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What does it Mean to “Fear” the Lord?

This verse from Sirach can sound paradoxical in an FDR-like “only thing we have to fear is fear itself” kind of way. Both the verse and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words are advice to become fearless, though the avenue is different:

  • FDR: “fear” fear to become fearless
  • Sirach: “fear” God to become fearless

Words often take on a different meaning in a theological light, just the same way that dictionaries preface one of the definitions of a word with the name of a field or discipline (e.g., Medicine, Biology, etc.).

So, “fear” from a Catholic definition is not the same as the typical definition of fear, which is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat” (New Oxford American Dictionary):

“The word fear [in] the expression ‘fear of the Lord’ means awe or profound respect. It does not mean literal fear of God’s power but an awe and respect for the absolute majesty of God. We should ‘fear’ offending God not because of his just punishment but because he is all good and deserving of our love.”—Fr. Charles Grondin, Fear of the Lord?

“The ‘fear of the Lord,’ as it is usually used in Catholic language, is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit [… and] perfects our hope of remaining in God’s grace and someday being with him in the happiness of heaven. This means that this fear is a fear caused by love. We fear to lose God by sin, since we love him, and we have a reverent fear and awe of him because he is so beautiful and great and powerful. This fear is called “filial” fear, because it [is] like the fear of a child who is afraid to hurt the feelings of his father because of their mutual love. It is different from what is called ‘servile’ fear, which is based on punishment, like the fear of a slave for his master. The fear of the Lord is [a] source of great peace and happiness; it is thus very different from worldly fears of suffering or punishment and rather it helps us endure pain because of our love for the Savior.”—Fr. Hugh Barbour, O. Praem., “Fear of the Lord” Is a Beautiful Thing



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