In our modern understanding, fear is a bad thing. How then can fear be a gift? But in the Bible, the fear of God is not the fear we associate with danger or paralysis. It is a sense of reverence before God as the source of love and goodness whom we fear to offend and whose love we fear to lose. For the person of faith, this is the greatest fear that relativizes all others and in a great paradox, lessens our fears of everything else as well - even the fear of death for death itself has been overcome by God with Christ’s resurrection. This is why St Thomas Aquinas could compose the following beautiful prayer that captures what the fear of the Lord means: ‘May I not desire to please or fear to displease anyone but you’ (Prayer for the wise ordering of one’s life). Or in the words of another dictum: ‘Fear God and fear nothing or no one’. Fear of the Lord therefore is a gift towards freedom for courage.
In the book of Proverbs, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9:10). Having a holy fear of God is to humbly admit that God is the giver of all life, including the gift of life we enjoy at this very moment. Fear of God moves us away from presumption and taking life for granted. It moves us towards praise and gratitude. It also grounds us in the reality that we are but creatures with limited understanding and vision who are prone to error.
Fear of the Lord is also known as the gift of awe and wonder in God’s presence. It is the capacity to marvel at a night sky and the felt immensities of the universe we inhabit. It is to gaze in contemplation on the beauty of creation and allow our hearts and minds to be raised up to the God who is responsible for it all. Talking about St Francis of Assisi, St Bonaventure wrote that for Francis, contemplation of creation was like ascending the rungs of a ladder on which his spirit was lifted up towards praise of God. Although creation contains the spirit of the living God, God is not contained by all that he has made. God is present in all he has made but is beyond all he has made.
This spirit of awe and wonder fills Psalm 8 where the psalmist prays: ‘When I look upon the heavens, the work of your hands, what is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you should care for him. Yet you have made him little less than a god. You have crowned him with glory and beauty, made him lord of the works of your hands, put all things under his feet’.