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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.Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 267
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,” 1 “the fountain-head of all goodly deeds and virtues,” 2 “the weapon that can render him victorious” and “the primary instrument whereby he can achieve his purpose.” 3
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.Baha’u’llah, Arabic Hidden Words, #31
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!Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 238
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.Abdu’l-Baha, Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 97
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…Baha’u’llah, Lights of Guidance, p. 236
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.Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 237
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.”
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