Many people replace the God of Love with the god of fear.
This replacement god is a vindictive perfectionist who punishes those who aren’t good enough. And this “god” character usually leads to either atheism or despair.
Thankfully, the God we worship isn’t Zeus.
But when we hear in the Liturgy that we are to have the “fear of God,” it might lead to some confusion.
So if the fear of God isn’t about being scared of or intimidated by some cosmic tyrant, how can we explain it?
Part of the problem is an imprecise translation: a better choice might be “awe” or “wonder.” So let’s see how having awe and wonder before God can bring us to a healthier relationship with Him.
1. It teaches us God’s greatness by comparison
If I’m in awe of something or someone, it’s because of my reaction to greatness. If I’m in awe of a beautiful sunset, I won’t be able to take my eyes off of it. It’s awe-inspiring because at that moment I can’t remember ever seeing such a wonderful sight. If I’m in awe of an artist’s work, it’s because I see something so incredibly beyond my skill level, something that inspires and shapes the way I see the world.
So when I experience the “fear of God” at the Liturgy, I am aware of God’s greatness. My eyes have been opened to the reality of my own limitations and to God’s limitlessness. To my own brokenness and God’s wholeness. I stand in awe of God and His power, in comparison to my own powerlessness.
The truly beautiful thing, though, is that God doesn’t stop there. When we hear “with the fear of God” we also hear, “with faith and love, draw near.” The God who created the universe, Who is awe-inspiringly beautiful and powerful, desires to be in an intimate relationship with us, personally.
What’s more awesome than that?
Fear, as the world uses the word, is destructive to relationships. But having a proper awe and wonder before the greatness of God pulls us into a relationship with Him. And it is precisely in knowing that God wants a relationship with us, even in acknowledging His greatness and our unworthiness before Him, that we begin to understand the power of His love.
But, of course, there’s only so far our understanding can go.
2. It opens us to God’s otherness or the mystery of God
If I stand in wonder of something, there’s an element of mystery or something you just can’t quite put your finger on. New parents might sit in wonder at the miracle of conception and childbirth, for instance.
There’s certainly a level of wonder in our relationship with God. In Orthodoxy, we try to balance between what we know about God and what we can’t know. In many ways, God is intimate, close and knowable…and in other ways, He is always going to be a mystery. We wrestle with the tension between these two realities. Even if we can’t fully grasp it, we can live it: God is the uncreated Creator who chose to become part of His creation to bring us all into a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ.
What a gift! How then do we respond to this overwhelming sense of awe and wonder before God?
3. It inspires an active response
During the Liturgy, the priest directs the congregation how to respond as one, as the Body of Christ. We are told to “bow our heads to the Lord” and to “lift up our hearts.” There are times where it is appropriate to bow and cross ourselves (like during the Trisagion, the Thrice-Holy Hymn) or whenever the Holy Trinity is named. These aren’t simply private devotional practices; they are ways for every person in the congregation to move as if with one motion.
If we are in awe and in wonder of God during the Liturgy, we are also going to be attentive. We will be paying attention to the cues that the priest gives and we will be prepared to receive the grace that God gives us through our worship.
If we are zoned out during the Liturgy, checking our phone (or our watch) or having a conversation with our neighbor, we must not be experiencing awe and wonder. There’s no fear of God in that response to God’s presence. We have no connection. But God is already reaching out to us; we have to take a step forward to Him, too.
If God is truly present in the Body and Blood that we receive in the Eucharist, there is no other response before Him than to stand in awe and wonder. And then of course, to approach and receive Him.
The response to beauty is either silence or praise – not indifference. So our response to God’s beauty, our response to His presence with us cannot be to ignore it – we must either be silent or lift up our praise. That means, for example, that there’s no reason to be having a conversation with someone in the line for communion. We should be in prayer, in silent wonder of God both before and after we take communion. And if we, for whatever reason, aren’t taking communion, we should be respectful and attentive to the fact that others around us are.
This isn’t about fear of punishment (by God, the priest, or a yiayia) it’s about appreciating God for Who He Is and having the proper attitude when standing in the presence of the living God: an attitude of awe and wonder.
There’s a good reason the Liturgy gives us the same cues each week. We need to constantly be told to pay attention, to “be attentive!” and to have awe and wonder before God. It’s all too easy in today’s self-sufficient world to be more in awe of ourselves than of the God who gives us breath and who lovingly cares for us throughout the day.
So ask yourself, how are you responding to God’s presence in your life today? Are you in awe and wonder before Him, or have you been ignoring His invitation to come forward?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
Beautiful Mountain Sunset Wallpaper
Christ Administering Holy Eucharist