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Why You Should Crave Holy Fear

by Dr. Tom NealMarch 08, 2018

The desert father Abba Poemen once said, “These three things are the most helpful of all: fear of the Lord; prayer; and doing good to one’s neighbor.”

Fear of the Lord is a largely unappreciated gift of the Spirit that, according to Scripture, is the beginning of wisdom. It’s my experience that in preaching and teaching there’s a general tendency to evade all of the dangerous dimensions of faith that threaten our culture’s “I’m okay, you’re okay” ethos, for fear that religion might seem in some way or other to be “negative.”

Fear itself is a natural attitude appropriate in the face of danger, and is associated often with situations that involve some form of risk. Now, there is no doubt that in Scripture we are counseled both to fear God and to not fear God, depending on the context of the counsel. Generally, the directive to turn away from fear (“be not afraid”) is associated with those who have chosen to do God’s will in highly ambiguous, risky, or threatening circumstances, while those counseled to be afraid have chosen to set themselves in opposition to the divine will and thus have good cause to tremble.

But there is another sense in which fear is an apt attitude before the God of infinite awesomeness, grandeur, power, justice, and mercy. Being fully aware in the presence of this God, one is motivated to keep the commandments. This mode of fear stands closer to reverence than to cowering or obsequious fear.

Personal Taste

Such fearful wonder, awe, and sublime dread before the limitless majesty of God’s mind-blowing nature, for all the years since my coming to faith in 1987, has had a deep hold on me and is something outside of which I can no longer think. If I were asked to describe its “feel,” I would say it is a strange mixture of terror and love. Let me share three examples that, when blended together, helpfully allude to my inner vantage.

(1) Back in 1984, my brother took me to Yellowstone National Park, and brought me to a lookout that stood at the edge of a staggeringly sheer cliff. As I looked cautiously over the edge, he grabbed my jacket and jerked me over the railing to look straight down. Though he thought it was funny, I thought I’d been swallowed up by an edge-less abyss and stared death in the face.

(2) During the years I was working on my PhD, my wife was my “Adrian” who regularly pulled me from the pit of despair and challenged me to keep on. One time, after I had experienced a grueling humiliation after presenting a first draft of my dissertation, I came home nearly speechless. Patti just sat there with me for a long time, saying nothing. Just being “with me.” I will never forget the feeling I had as she sat there with me: I suddenly re-appreciated the serenely gorgeous beauty of the unmerited character of her lavish love for me.

(3) When I worked for the AIDS hospice for the homeless in DC, I was sitting alone with a dying man and realized that, since he had no family or friends, I was all he had. What a tragic honor. But there was an air of reverence in our silence, and as I spoke about this or that I felt the presence of God sharply. And because of that I felt constrained to speak only with great respect for the immensity of the moment. He stood on the threshold of eternity at the end of a long journey of suffering.

Holy fear is like the terror of being freely loved by another whose limitless dignity, dreamed into existence by Infinite Mystery, can’t be purchased or stolen but only consented to and reverently received. Such love taught my heart to fear, and such love my fears relieved.

This singularly unique inner blend wrought by holy fear was well-described by the philosopher of religion, Rudolf Otto, as mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery at once seductively fascinating and deeply terrifying.

As with Moses before the fiery bush, we who bear this fearsome gift kindled by Pentecostal fires live life without sandals.

Effective Fear

It is difficult to quantify the “effects” of this Spirit-gift in day-to-day life, but here are some thoughts. First, holy fear offers the opportunity to see everything with a mind of reverence, which makes one loathe to trivialize anything or anyone. Second, it sustains a constant awareness that God is attentive to every thought, word, and deed, which helps one intuit the correspondence between one’s own mind and God’s. But for me its most profound effect is in serving as a gentle, yet relentlessly insistent, internal caution against sin—and as a gentle and equally insistent call to repentance after one has sinned.

I share this personal “taste” of the Spirit’s gift of fear only to highlight the great importance of this too often sidelined grace from God. Ask for this gift to be kindled within, seek it for your children, your grandchildren, or anyone who has lost an awareness of the gravitas that permeates our God-filled universe that was created for one purpose: to birth saints. Holy fear’s fruits are sweet, restoring the wonder and awe that alone are able to open the heart to taste and see the greatness of the Lord.

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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