This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
O God! I ask You for Your Love, the love of those who love You, and deeds which will cause me to attain Your Love.
–Prophet Muhammad, upon peace and blessings.
How Do We Fear God?
When some people think of “fearing God,” they imagine God as a fearsome torturer. This “God” is a towering, vindictive being who is just waiting for them to make a mistake.
In fact, it’s the reverse. The God who we fear is patient and loving. This God gives us opportunity after opportunity to repent, feel remorse, change our habits, and grow. Punishment comes into the picture only when it becomes evident to God, and to everyone around, that an individual is not receptive to growth.
Indeed, God gives us many opportunities to see our actions through other eyes. Pharaoh was surrounded not just by the slaves who he dehumanized and oppressed, but he also had people of light and goodness in his own home. These were people who he respected: namely Asiya, his wife, and her adopted son Moses.
Pharaoh also had a pious, wise advisor, and there were others in his kingdom who tried to steer him toward a better way, to the intertwined love and fear of God. But none of these good people were able to have an impact on Pharaoh. His arrogance and narcissism were simply too deep-seated.
So, yes, God is loving, merciful, compassionate, and patient. Yet this cannot be all. Because there also comes a time for justice.
We shouldn’t fear God because we believe that God is vindictive. God doesn’t care only about a select elite—God is compassionate and cares about everyone. So, instead, we fear God because God is majestic. This majesty should bring about not our quavering, but our humility. It should help us to authentically know our own limitations.
Fear of God as a positive
The fear of God is indeed a positive force, nudging us always to do right. It’s this fear that compels us to get to know others, in spite of our differences. This fear also presses us to be humble and to not transgress the boundaries of others.
For instance: At times, when marginalized groups express anger and rage, it can hit our ears in a difficult way. Maybe the way in which people express their anger sounds harsh, and is hard for us to hear. But the fear of God should force us to hear the pain and struggle of groups that are calling out, like the contemporary “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Indeed, the fear of God should humble us so that we can hear these marginalized communities in pain. This is particularly true of those communities that are saying: I need you to hear me right now, I need you to listen!
The fear of God is a healthy fear. Just as our body sends us a message of pain when it’s ill, telling us that we need to tend to it, the fear of God should send us a similar message when we are about to cause harm to others.
The ability to disobey
In the Qur’an, Satan is not an angel. Instead, Satan is a djinn, and he—like other djinn and humans—has the power to obey or disobey God. If Adam is the father-leader of human beings, then Satan is the same for the djinn. Once, Satan was an avid worshiper of God.
Then along came this newcomer, Adam, who wasn’t made from fire like the djinn, but from lowly clay. Satan didn’t want to know Adam. He felt that, given all that he’d done, God owed him something.
The angels recognized that Adam was a special being. Satan was also invited to that journey, to recognize the special aspects of Adam, but he rejected it. Satan felt that, because he was made of fire, he was better than Adam. Moreover, Satan didn’t fear God.
Satan was very worshipful, but he had no fear. It was this lack of fear that made him violate the boundaries not just of God, but of Adam. Indeed, Satan makes an oath to God that he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to bring Adam down.
Where he should’ve felt fear, Satan instead felt entitlement.
Mindfulness in faith
The outward show of faith shouldn’t bring us self-satisfaction or entitlement.
Any act that we do, we should be mindful and conscious of why we’re doing it. These acts are, after all, not just for our singular selves. They are also for God and for everyone to whom we’re connected. Indeed, when we act for God, we become aware of the boundaries of ourselves and others.
A person can feel enlightened, but unless they’re aware of the boundaries of others, that’s not true self-knowledge. It’s instead a sort of narcissism.
It’s not uncommon for religious people to worship the command of God instead of God. But if we really feel God is king, then there should be a fear of being held accountable inside us. It doesn’t matter who we are—what faith, or of no faith at all—we must feel an accountability for transgressing the boundaries of others.
If we realize that our actions aren’t only for ourselves, we’ll be aware of that.
Fear embedded in love
There isn’t just a question of why we fear God, but how we do it. We shouldn’t fear God from a distance, or while running away. We should have a fear of God that’s deeply embedded in love.
If you dislike and fear someone, then you most likely want to escape them, since we want to run away from people we hate. If you have a bad opinion of God—perhaps you imagine that God is just waiting to throw a thunderbolt and smack you for some ill deed!—then you’ll most likely be running away from God.
But instead, we must embed our fear in love. In this case, we run to God. To understand this, it helps to think of someone who you love very much. If that person, who you care about, is displeased or angry at one of your actions, then you don’t run away. Instead, your love for them forces you to care about their opinion. It’s our fear of displeasing this beloved that makes us attentive, and that can help set us right.
So: We shouldn’t fear because we’re afraid of hell or punishment. Our relationship with God isn’t one of an abuse victim with an abuser. We should be afraid of displeasing a beloved, and this is something we can only do when we’ve fostered the relationship with God.
Fearmongering and having a paranoia of God is not the same as fearing God.
Those who truly fear God are those who know and love God.
Fear and anger
Fear of God should most certainly not be rooted in anger. At its worst, this creates a situation that is ripe for brainwashing.
A person might be angry about Palestine, for instance, or the situation in Somalia, and theirs might well be a legitimate anger. But first that person needs to nourish their self-knowledge, and their connection and relationship with God. If the relationship with God is not built, then others can easily come along, validate their anger, and lead them astray, as ISIS does.
Certainly, this lack of self-knowledge isn’t just a state that religious people can manipulate. Anyone who is stuck in a situation of free-floating anger, without a strong relationship to self and God, might be ripe to follow a demagogic and destructive leader.
Instead, we need to develop our relationship with God, our knowledge of ourselves, and let ourselves be guided by a fear that is deeply, deeply embedded in love.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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