“Depart from Me, O Lord.”

ST. LUKE’S GOSPEL an interesting insight into the character of St Peter. We read there that, meeting the disciples – who had spent a fruitless night fishing – the Lord Jesus encouraged them to throw their nets in again. “Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’

“When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. … When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken” (Luke 5:5-9). 

Simon had encountered something he did not understand and judged – rightly, as it happened – that it must have been an experience of God’s power. His first reaction was to shrink away from this holy man Jesus. He felt deeply inadequate before the holy; he didn’t belong in Jesus’ company and felt that he would be consumed by this contact for which he was so unprepared.

The Fear of God

This sense of utter inadequacy before the Lord is what the Scriptures call “the fear of God.” “Fear of God” is a phrase we hear repeatedly in our Liturgy. In the Great Litany the deacon invites us: “For this holy house and for those who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.” The phrase is repeated when the deacon invites us to receive Communion: “Approach in the fear of God with faith and with love.” We are the ones who have entered “this holy house” and are invited to the Lord’s Table. Do we do so with the fear of God? And just what kind of fear is it?

The English author C.S. Lewis wrote that fear of God is not like fear of a wild animal. It is not terror that God is out to get us. Nor is it panic that we will be punished once God catches sight of us, like a schoolmaster looking for the culprit who is disturbing the class. The fear of God, which is praised as a virtue in both Old and New Testaments, is rather the sense of our inadequacy before God that destroys any false sense of self-confidence or self-righteousness we may have once we glimpse the truly holy.

St Peter, like many of the first disciples of the Lord Jesus, was a sincerely observant Jew. He kept the Law as best he could, observed the Sabbath and the holy days and the rest; but Peter sensed the difference between these “icons of holiness” (if we can invent such a term) and the real thing (the Lord Jesus).

Many of us were raised in the Church and grew up amid its “icons of holiness.” We may have learned the “right answers” expounded in the catechism. We may have learned prayers, practices, principles of morality and the meaning of many elements of our Church’s life but never truly experienced the presence of God. If so, we may find it difficult to appreciate the concept of the “fear of God.” But we then run the risk of believing that we understand God because we know when and how we are to fast or what the Church teaches on this or that matter. But a relationship with God is more than a matter of ritual or doctrine or anything we may feel we possess. As we read in the Sermon on the Mount, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22-23).

The Beginning of True Wisdom

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; knowledge of the Holy One brings understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Not only is fear of God described in Scripture as a virtue, it is praised as the key to true wisdom. In our culture wisdom is often considered the product of how much information we have acquired. In the spiritual life, however, information alone does not make one wise – particularly physical knowledge gained by the senses. As the twentieth-century Serbian saint Nikolai of Zicha noted, “If someone were to know the number of stars in the heavens and the names of the fish in the sea, the amount of grass in the field and the habits of the beasts in the forest but would not have the fear of God, his knowledge is as water in a sieve. Before his death, his knowledge makes him a greater coward than the completely ignorant.” The depression and despair many in the intellectual elite feel at the approach of death confirms the saint’s teaching. True understanding comes from experiencing our inadequacy in the face of God’s greatness and learning to rely on His compassion.

The Two-fold Fear of God

As with everything in the spiritual life, fear of God is not static: it grows and develops as our experience matures. St Maximos the Confessor expressed it this way:

“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 detachment; and it is from detachment 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” (First Century on Love, 81-82).

Our fear of God, then, is like a child’s perception of its parent. At first an errant child fears what his parent will do to him when his disobedience is discovered. Later he grows to fear hurting his parent’s feelings, showing ingratitude or being separated from the parent. Fear of God is not meant to disappear as we grow to love God but to develop into that mature realization of the love of God despite our weaknesses, which we call true worship.

Fear of God and Humility

‘There is a humility that comes from the fear of God, and there is a humility that comes from the fervent love of God. One person is humbled because of his fear of God; another is humbled because of his joy.

“The person humbled from fear of God is possessed of modesty in his members, a right ordering of his senses, and a heart contrite at all times. But the man humbled because of joy is possessed of great exuberance and an open and insuppressible heart”

(The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian)