In our last column we talked about how the early Christians looked fearless to unbelievers. Modern Christians can appear the same way — and the world marvels today at the courage of those men killed as martyrs recently in Libya and Ethiopia.

Their resolve looks to all the world like fearlessness, but it’s not, really. It’s a right ordering of fears. Christian faith teaches us to put all our fears in their proper place.

To live completely without fear would indeed be madness. Fear keeps us alive. It’s the deep-seated instinct that leads us to avoid the perils of fire, floodwater, gunfire, and jaywalking in L.A. Aversion is a natural feeling. God gave it to us so we can make our way through a world that’s sometimes very dangerous.

The martyrs weren’t crazy. They weren’t inhuman or superhuman. They knew fear, just as you and I know fear. What distinguished them as heroes was their ability to subordinate all earthly fears to “fear of the Lord.”

“Fear of the Lord” is a common theme in the Scriptures. It’s an important part of biblical religion. But it’s important that we get it right. It’s not a cowering, cringing fear. It’s not a kind of revulsion or aversion.

It’s an overwhelming sense of wonder and awe.

We can experience this in the natural order as well. A forest fire can be a terrible and devastating thing, but it can also blaze with a natural beauty. Seeing a canyon or a mountain up close can, quite literally, take our breath away. 

For me, though, the closest earthly analogy to fear of the Lord is a certain feeling I had when I was a very small child. It came over me sometimes when I was with my dad, who seemed all-powerful to me. He could fix things that I feared were irretrievably broken. He could replace them, too. He could lift things that were impossibly heavy. He had answers to all the questions that troubled my little brain.

I stood in awe of him. I marveled at him. It was the kind of respectful fear I get, nowadays, from those forest fires and canyons.

I feared my dad’s disfavor. Not because of what he could do to me — because of his superior strength — but rather because my love for him was so powerful. I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing him. (If only that could have lasted into my teen years!)

God is our Father, and we are his children, and he is the God who created the canyons and the elements of fire and flood. He even created the conditions of possibility for L.A.’s epic traffic.

When we fear the Lord, our other fears fall into place. They line up right. They’re healthy. 

Because I knew my dad was on my side, I wasn’t afraid of neighborhood dogs or bullies. Because I know that God is on my side, I can work at a job that is often fatiguing, sometimes discouraging, and always seemingly impossible. It’s impossible for me, but nothing’s impossible for God.

Fear of the Lord empowers us to fight courageously in battle. Why? Because we fear disappointing the Lord more than we fear the weapons of our enemies. Look to the ancient history of Israel: “Then the Judahites conquered all the cities around Gerar, for the fear of the Lord was upon them” (2 Chronicles 14:13).

Fear of the Lord establishes and keeps peace on earth (as my dad, even on long car trips, was able to keep peace between my brother and me). “Now the fear of the Lord was upon all the kingdoms of the countries surrounding Judah, so that they did not war against Jehoshaphat” (2 Chronicles 17:10).

What else do we know about the fear of the Lord? What else does the Bible tell us? 

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).

“Fear of the Lord prolongs life” (Proverbs 10:27).

“By the fear of the Lord evil is avoided” (Proverbs 16:6). 

“The fullness of wisdom is to fear the Lord” (Sirach 1:16).

“Nothing is better than the fear of the Lord” (Sirach 23:27).

Fear of the Lord is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (see Isaiah 11:2-3). So we have received it in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. If we live by it — if we truly live as God’s children — our days will be filled with thanksgiving, praise, joy, and courage. And, over time, all our other fears will fall into their proper place.