We’ve talked about God’s love for us, but what about the fear of God? Where does that fit in?
It’s true, that we need both:
Every Man is guided both by the Love of God and by the Fear of God. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 499)
So what does the fear of God mean, exactly? Shoghi Effendi described it with two meanings, awe and reverence on the one hand; and terror and fear on the other:
You have asked the exact meaning of the term ‘Fear of God’ mentioned in Bahá’í Sacred Writings; it often means awe, but has also other connotations such as reverence, terror and fear. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 237)
It seems that humanity needs both reward and punishment, so God has given us both hope and a warning.
And it was this peerless Source of wisdom that at the beginning of the foundation of the world ascended the stair of inner meaning and when enthroned upon the pulpit of utterance, through the operation of the divine Will, proclaimed two words. The first heralded the promise of reward, while the second voiced the ominous warning of punishment. The promise gave rise to hope and the warning begat fear. Thus the basis of world order hath been firmly established upon these twin principles. (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 66)
Fear of punishment or fear of the anger of God if we do evil, are needed to keep our feet on the right path, not so that we cringe before Him as we would before a tyrant, but knowing that His Mercy exceeds His Justice:
You ask him about the fear of God: 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. 239)
Sadly, many of us grew up with tyrants and learned to cringe, never having learned about the transformative power of love. God wants us to fear him and know of His mercy at the same time:
Fear ye the merciful Lord. (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 40)
In explaining the fear of God to children, there is no objection to teaching it as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 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)
Having a negative fear of God (that you are going straight to hell) is not the same as having a Holy fear of God (where you know that God is awesome).
A lot of people have grown up believing that God’s going to get them if they do something wrong; that if it doesn’t happen now, they’re definitely going straight to hell. The concept of sin and hell are so imbedded in our psyche, it’s hard to hear Baha’u’llah’s explanation, and even harder to let go of our childhood training.
Let’s take a minute to think about these new concepts.
The Baha’i Writings teach us that sin is imperfection and defects coming from the demands of our lower nature.
All sin comes from the demands of nature, and these demands, which arise from the physical qualities, are not sins with respect to the animals, while for man they are sin. The animal is the source of imperfections, such as anger, sensuality, jealousy, avarice, cruelty, pride: all these defects are found in animals but do not constitute sins. But in man they are sins. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 119)
There’s a link between sin and health:
It is certainly the case that sins are a potent cause of physical ailments. If humankind were free from the defilements of sin and waywardness, and lived according to a natural, inborn equilibrium, without following wherever their passions led, it is undeniable that diseases would no longer take the ascendant, nor diversify with such intensity. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 152)
If the soul falls into sin, the body is in torment! (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 65)
Surely this torment is hell!
Shoghi Effendi agrees that hell is not a place but a state of being:
Heaven and hell are conditions within our own beings. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 519)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us such as hostility and hatred (emanations of the “fight” response to fear) are the torments of hell.
Think ye of love and good fellowship as the delights of heaven, think ye of hostility and hatred as the torments of hell. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 244)
Flight, Fight or Flee reactions all separate us from God, which is the greatest torment of all:
But for the people of God separation from God is the greatest torment of all. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 265)
These torments of hell do not have to be permanent conditions if we see their purpose is to educate:
That [ordeals, adversities and tribulations] which is for testing is for one’s education and development, and that which is for punishment of deeds is severe retribution. The father and the teacher sometimes show tenderness towards the children and at other times deal harshly with them. Such severity is for educational purposes; it is true tenderness and absolute bounty and grace Although in appearance it is wrath, in reality it is kindness. Although outwardly it is an ordeal, inwardly it is a cooling draught. (‘Abdul-Bahá, Divine Art of Living, p. 85)
We’re promised that God will forgive any sin if we ask for His forgiveness:
Should anyone be afflicted by a sin, it behoveth him to repent thereof and return unto his Lord. He, verily, granteth forgiveness unto whomsoever He willeth, and none may question that which it pleaseth Him to ordain. He is, in truth, the Ever-Forgiving. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 37)
If we struggle with the idea that God has not forgiven us for something, we have a negative fear of God, and it’s interfering with our ability to have faith. If we believe in a punishing God, it’s hard to believe in an All-Merciful, Ever-Forgiving one. Perhaps that’s why most of the prayers end reminding us of this nature of God. You won’t ever see God described as:
- The All-Vengeful
- The All-Condemning
- The Never-Forgiving
Are you afraid that God’s ticked off because you blew it, or that he’s going to stop loving you? These are just superstitions:
Abdu’l-Bahá replied that superstitions were of two kinds; those that were harmful and dangerous, and those that were harmless and produced certain good effects. For example, there were some poor people who believed that misfortunes and punishments were caused by a Great Angel with a sword in his hand, who struck down those who stole, and committed murder and crimes. They thought the flashes of lightning were the weapons of this angel, and that if they did wrong they would be struck by lightning. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 73)
Read the biblical story of the prodigal son. Even though he’d squandered all his money and lived a life against everything the father had taught him, he welcomed his son back with open arms and threw a party. That’s what God wants to do for us. He wants to throw a party every time we come back to Him.
The hearts are cheered whenever you are mentioned, the souls are comforted in your love, the holy spirits are captivated by your fragrance, the eyes are expecting to see you and the hearts are longing to meet you, owing to the fact that your hearts were kindled with the fire of the love of God, your ears were charmed by hearing the Word of God and your souls were rested in the appearance of the mysteries of God. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahá v2, p. 346)
Remember that you have value before God. He created you because He loved you.
Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty. (Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic Hidden Words 3)
He created you, knowing you’d make terrible mistakes in your life and despite this, He says: “My work is perfect. Question it not.”
With the hands of power I made thee and with the fingers of strength I created thee; and within thee have I placed the essence of My light. Be thou content with it and seek naught else, for My work is perfect and My command is binding. Question it not, nor have a doubt thereof. (Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words, Arabic 12)
The only perfect human being was Abdul-Bahá. God doesn’t need another perfect one.
He loves us even with all of our imperfections:
O thou beloved of my heart! Verily, my soul longs for thee, for the lamp of the love of Bahá’ is lighted within thy heart and I love to look upon thy face, for it is glittering with the light of guidance among the creatures. Glory be to Him who hath united hearts together! (Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahá v1, p. 129)
When you blow it, (and you always will), God has given you the ability to do something about it. Call yourself to account; ask God’s forgiveness, and determine to make today better than yesterday. Then strive to put your actions in accordance with the teachings. That’s all He asks of us.
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