Clothe thyself with the essence of righteousness, and let thine heart be afraid of none except God. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 323.

Try this for a minute: see if you can remember the last time you felt really afraid. Can you recall it?

If not, good for you—maybe you lead a charmed life, or maybe you’ve conquered your fears. But if you do remember that feeling of abject fear, think about why you felt that way. Did you fear humiliation, or a loss of respect, or poverty, or injury, or even death? Did you fear for yourself, or for someone close to you? Did the fear you felt make you change your behavior or your beliefs?

Fear can powerfully motivate us in life. Because it represents such a primal emotion, it affects us deeply and profoundly. Scientists have determined, though, that most fears aren’t innate—instead, we learn them. We all have early experiences that condition our fear response, and that make us afraid of certain things. My wife won’t ride horses, for example—not because of anything that ever happened directly to her, but because at three years old she saw her older sister fall off a horse.

scared-girl

These cognitive fears, whether rational or irrational, can persist throughout our lives, and even determine the course of our lives. In my own life, I developed an early fear of God, because my parents took me to a church that instilled a fire-and-brimstone version of the Creator in my young mind. God, that church taught, generally represented rage and anger. Unhappy with a sinful mankind, that God tended to punish severely. So I visualized that church’s God as a wrathful, bad-tempered tyrant, who insisted that I be good or suffer terrible consequences. For most of my childhood I feared that particular God, until I learned that I could reject his existence—and did.

For some time, I thought of myself as an atheist, denying the existence of any Creator because I didn’t like or believe the depiction of God I first encountered.

Then I learned about the Baha’i Faith, and I found a completely new conception of God. Instead of an angry, anthropomorphized Supreme Being, I learned that God exists far beyond the conceptual abilities of any human being. The birds of our hearts, I realized, can never reach the heights necessary to understand our Creator:

To every discerning and illuminated heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the Divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress. Far be it from His glory that human tongue should adequately recount His praise, or that human heart comprehend His fathomless mystery. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 46-47.

Any human attempt at understanding the Creator, the Baha’i teachings say, will fail. In fact, Baha’u’llah compares those attempts to a painting trying to comprehend the painter:

He is indeed a true believer in the unity of God who, in this Day, will regard Him as One immeasurably exalted above all the comparisons and likenesses with which men have compared Him. He hath erred grievously who hath mistaken these comparisons and likenesses for God Himself. Consider the relation between the craftsman and his handiwork, between the painter and his painting. Can it ever be maintained that the work their hands have produced is the same as themselves? By Him Who is the Lord of the Throne above and of earth below! They can be regarded in no other light except as evidences that proclaim the excellence and perfection of their author. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 336-337.

So maybe you can understand my consternation, years after I decided to become a Baha’i, when I came upon this passage in the Baha’i writings:

The fear of God hath ever been a sure defense and a safe stronghold for all the peoples of the world. It is the chief cause of the protection of mankind, and the supreme instrument for its preservation. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 27.

There it was again—the fear of God. As a Baha’i, I had learned that God loves humanity, that God’s love created the very core of our existence. I associated the Baha’i conception of God with mercy and kindness, not fear. So I searched the Baha’i writings for the phrase “the fear of God.” I tried to understand how Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha used it and what it meant.

I learned that in Arabic, the original language of much of the Baha’i revelation, the word taqwa often gets translated as “fear.” But that simple translation doesn’t fully convey the entire sense of the word’s many meanings. Instead, taqwa can also mean virtue, protection, faithfulness, piety, trust, righteousness and a high level of awareness of your place in the larger scheme of things. Rather than instilling a primal fear of an angry God, this much more complex usage suggests how we should relate to the unknowable essence of God—with the emotions of awe, respect and inspiration:

O people! Fear God, and disbelieve not in Him Whose grace hath surrounded all things, Whose mercy hath pervaded the contingent world, and the sovereign potency of Whose Cause hath encompassed both your inner and your outer beings, both your beginning and your end. Stand ye in awe of the Lord, and be of them that act uprightly. – Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, pp. 40-41.

After I studied the phrase “fear of God” throughout the Baha’i scriptures, I began to develop a completely different understanding of the term. Instead of reacting to it from a child’s fearful point of view, I began to see it from another perspective—a mixture of reverence, wonder and deep deference to that Unknowable Essence who created us all.

Next: The Greatest Divine Bounty: A Confident Heart

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

8 Comments

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  • Hooshang S. Afshar
    Sep 22, 2016
    Mr. Solhjoo, Apparently you see situation critical not UHJ. The Guardian's native tongue was Arabic and mother tongue Persian. He translated a lot of the writings of Baha'u'llah. I hope you are satisfied now with the translations with this explanation.
  • Steve Eaton
    Sep 21, 2016
    I think in Christendom now, many people understand the right meaning of "fear", as awe and respect. Of
    course, others must go through the
    long stressful process of reaction and
    resolution you did. It surely shows
    the harm an over-zealous clergy can
    cause. I'm grateful the Baha'i Faith
    is free of that barrier between us and
    our God!
  • Hooshang S. Afshar
    Sep 21, 2016
    Fear of God is like fear of child, who is immature and not well understanding, to fear his parents. It was proven that fear is a legitimate emotion. We must fear the consequence of breaking the law. If we have no fear chaos will ensue as unbelief and disregard for the religion of Baha'u'llah also has caused the same.
  • Taralina Gae'e-Atefi
    Sep 21, 2016
    Beautiful.....
  • Taralina Gae'e-Atefi
    Sep 21, 2016
    Hello dear friend, Harry....I fear modification of the Writings will lead to exactly what has happened in Christianity where the Bible has been 'modified' a 100 times ending up in over 300 Christian denominations...Rather, i quite like what Shoghi Effendi told one believer (please correct me) - The believer asked Shoghi Effendi to explain the meanings of the Writings a bit more simpler.....Shoghi Effendi told him, in, I am sure in the most loving way - TO BRING HIS CAPACITY AND LEVEL OF UNDERSTANDING UP ...I quite like that REPLY....love it...But thanks David for this beautiful sharing....
  • Judith &a Roger Claridge
    Sep 21, 2016
    Thank you so much for the essay it gave me great insight. My humble gratitude I have been a Baha'i for many years and this was a great explanation. Really appreciate receiving these essay/blog whatever they are called?✨?
  • Herb Dreyer
    Sep 20, 2016
    "We have admonished Our loved ones to fear God, a fear which is the fountain-head of all goodly deeds and virtues." ESW p135
  • Sione Saafi
    Sep 20, 2016
    Modify it to what? To modify it like the Bible which has so many versions, from street version to an academic one? We're glad that Baha'u'llah had protected His Faith and His Writings from the immature and childish play of past dispensations.