The phrase “fear of God” creates strong feelings in the hearts of most people. Yet it has been used in the writings of religions throughout history.
According to Wikipedia, fear of God “refers to fear or a specific sense of respect, awe, and submission to a deity.” People subscribing to prevalent monotheistic religions might fear divine judgment, hell, or God’s omnipotence.
Growing up, my knowledge of the fear of God was very elementary. Like most people, I had a fear of going to hell and suffering for eternity. I used to think that when I did something terrible, God the all-seeing, would see my actions, and sooner or later would think of a punishment. And then I would pay for my sins. Gradually I came to understand it better.
I am sure people who do not believe in a higher power see the whole concept of the fear of God as a gimmick to control the ignorant. I do not blame them for thinking that since sometimes, I struggle to understand it.
After referring to the Baha’i writings, however, my vision has changed. First, I realized that God is not someone who is waiting for us to make a mistake and punish us.
Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, explained that “God is the Father of all. He educates, provides for and loves all; for they are His servants and His creation.”
A recent personal experience also made me think differently. I have a beautiful garden with many varieties of flowers and fruit trees. It has been my prize material possession and a source of fantastic pleasure. I share the fruits with everyone in the community. Flowers attract birds and insects, and among them are a few families of hummingbirds who enjoyed the flowers that I have planted for them. I have put out a feeder specifically for them. I was not surprised to see that they enjoyed the feeders so much that they decided not to migrate. Instead, these hummingbirds have stayed the winter with me for the past few years. I put out the feeders for the whole winter since there are no flowers or other food sources.
Last year was extremely cold, and for more than a month, the temperature went below zero. The feeder would freeze at night, which meant that I had to defrost the feeder every morning and put it out again. They knew the routine and were always waiting for me, chirping to tell me to hurry up.
One day as I was putting out the feeder for them and watching their happiness, it dawned on me that if I do not feed them, they will die. Then I realized how much I loved them and how sad I would be without them. I had even canceled a trip to take care of them. How I wished that they knew how much I loved them. They didn’t realize that their life was in my hands — or that I made sure they were provided for — because of my love for them. Nobody asked me to do that.
At that moment, I felt how God must think about us. He loves us, and because of that love, he created us. He did not have to do it, but he created the whole universe, and all he wished was that we try to know him and show our love to him.
That opened my spiritual eye, and the fear of God disappeared. I thought about how all I have to do is follow his teachings that have been given to humanity by his manifestations. Without divine guidance, humanity cannot find the right path to spiritual progress. Abdu’l-Baha explains:
“Some imagine that an innate sense of human dignity will prevent man from committing evil actions and insure his spiritual and material perfection. That is, that an individual who is characterized with natural intelligence, high resolve, and a driving zeal, will, without any consideration for the severe punishments consequent on evil acts, or for the great rewards of righteousness, instinctively refrain from inflicting harm on his fellow men and will hunger and thirst to do good. And yet, if we ponder the lessons of history it will become evident that this very sense of honor and dignity is itself one of the bounties deriving from the instructions of the Prophets of God. We also observe in infants the signs of aggression and lawlessness, and that if a child is deprived of a teacher’s instructions his undesirable qualities increase from one moment to the next. It is therefore clear that the emergence of this natural sense of human dignity and honor is the result of education.”
In life, we have people that are our role models — someone we love, respect, and admire immensely. They could be our parents, our coach, our teacher, or mentor. We do everything to please them, and disobeying them is the last thing in our minds. We do that because we know that they love us, and listening to them is for our benefit.
Baha’u’llah tells us to “Adorn your heads with the garlands of trustworthiness and fidelity, your hearts with the attire of the fear of God.”
In my spiritual immaturity and limited brainpower, I see God’s love and the fear of God as the same. So, in my mind, when I read the Baha’i writings on this subject, I replace the word “fear” with “love,” and then it all makes sense to me.
Baha’u’llah wrote of “the fear of God, a fear that encompasseth all things, and reigneth over all things,” and he wrote that “We have admonished Our loved ones to fear God, a fear which is the fountain-head of all goodly deeds and virtues.”
Again, in my mind, I replace the word “fear” with “love.” You can try replacing the word “fear” with “love,” too.
My fear of God is the fear of me not measuring up to his expectations, knowing that by not following his teachings, I have deprived myself of his limitless blessing — his love — and that creates great fear in my heart. I believe that fear of God is an essential policing tool to help keep my conscience in check. It serves to remind me of the consequences of not following the right path.