Filial Fear vs Servile Fear

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    prudent are all who practice it.
    His praise endures forever.
Ps 111:10

A spirit of counsel and of strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord,
    and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.
Is 11:2-3

What does it mean to fear the Lord? Aren’t we supposed to love God, and doesn’t he love us? How can we fear he whom we love and who loves us? In moral theology we make a classic distinction between two kinds of fear: servile fear and filial fear. But first, we need to look at how we react to fear.

We can respond to fear in two basic ways, by turning towards God, or away from God. In a moment of fear, we can choose to trust that God will help us, or we can trust in ourselves or the world for help. The first situation is a good kind of fear, we are moved towards God and will grow in love of God through this experience of fear. But, if we act in the second way, moving toward ourselves and the world, not trusting in God, we will grow away from God and in love of the world.

We experience this in life quite often. After we go through difficult and fearful moments, we have greater affection for the person or things that helped us through that moment. Children grow in love of their parents because their parents have helped them when they were afraid. Or addictions arise because a substance helps the person through the difficult moments or removes the fear. As Christians we should turn to God when we are afraid.

But this doesn’t answer why we should fear God in particular. After all, we fear things that we think will harm us or because harm will come to us. The question of why we fear can be seen in two ways, servile fear and filial fear. Or said more clearly, fear of punishment and fear of offending God. Let us look at these independently.

Servile fear or fear of punishment is turning towards God because you are afraid of the punishment for doing something wrong. I know that if I do a wrong thing I will be punished by God and I fear that punishment. So, I turn away from that wrong thing, or ask for forgiveness for doing that wrong thing in order to not be punished. Children provide an example for this, they will happily create a mess as long as they don’t get caught but are afraid of being put into time-out if caught. When you ask for forgiveness resulting from servile fear, you have what is called imperfect contrition. Imperfect contrition is another way to say that you are sorry, but not in the fullest or best way you could be sorry.

The better fear is filial fear or fear of offending God. In this kind of fear, you fear doing something wrong or ask for forgiveness not because you will be punished, but instead because you don’t want to harm your relationship with God. If I do something wrong, yes, I may be punished, but more importantly I will harm my relationship with God, and I fear harming that relationship. Once more we see this with children, when they seek forgiveness because they love their parents so much and don’t want to hurt that love. This is also the fear behind the phrase, “I’m not angry, but I am disappointed in you.” We exist in relation to others and harming relationships is the greatest harm we can do especially towards God. When we go to God seeking forgiveness motivated by this desire, we call this perfect contrition. This is the best reason and way to be sorry for our mistakes.

When we look at ourselves and why we do things or don’t, and why we are sorry for our wrongs we often find that we are fearful towards God in both ways, servile and filial. As we grow in greater love of God we will move from fear of punishment and more into filial fear. This is the shift from seeing ourselves as servants of God to beloved sons and daughters of God.

Back to our original question then, what does it mean to fear the Lord? Properly it means to love God and to fear doing anything that will harm my love of him and remove myself from his love of me. That is also why fear of the Lord is the first stage of wisdom. To obtain wisdom requires seeking after God, and you will not seek the Lord unless you love him. If you love God, you will fear harming your relationship with God. And so, you cannot seek the wisdom of God without first having filial fear of God. Not only will you seek God, but you will delight in your fear of God, because it is no different than your love of God.

May God grant us all an increase in the virtue of love towards him and neighbor, that we may fear all which might harm that love given to us.

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