The Fear of God. What Does It Mean?

When reading prayers revealed by the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith, you quickly notice that nearly every prayer ends with a list of the names and attributes of God. He is described as the “All-Merciful,” the “Ever-Forgiving,” the “Lord of bounty,” the “Provider of all mankind,” and with dozens of other titles and qualities that help us understand, albeit imperfectly, some of the characteristics of God. Many of these descriptions create an image of a God as a parent who watches over humanity with infinite love, mercy, and kindness. Indeed, in both the Baha’i Faith and other religions God is often described as “the Father” for this very purpose. As Abdu’l-Baha states:

God is the Father of all. He educates, provides for and loves all; for they are His servants and His creation.1

But while God is repeatedly described as full of love, grace, and bounty in the Baha’i Faith, dozens of passages also emphasize the importance of the “fear of God.” Baha’u’llah exhorts us to “fear God” or have the “fear of God” more than a dozen times in the Kitab-i-Aqdas (known as the Most Holy Book) alone, and in various places He describes the fear of God as “the essence of wisdom,”2 “the fountain-head of all goodly deeds and virtues,”3 “the weapon that can render him victorious” and “the primary instrument whereby he can achieve his purpose.”4

What should we make of such passages, and what does “fear” even mean in this context? If God’s relationship with humanity is like a loving and merciful parent, why does Baha’u’llah repeatedly warn us to fear God? And if the fear of God is an important attribute, how do we inculcate it in ourselves and others, such as our children? I’ll return to these questions in a moment, but it may be beneficial to first discuss other principles of the Baha’i Faith related to the nature of spiritual development and the afterlife to place this topic of the fear of God in the broader scope of the teachings of the Faith.

The Baha’i Faith teaches us that our soul continues to exist even after our death and will continue to progress toward God for eternity. The metaphor of an embryo developing in its mother’s womb is often used in the Faith to help us understand the purpose of this earthly existence. While in the womb, an embryo develops eyes, ears, limbs, and organs that it needs in order to thrive physically once it is born. These limbs and organs serve minimal purpose before the child before birth, but once the infant enters this world the purpose of all of the elements of its body becomes readily apparent. Without such limbs and organs we may feel physically “handicapped” for this reason.

Similarly, the purpose of our life in this material world is to prepare our souls for their “birth” into the afterlife. Our spiritual “limbs” are virtues, a spiritual nature, and an ethical character, and the Baha’i Faith teaches us that these spiritual attributes will help us to progress in the next world. While these attributes are sometimes valued in this world, they are not always viewed as necessities and are at times even viewed as impediments to our self-interest. If I can lie about something that may get me in trouble and get away with it, why wouldn’t I do so? Why would I be generous when it just leaves me with less financial capacity to buy things that will make me happy? Why help others if they have no direct bearing on my own life and happiness?

But when we view our life in this world as only the first stage in an eternal existence and we understand that the development of virtues and saintly attributes will help us to progress spiritually in the next world, we see the wisdom behind fearing God; every decision we make has potentially eternal ramifications for our souls, regardless of the specific impacts of our choices in this world. While God is merciful, He is also infinitely just. By turning away from God or making choices that are at odds with His will and the guidance sent to us by His Messengers we are shutting ourselves out from His mercy and grace. This is why Baha’u’llah instructs us in His Hidden Words to:

Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds.5

While the fear of God motivates us to act in accordance with God’s will, one may ask why this fear is necessary if we love God enough. If you have a loving and caring relationship with your parents, you would likely try to behave in accordance with their instructions simply because you want to make them happy. Shouldn’t the same principle hold in one’s relationship with God?

A Baha’i posed this question to Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, who expounded upon this question in the following manner:

Perhaps the friends do not realize that the majority of human beings need the element of fear in order to discipline their conduct? Only a relatively very highly evolved soul would always be disciplined by love alone. Fear of punishment, fear of the anger of God if we do evil, are needed to keep people’s feet on the right path. Of course we should love God – but we must fear Him in the sense of a child fearing the righteous anger and chastisement of a parent; not cringe before Him as before a tyrant, but know His Mercy exceeds His Justice!6

In other words, we try to align our actions with God’s guidance out of our love of His mercy and generosity, but fearing God’s justice also helps us to behave as we should in situations where it might be difficult to do so.

The following passage from Abdu’l-Baha also elaborates on the same subject:

There are some who 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. Secondly, even if we grant for the sake of the argument that instinctive intelligence and an innate moral quality would prevent wrongdoing, it is obvious that individuals so characterized are as rare as the philosopher’s stone.7

In a utopian society, no individual would do harm to another even if there were no social laws or systems of justice designed to punish wrongdoers. However, we’ve still got a long way to go as a society before we reach a state where such laws and justice systems are unnecessary. Similarly, as we advance and develop spiritually as individuals, we may reach a point where we are motivated to act righteously purely out of our love for God. Until then, the fear of disappointing God and shutting ourselves out from His grace helps us to remain focused on acting according to good conscience regardless of the worldly outcomes of our actions.

Given the importance of the concept of the fear of God in the Baha’i Faith, it is no surprise that the Central Figures of the Faith repeatedly emphasize inculcating this attribute in our children as they develop. As Baha’u’llah states:

That which is of paramount importance for the children, that which must precede all else, is to teach them the oneness of God and the Laws of God. For lacking this the fear of God cannot be inculcated, and lacking the fear of God an infinity of odious and abominable actions will spring up…8

In this passage, we see both the connection between an understanding of the laws of God and the fear of God, as well as the consequences of children not fearing God. But how do we encourage children to fear God while still helping them to understand that God is all-merciful, kind, and forgiving? Shoghi Effendi directs us to follow Abdu’l-Baha’s guidance and example when attempting to do so:

In explaining the fear of God to children, there is no objection to teaching it as Abdu’l-Baha so often taught everything, in the form of parables. Also the child should be made to understand that we don’t fear God because He is cruel, but we fear Him because He is Just, and, if we do wrong and deserve to be punished, then in His Justice He may see fit to punish us. We must both love God and fear Him.9

To conclude, I’d like to return to the previous analogy between the embryo developing in its mother’s womb and our lives in this world in order to emphasize one last point about the fear of God. While many aspects of our spiritual development in this world parallel the physical development of the embryo, there is one paramount difference: the element of free will. An embryo has no influence over its own physical development, but it is our ability to choose between right and wrong, righteousness and injustice, that distinguishes our station as humans from the station of all other beings on this planet. While free will is an incredible gift, it also necessarily follows that our actions have consequences for which we are accountable. It is this knowledge that should motivate us exercise our free will wisely and conscientiously, ever mindful that “to those whom much is given, much is required.” 

  1. Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 267 []
  2. Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 155 []
  3. Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 135 []
  4. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 272 []
  5. Baha’u’llah, Arabic Hidden Words, #31 []
  6. Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 238 []
  7. Abdu’l-Baha, Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 97 []
  8. Baha’u’llah, Lights of Guidance, p. 236 []
  9. Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 237 []

About the Author

Matt Giani is a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on stratification and social mobility in education, with an emphasis on helping underprivileged students make successful transitions to college after high school. Matt draws his inspiration from his exuberant daughter Clara, his incredible wife Shadi, and the Baha'i teachings.

Discussion 12 Comments

  1. Hi
    Fear is paralyzing. When a child fears its parents or its teacher, it will obey because it doesn’t want to get punished, but it will obey blindly, without understanding. It will not start to be creative because it will always be afraid to make mistakes…….ok, I exaggerate a little but can we really love somebody and feel being loved by somebody, if we fear his or her reaction as soon as we make a mistake? I don’t think so, because then, that love depends on something. But God loves us unconditionally, so why should I fear Him.
    Right, in the writings we find many times the words – fear of God – punishment – and more, but let’s take a closer look at what that punishment is!

    In ‘The Baha’i World Faith’ (page 325) Abdu’l-Baha said:
    ”The rewards of the other world are peace, the spiritual graces, the various spiritual gifts in the Kingdom of God, the gaining of the desires of the heart and the soul, and the meeting of God in the world of eternity. In the same way the punishments of the other world, that is to say, the torments of the other world, consist in being deprived of the special divine blessings and the absolute bounties, and falling into the lowest degrees of existence. He who is deprived of these divine favors, although he continues after death, is considered as dead by the people of truth.”

    In my simple words: The punishment is being far from God??? God always invites us to progress and when we decide not to follow, He will not punish us but we have to deal with the consequences of or own actions. God always graciously aides us, but we have to do an effort to get closer to Him.

    Loving greetings
    Janet

    1. Janet, let me give you an example of the compatibility of love and fear. I will assume that you’re married and both you and your husband love each other. Do you fear his reaction if you cheated on him or did anything else that reasonably upset him? You see, you love him and simultaneously, fear doing anything that will draw you away from him. Similarly, we love God and we fear doing anything (sins) that will draw us away from Him. It is irrational to say that if God loves us unconditionally, then we shouldn’t fear committing sins any more than it is irrational to say that if my husband loves me unconditionally, then I shouldn’t fear having an affair.

    2. Allah’u’Abha & thank you, Janet!!! Very important point!!!

      To be fair, most human misery is self-inflicted. Heaven and hell are here now if we just follow Allah’s rules. And I suspect the same is true in the Next Kingdom as corroborated by the quoted materials.

      Thanks again for your insights!!! 🙂

  2. Matt this was a great article! Thank you for encouraging this type of reflection, just this morning I read a passage on the “Fear of God” and more and more I see how this quality and principle allows us each day, to raise our consciousness and standards to become more alligned to His will. Thank you again 🙂

  3. i read the whole thing and loved it..as well, had a question mark hanging…i was brought to fear God, i met a free sprit beautiful person that said God is love…lookk around you the trees the mountains, flowers etc., they are all God…how can you love something that you fear, it made a lot of sense too…but who am i to question the central figuers of the faith…Allah’u’Abha…also in school, were taught to question authority, ask for clarification so in the future we do not end up divided like all the other religions…i also understand Faith, yet i am human with thousands of questions…every day i try to be a Baha’i…(Baha’i means a person who has good qualities) and speaking for my self it’s hard in this materialistic world of ours..thats why i make an effort to stay awake at midnight saying the mid night prayer that God may open spritual my eyes…etc., for those interested it’s under heading EVENING prayers in my book it’s on page 61 starts: O Lord, I have turned my face unto Thy kingdom of oneness and am immersed in the sea of thy mercy……by Abdul’Baha…. this prayer…among my favorites thank you for allowing me to share…bye…

    1. I love reciting the midnight prayer too! I often check on my prayer times app to see exactly when midnight begins since it is not necessarily 12 AM, rather the midpoint of sunset and sunrise. Alláh’u’Abhá!

  4. There is an excellent compilation on the subject of the fear of God at Baha’i Library Online(BLO), the location in cyberspace for the internet’ s largest collection of primary and secondary Baha’i texts. BLO also has a fine collection of: histories and academic articles, books and scholarly resources. This particular compilation is the work of Ehsan Bayat and it’s at this link: http://bahai-library.com/unpubl.compilations/fear.god.html …Mr Bayat’s bio is found at: http://bahai-library.com/personal_ehsan_bayat

    There also exists a discussion on the subject of the fear of God at an internet site entitled Baha’i Forums. The discussion is found at this link: http://bahaiforums.com/quotations/8703-fear-god.html …..and last but not least is: The Lawh Tuqa, The Tablet of the Fear of God. As of 2007 this tablet was being revised. This tablet of Baha’u’llah’s is found in the form of a provisional translation at this link: http://www.hurqalya.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/BAHA%27-ALLAH/L-Tuqa.htm And, of course, there is more, if you want to do your own googling.-Ron

  5. I loved the article. It really shed some light into my understanding.
    I followed Ron’s links and in the forum where this topic was being discussed there was an interesting sentence.

    “I “fear” God. Deeply. But I am not afraid of Him.”

    I think it reflects perfectly the fear relation we should have with God as explained in the article.

  6. This article is awesome.

    When I became a house dad I starting viewing the world and society in a whole new aspect.

    “What could i do for our boys that was not done for me?”

    I asked constantly while pacing back and forth like a caged animal.

    I had to start with the very fabric of “GOD”

    I began searching various religious groups and it was all pretty much the same “THE FEAR OF GOD!” I could not and would not tolerate that form of indoctrination towards my children and I. Giving up hope, I started to think logically

    “Who is GOD?” I frequently pondered while cooking

    “Why can’t he/she be seen?”

    “Why does everybody recognize this entity?”

    “There is no substance to such being, yet fear is constantly exercised?” I constantly assessed.

    It occurred to me that it was our consciousness.

    “Was I correct?”

    “It feels right!” I shouted with excitement.

    Where can I find a community that fosters and shares the same confidence?

    I heard about the faith and in December after careful research I joined.
    I was encouraged to start the Ruhi book 1.
    I was OVERJOYED with the material.
    Absolute and total EMPOWERMENT with positive ideas. Uplifting and inspiring out looks toward society and our children.

    I found “My Garden of Eden.

    as Simin has stated “How can you love something you fear?”

    The material and it’s empowerment is nothing more than a map to “the way of life” A guidance to “Keep the consciousness clean and pure” and the community provided with it as well.

    I am a happy camper

  7. Really enjoyed reading this. I am in the hospital currently and the verse that Baha’u’llah revealed came to mind: ” He who trusts in God, God will suffice him”, “He who fears God, God will send him relief”. So it got me thinking about what the fear of God really means. The Master also says that sometimes sins are the cause of illnesses, so one can see that the fear of God, keeping a person on the straight and narrow, would keep one away from the cause of some illnesses, thereby bringing the second verse into focus: “…God will send him relief”

    1. Thank you Shoa! And I’m sorry to hear that you’re in the hospital. I hope you (or whoever you are visiting) returns to heath soon!

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