Swedenborg Study.com

Online works based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg


Holy Fear

by Rev. David R. Simons

The fear of the Lord is essential to the life of religion. Holy fear pre pares the mind to receive the inmost blessings of heaven. The complete subordination of self and the things of self - the fear lest these break out to harm the neighbor, or to destroy our own spiritual states - is the highest and noblest of human feelings. Without holy fear, our approach to the Word, to religion, to the life of regeneration, can have little sincerity in it. "The fear of the Lord is clean." (Psalm 19: 9) It is the foundation of all true worship; it is essential to spiritual life. For this reason the Lord says in His Word: "Come ye children, hearken unto Me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord." (Psalm 34: 11)

Fear and life are inseparable. Living things fear and shun whatever threatens their existence. Wild animals are instinctively alarmed by that which could bring them harm. Fears make them timid and alert to danger. Yet strong though these fears are, animals sometimes exhibit higher instincts which makes it possible to overcome them, even to sacrificing life itself for their fellows, their offspring or their mates.

Man also has fears. From experience he learns to be afraid of that which can harm his body - extremes of heat and cold or of height and speed, violence and war. As well, he has other anxieties. He worries about his health, his economic security, his social position. More intense fears enable him to control those which are less intense. Immediate pain, with all its apprehension, is endured to escape greater pain in the future. Economic necessity enables men to control lesser fears, to put aside timidity and faintheartedness; and concern for his honor and reputation will cause a man to face extreme hazards, even death.

These basic animal fears are not the curse of civilization they might appear to be. In its proper place, fear is not a negative emotion which must be totally removed, as so many mistakenly suppose; rather is it the gift of an all-wise providence. It is the presence in living things of spiritual laws at work guarding and protecting uses and the forms of uses. An all-wise Creator endows His creatures with the ability to sense danger, and thus prepare themselves against it. Fear is life acting to preserve itself.

Fear and anxiety are important to the well-being of human society. If mankind, in its present state, had no fears - physical, economic or social there would be no order and no uses. The fear of pain and disease is a force which compels many to care for their bodies and to live lives that are at least externally in order. Anxiety for the necessaries of life drives many to do worthwhile work for the neighbor. Fear of the law and its penalties holds floods of evil in check; and fear for reputation moves countless men to give up their lives in service to others. Without these basic fears, human society could not long exist. They are the means whereby Divine Providence, flowing from without, provides an order in which uses and the forms of uses may flourish. The Writings teach that unless evil in the hearts and minds of men was

"kept in check by fear of the loss of honor, of gain, and of reputation on account of these, of legal penalties, and of the loss of life, [these evils] would burst forth openly, and thus such men would rush more than the obsessed into the destruction of others, and into blasphemies against the things of faith. But these external bonds [of fear] cause such men not to seem to be obsessed, although they are so as to their interiors, but not as to their exteriors. This is very manifest from such in the other life, where external bonds are removed. There they are devils, being continually in the delight and desire of ruining others and destroying whatever is of faith." (AC 5990: 2)

Yet all these fears, which are basic to order in this world, are external. Man has them in common with animals. Living in social order merely from these fears has no spiritual significance in our lives. Such a life by itself does not make us spiritual men, nor does it bring eternal salvation. Only those who learn to fear the Lord can receive the blessings of eternal life.

Fear is essentially a manifestation of love. It is the quality of our love which determines the nature and the intensity of our fears. That which we love, that which we value above all else, we fear to lose. We are careful not to harm it; we stand ready to guard and protect it; it is one with our very life.

The fears which move the good, and those which plague the evil, are of a totally different character. Fear with the evil is a negative, restraining force from without which compels them to control their malicious hatreds. But with the good fear is a positive thing. It is not imposed from without, but comes from within. It is a fear lest they themselves injure others in any way. Whereas the love of self focuses on self and fears injury from others, the love of others is focused on the neighbor and fears lest he be harmed by self in any way.

The evil in the other life must be ruled by their fears - fears which remain from their lives on earth, or new fears which arise from punishments. Concerning these fears we learn: "The state of evil spirits in the other life shows clearly that those who are in evil and falsity are afraid of everybody." (AC 391) Those who think lies and will evil to others are in perpetual anxiety, for they are constantly in danger of being discovered and punished. Like criminals on earth, they never know when they will be caught and brought to justice. False ideas have no foundation outside the mind which conjures them up; they are spiritually weak and shifting as sand. A lie cannot endure. Evil must inevitably bring its own retribution. Also, the wicked suffer from insecurity and dread because they have no one to trust, no one to whom they can turn. "They are afraid of everybody," we learn, "because they have no one to protect them." (AC 390e) They will not turn to the Lord, whom they hate; and they do not trust the neighbor, thinking all others to be like themselves. Men in the world who fear only for the things of the body, and who disregard and are indifferent to "him who can destroy both body and soul in hell," have a miserable lot after death. Of these the Lord says: "I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth. And they shall fall one upon another, as it were before a sword, when none pursueth." (Leviticus 26: 36, 37)

But with the good it is different. Their fears do not look out, but in. They fear, not what others may do to them, but what they see in their own hearts: the loves of. self and the world, their own natural man, their proprium, their own hereditary nature. They care lest they should offend against the neighbor or the Lord; lest they should destroy the talents for knowing, loving and doing good with which all are endowed by Him by means of their own evil loves. The Writings tell us that "the fear of the spiritual man is holy fear lest by the evil of life and the falsity of doctrine he should turn away and thus do harm to the Divine love in himself." (AE 696: 23) This is fear of "him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell." Although the angels know "that the Lord does not do evil to any, much less does He destroy anyone as to body and soul . . . but that He does good to all and desires to raise up everyone as to body and soul into heaven to Himself." (Ibid.)

The true fear of God is not natural - a "fearfulness, terror and dread of dangers and punishments, and thus of hell. [It is not a fear] which believes that the Lord does evil to the evil, and condemns them, casts them into hell, and punishes them." (Ibid.) For such are merely external bodily fears, and are not spiritual. A true fear of the Lord is described as being, "not so much a fear of hell and damnation as it is of doing anything against the Lord and against the neighbor, and thus anything against the good of love and the truth of faith. There is no fear of hell and damnation with those who are in the good of faith, and still less with those who are in the good of love." (AC 2826: 13)

With regeneration, the fear of the Lord with the good gradually changes from an external fear and awe to an internal reverence and love, so that, although fear is present, it does not appear as fear, for its quality is entirely changed. "The greater the amount of the love of good and truth, the greater is the fear of injuring them; and yet in the same proportion fear does not appear to be fear. Whereas the less the amount of good and truth, the less the fear on their account, the less this fear appears to be love but appears to be fear." (AC 3718)

In our present day world fear is, for the most part, considered harmful and detrimental to human welfare. So completely have its negative aspects been emphasized that men have forgotten its necessary and proper use. Freedom from fear has all too often led to license and to the unbridled exercise of the loves of self and the world. Our society has spawned a youth that is all too free from restraining fears. A proper fear of parents, of elders, of those in authority, and even of the law, is on the wane. Just fear and respect are being replaced by reckless independence and self-assertion, and by uncontrolled speech and action. Nothing but a right education in the home and in the school can establish proper fear and respect. Nothing but an education based on the fear of the Lord can save men from themselves, from destruction by their own evil loves.

The Heavenly Doctrine leaves us in no doubt as to what our children should be taught; namely, that the Lord is angry when evil is thought and done, and that He always punishes the wicked. But, we read

"This most general truth, which must be taught to children, youths and the simple, should afterwards be illustrated, that is, by showing that evils are from man although they appear as if from God, and that it is so said in order that they may learn to fear God, lest they should perish by the evils which they themselves do; and afterwards may love him; for fear must precede love in order that in love there may be holy fear. For when fear is insinuated in love it becomes holy fear from the holy of love; and then it is not fear of the Lord's being angry and punishing, but lest they should act against good itself." (AC 6997: 2)

Children are to be taught that the Lord punishes the evil so that they will fear to do evil, and so that their worship and thought of the Lord will have something of holy fear and awe in them. The teaching is:

"All worship of God must begin with holy fear within which is the thought that God will reward the good and punish the evil. The simple and little children must believe this, because they do not yet understand what permission is.... And when [little children] begin by not daring through fear to do what is evil, there is gradually insinuated love together with good; and they begin to know that nothing but what is good is from the Lord, and that evil is from themselves, and at last that all evil is from hell." (AC 6071: 5)

Parents and teachers are to instill by instruction and proper punishments an external fear of doing evil, and of being punished by the Lord, which can with growth be transformed gradually into an internal fear. The letter of the Word often speaks of the Lord punishing and destroying, we are told, so that they who are in no love may be kept in fear, and thereby stand in awe of the Lord and flee to Him for the sake of deliverance. This shows that it does no harm to believe the sense of the letter, even though the internal sense teaches something else, provided that it is done from the affection of good. Because children are ruled by external loves they have to be taught external truth and led thereby. When a proper fear of the Lord is established in the human heart, when "in all things of worship there is a holy and reverent fear, which is that the Lord is to be honored and in no way injured; [then] it is as with children towards parents and parents towards children, with whom there is a fear of injuring, and also respect. Such a fear with respect is in all [true] love and in all [true] friendship, so that love and friendship without such a fear and respect is like food without salt, which is insipid." (AE 696: 4) From a fear of the Lord children and youths can learn to be fearless about themselves - fearless about admitting mistakes, fearless in telling the truth, fearless in obeying their parents, fearless in standing up for what is right, fearless in controlling themselves and in protecting others from their own evils. Such fearlessness comes from heaven and brings genuine happiness to all who practice it.

We live in a world which is striving to eliminate fear from the human mind by every conceivable external means. Our concern about health is eased by new foods and medicines; our economic worries are softened by social insurance schemes or by contracts which guarantee work; our social inferiority is cured by clubs or by education in how to get along with others to our best advantage. But all these external cures are but palliatives. They are superficial remedies which leave the internal causes of fear untouched. The fears and worries of life can be truly cured by one thing only - confidence in truth. There is only one source of genuine security, that is, faith in the Lord: a faith which comes from a rational insight into the workings of His Divine love and wisdom, a faith which inspires a holy fear and love. Only a living faith in the Lord, acquired from His Word, can prepare our minds to recognize the quality of our natural fears and enable us to face them and put them in their proper place. Only when we see life in the perspective of eternal truth can we find true and lasting freedom from fear.

It is right and proper to fear bodily harm. We should beware of anything that might bring sickness or injury and thus destroy our usefulness to others. We may well fear lest our sensual appetites and self-gratifying pleasures dull our sense of well-being and sap our physical ambition. But such fears can protect us. They can lead us to form habits of self-discipline and order which promote health. When we recognize that the body is but an instrument for the mind and spirit, that it is but a temporary garment to be cast off at death, but it exists so that we may develop our own spiritual character; when we see the body from the rational light of eternal truth, then not only can we act to promote its health and protect its uses but we can accept sickness and infirmity, disease and even death itself with an inner fearlessness.

It is right and proper that we should care about economic security. Such care can spur us on to greater endeavors and greater usefulness. A sense of responsibility for the welfare of our families and anxiety lest they suffer from our inadequacy or failure can come from good and selfless loves. But when we allow our minds to dwell on such thoughts to the point of self-pity, when our love of success and the good things of this world makes it impossible for us to be content with our lot, when anxiety for higher standards of living than our neighbors poisons our minds, then all our fears and worries stem from the loves of self and the world and we become the victims of our own selfish ambitions. Yet those who shun these worldly loves as sins against God, who assume their responsibility to work sincerely and honestly to the best of their ability, and who fear lest love of the world rule them, can be freed from this affliction, can be made content with their lot. For the Lord, as He says in His Word, "shall give [them] rest from sorrow, and from fear, and from the hard bondage wherein [they] were made to serve." (Isaiah 14: 3)

It is right and proper, also, to be concerned about one's social relations. Social life exists that the mind may relax and be recreated. Through social contacts friendships are strengthened, ideas and ideals are exchanged, and a basis for that closer understanding and co-operation so essential in the performance of our uses is established and maintained. Nevertheless, social life can become an end in itself. The number of social occasions, our being included in special social groups, self-centered dread lest somehow we be left out - these selfish goals can cause harmful fears, jealousies and hatreds. They can open the door of hell in our minds. They are to be shunned as sins against God. Only when we govern our social life for the sake of uses; only when we learn to control our social ambitions and to share our social favors; only when we learn to fear lest by inordinate social life we harm our own uses and those of others, harm families, our work, and our ability to approach the Lord with rested minds; only when the fear of the Lord and what He intends for us comes to rule in our hearts can these selfish worries be driven out, to be replaced by the proper and orderly concerns for the neighbor which make heaven.

As we strive, in every area of our lives, to think and act from a fear of the Lord - a fear lest we act contrary to His will, a fear lest we fail to live up to the clear teachings of His Word, a fear lest our own self-love and worldly ambitions cause us to bring harm to our neighbor and to our own spiritual states - then our fears can be purified and elevated; our external fears will melt away; and our internal fears will be transposed into love itself. They will be changed into that angelic love of the Lord from holy fear which is so pure and clean that it does not appear to be fear at all.

-New Church Life 1962;82:64-70

Back to Further Reading


Swedenborg Biography
Heavenly Doctrines
The revelation process
Who is God?
The Word of God
Bible & the Writings
Time and Eternity
History of Religion
On Being Useful
Providence and  Evil
Getting Rid of Evil
The Death Process
Life after Death
Life on Other Planets
The Second Coming
Spiritual Marriage
Art & Literature


• Home • Up • Next •

Holy Fear

Webmaster: IJT@swedenborgstudy.com