are called to participate in His victory.
But fear of God is another matter altogether.
Warnings from our Savior such as those in Matthew 7:21–23, 10:26–38 and 25:31–46, as well as from St. Paul in Hebrews 10:26–31 and elsewhere should serve as sober reminders that our first movement in the direction of Christ does not secure the entirety of one’s salvation. It is only in completing the race that we receive our crown. And until we do, repentance in the fear of the Lord is the only path that leads to our ultimate perfection in Christ.