I’ve often struggled to describe the meaning of the phrase “fear of the Lord,” and I usually end up describing something that skirts around the word “fear.” To an extent, this is good–God does not want us to be terrified of him. Still, my explanations fail to do justice to the phrase.
I mean, if the biblical writers meant to convey “faith,” “belief,” or “awe,” why didn’t they just use those words?
I think Eugene Peterson has a really good explanation of this phrase in his Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places:
[Fear-of-the-Lord] means far more and other than simply being scared. But, and here’s the thing, it includes all the emotions that accompany being scared–the disorientation, the not-knowing what is going to happen to me, the realization that there is far more here than I had any idea of. And the “more and other” is God. When that happens, we begin to get in on the fear-of-the-Lord. (122)
This resonates with me–the times that I am closest and most obedient to God are the times that I am most frightened about where he might lead me, but when I trust him in spite of that fear. The fact that God is God is terrifying; but the fact that God is God is also extremely comforting.