The term “fear of the Lord” conjures up images of a person quaking in their boots or falling prostrate to the ground. Surprisingly, this gift of the Holy Spirit is neither of those things.
St. Thomas Aquinas said the fear of the Lord should more so conjure up tender familial images. The gift is similar to a child’s fear of offending his father, rather than a “servile fear” of punishment.
Think of the child who looks up to their parent, wants to be like them. A son who sits next to his father while watching the baseball game. The son shifts his weight to sit like his father, adjusts his cap just so and stretches his arm across the back of the couch, just like dad. We look at this scene and say, “You look just like your father.” The boy beams back at us, for this is his exact desire.
And what if this child were to receive a sharp word from his father or his father moved to the other side of the room? It would break his heart.
St. Aquinas says the fear of the Lord is the fear of abandonment. The boy wants nothing more than his father to tousle his hair to let him know he’s glad to watch the game with him.
Sin separates us from God. When the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of the fear of the Lord, we want to be holy like our Father. The gift of the fear of the Lord gives us the desire to avoid sin because we do not want to be separated from God our Father.
Pope Francis clarifies that this fear is not the groveling type of fear but an “awareness of how small we are, with that attitude … of one who places his every care and expectation in God and feels enfolded and sustained by his warmth and protection, just as a child with his father!”
When the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, we realize just how small we are, how much we need to depend on our Father in heaven. The “fear of the Lord allows us to be aware that everything comes from grace.”
With this understanding, the fear of the Lord is more akin to wonder or awe.
Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;/ It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil.”
Like Father Hopkins’ “shook foil,” the fear of the Lord allows us to see God’s glory around us. We are filled with the wonder and joy of his loving presence in the world.
All good things come from God. When we begin to see these good things more clearly, we want to be with him always. The fear of the Lord is about allowing ourselves to be loved by God.
Imagine now an infant. She’s discovering the simple pleasure of unfurling a paper towel roll down the hall. Each time she pushes the roll, she squeals in laughter as it unravels further down the hall. She works her chubby legs, lost in folds and flesh, as she crawls toward the tube, to push it again and again.
We watch as if she is the first to ever discover this joy. When the roll reaches its end, she looks up at us as if to ask “again”? So we roll it up again just to dazzle her.
Our Father watches us with this much delight. When we receive the gift of the fear of the Lord, we can fully experience his love.
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(Gonzalez is a freelance writer. Her website is www.shemaiahgonzalez.com.)