Should we Fear God?

Nga Rev. Dan Goodenough
storm in ocean

A question from a friend: "Could you please explain how to understand the following statement?:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do His commandments.” (Psalm 111:10, and, similarly, Proverbs 9:10.)

It's a good question: How can FEAR be a beginning of wisdom? Especially if the object of fear is a God of love?

This theme of fearing the Lord Jehovah runs strongly through the Old Testament, the revelation given to the Hebrews who lived before He came to earth as Jesus Christ. Here's one example to start with:

"Let all the earth fear Jehovah: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast." (Psalms 33:8-9)

Jehovah is Creator. The Old Testament often describes Him as a powerful and demanding God. He commands that people learn to obey Him. He rewards the obedient and punishes those who disobey and turn away from Him. He sometimes changes His mind, and at times Moses and others apparently argued with Him, persuading Him to reach different conclusions. (2 Samuel 24:16) He can even “laugh at” the wicked. (Psalms 37:13) David once lamented that God “cast us off and humiliated us;” and that He sleeps while evil is done. (Psalms 44:9,23)

The spiritual meaning of these Old Testament passages, explained in the Heavenly Doctrines given through Swedenborg, shows that in fact God punishes no one. The pain and penalty of bad consequences come from the evil that drives human beings from within. God allows punishment to restore order, and He brings good from its evil – acting always from the infinite love that is His essence. But the "natural man" – including the low earthly mind within us all – sees God as wrathful, arbitrary and vengeful. In reality, God is loving, and it is the natural man who is wrathful against God, feeling He is angry at us.

Still, a number of Old Testament passages urge us to fear God in some sense. Psalm 34 describes clearly the kind of person who truly “fears” the Lord. These passages are written especially for the natural man in all of us, and for children – to help us understand how in our low natural minds we should listen seriously to the Lord God our Creator, and obey Him, especially His Ten Commandments.

At first this may feel like the fear of God as Lawgiver because He may punish us – and so a young person, or an angry sinner, is addressed bluntly: the way to wisdom is to begin by fearing God who created us and set before us a life of order and goodness. If we learn to obey our Maker, we will grow and learn about God’s love, and the fear we felt at first changes its character, and our love for God can grow.


The New Testament and the Heavenly Doctrines call us to a higher understanding of God, and of fearing God, including the concept of holy fear. Here is one summary:

To fear the Lord’s name means, symbolically, to love, because everyone who loves another is afraid of injuring the one he loves. There is no genuine love without that fear. Accordingly, someone who loves the Lord is afraid of doing evil, because evils go counter to the Lord, as they go counter to His Divine laws in the Word…. To fear God means, symbolically, to love things having to do with God, by doing them, and refusing to do things which go counter to Him.” (Apocalypse Revealed 527)

One short summary of the spiritual sense says simply that fearing the Lord as “the beginning of wisdom" means that it is wisdom to worship the Lord. (Prophets and Psalms 361).

More explanation about fearing God comes in a discussion about “the small and the great” who “fear” the Lord’s name (Revelation 11:18). After death all people, Christian or not, spiritually small and great, “are saved who fear God and live in mutual love, in uprightness of heart and in sincerity from a religious principle, for all such, by an intuitive faith in God and by a life of charity, are associated together as to their souls with angels of heaven, and are thus conjoined to the Lord and saved.” (Apocalypse Explained 696:1)

Scriptural passages urging us “to fear Jehovah” also say that we should “keep and do” His words and commandments – because we worship God by means of truths and goods both. “Fearing” relates to a person’s understanding, and goodness in life relates to the will within us. Divine truth can bring a scary fear, in that it condemns the evil to hell. But Divine good does not condemn, since so far as a person receives and acts out of authentic goodness, that good takes away condemnation. “So far as a person is in the good of love there is fear of God;… also dread and terror disappear and become holy fear attended with reverence, so far as a person is in the good of love and in truths….” (Apocalypse Explained 696:6) Similarly, awe and reverence in worship vary with everyone according to our state of life.

Fear is not absent in love of God and the neighbor:

Spiritual fear is a holy fear that abides within every spiritual love, variously according to the quality and quantity of the love. In such a fear is the spiritual person, and he knows that the Lord does not do evil to anyone…, but does good to all, and desires to raise up everyone … into heaven to Himself. This is why the fear of the spiritual person is a holy fear, lest by evil life and false doctrine a person should turn away and so do harm to that Divine love in himself. (Apocalypse Explained 696:23)

Many passages in Swedenborg’s Writings discuss “holy fear” further – our fear of harming God and people whom we love.


In actual living, when we love someone, we like to think of good things to do for him or her. But maybe the very first essential – the beginning of wisdom – is to avoid anything that would hurt a person or somehow be overbearing. An early enthusiastic love can be too powerful if we don’t think through the possible effects of our words or actions. A very strong religious convert can make promises beyond what his inner being can sustain until he has taken actual new steps in his living. In that way “fear” is, in time, a first or primary for our love for anyone, including love of God.

On the other hand, there is a contrary fear of God that in itself does not begin wisdom. “Fear of God in evil people is not love, but a fear of hell.” (Apocalypse Revealed 527) This natural fear is “a fearfulness, dread and terror of dangers and punishments, and thus of hell.…” (Apocalypse Explained 696:23) – far distant from a fear that is attached to love for God.

Old Testament descriptions portraying God as angry, changeable, and arbitrary speak to this low spiritual mentality, and should not be taken as the truth about God – though they do picture how many people envision God. And they do show us a key reality – that God the Creator does exist, and this universe, and my life, are more than just my personal possessions to play with, enjoy, and build up my own self-image. And if I am a creation and live His way, perhaps He can make me happy in this His world.

The realities of this God and His creation can be known truly only through a higher spiritual kind of fear flowing from love – yet a low natural fear may come first in time. When a person examines himself rationally and discovers “some evil, and says to himself, ‘This is a sin,’ and abstains from it through fear of eternal punishment … then for the first time the person from a pagan, becomes a Christian.” (True Christian Religion 525)

Jacob once awoke afraid after a strong dream about God, and he said, “Surely Jehovah is in this place; and I knew it not…. How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God…., and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-18) After a little time to reflect, he vowed: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then shall Jehovah be my God….” (Genesis 28:20-21) We know not if this fearful and rather selfish vow made Jacob a wise follower of Jehovah, but later chapters do show Jacob as obedient to God.

I personally believe the literal meaning of “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. Obedience and faith often do begin with a low-level, natural-minded fear.

And that fear does contain a felt sense that there IS a Creator God (“I AM”) who wants humans to act according to His created systems. In this way fear is, in time, the beginning of wisdom.

Even though rooted at first in self-love, fear of God can be part of God’s “Let there be light” that begins our spiritual rebirth, and goes with our first vision “that there is something higher” than self. (See Arcana Coelestia 20: that “a person begins to know the good and the true are something higher.”) If you are in a state of fearful darkness, and think that “there is something higher,” something good and true above your control, you may be starting to let your Creator’s light show you the way.

Of course, a low-level scary fear needs to mature and grow into a spiritual fear. If we repent and shun evils, we open our door to the Lord, and allow Him to lead us through spiritual reform and rebirth (regeneration). He leads us towards holy fear, from a good love that is far different from “the darkness upon the faces of the deep” (our mental state before regeneration; Genesis 1:2)

Yes, even starting from a natural dread of hell, if you ACT from that fear by stopping some foul thing you do, you are beginning towards wisdom, by believing the fear is real – because God is real, and an unhappy afterlife is real. And, you point yourself on a path in God’s direction. This beginning in time may feel uncertain, cloudy, even silly – yet come from a feeling that an imperative from your Maker is real and makes sense. And if you act from that belief, then the belief begins to be a reality within you – a tiny beginning of wisdom. If you repeat and continue in it, the Lord leads you into a holier fear which flows from love. The key here might be if you’re willing to do God’s teachings even at times when you’re NOT feeling fear of Him or of hell. Perhaps this is the moment that wisdom actually begins.

People who live in the stream of God’s providence are “carried along constantly toward happier things, whatever appearance the means may present.” (Arcana Coelestia 8478:4) They trust in God with a spiritual fear of acting against His love, or bringing harm to others, because they wish to serve other people in God’s creation, and to receive within themselves something that comes from God.

“Thou wilt show me the path of life. In Thy presence is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.” (Psalm 16:11)