There may be a ‘fear of the Lord’, but ‘fear’ in relation to God has a bad history. It seems to have more to do with a fear of ‘hell’ rather than fear of the Lord. In his traditionally short catechism, Herbert McCabe expresses ‘fear of the Lord’ as ‘the gift of wonder and awe in the presence of God’[ii] – which sounds about right.
‘Awe’ is a definite word. It’s not the same as a frisson when about to row across a choppy wind-swept river against the tide, or climbing a vertical rock face with neither expertise nor guide. ‘Awe’ is more than ‘very difficult’ or ‘impossible’ – it is tied in with mystery, with the uncontrollable and unfathomable, with what is ‘holy’. It rests on beauty[iii] and on wonder – those fitting and unbelievable attractions. For Diarmaid MacCulloch: ‘One great encouragement to sin is an absence of wonder’.[iv] ‘Wonder’ might well be seen then as an encouraging partner for ‘awe in the presence of God’.
Indeed, ‘awe’ has all the arresting uncertainty of love, of loving and being loved – a creative vulnerability. Paul is clear that: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ (Romans 5:5) ‘Fear of the Lord’ is bound up with God who is love (1 John 4:8) and light (1 John 1:5). Light and love can be hard to come by, especially if what we look for is certainty, or mistake awe for certitude.