Why fear of God is healthy — and when it becomes unhealthy

To stay civilized, every society needs to instill in its members a healthy fear of the law, which essentially means fear of the consequences of uncivilized actions. While different societies may have different systems of law for instilling such fear, one system that has been widely influential throughout human history is a healthy fear of God. 

Why is fear of human law insufficient? Because human law is notoriously fallible and bendable. Fallible because it may work wrongly due to our human tendency to make mistakes. And bendable because it may be made to work wrongly by the powerful. That’s why fear of human law needs to be complemented with fear of divine law. 

We all are accountable to a God who sees everything and who is powerful enough to discipline everyone. Such fear inspires deference and deterrence. Deference means respect for the principles of civilized living: principles such as cleanliness, truthfulness, mercy and sobriety. Deterrence means that they know and dread the consequences of giving in to the uncivilized urges that lurk inside every human heart. 

While fear of God is usually healthy, it becomes unhealthy when it makes us paranoid or paralyzed. Such unhealthy fear may otherwise be caused by terrorists, who often attack in ways that are arbitrary, unpredictable and brutal. 

How can we ensure that our fear of God doesn’t become unhealthy? By gaining proper knowledge of God’s benevolence. The Bhagavad-gita stands ready with such knowledge. It explains that God descends periodically to establish dharma, social and spiritual order (04.08).

By cultivating a healthy fear of God and thereafter rising toward love of God, we can all be inspired to bring out the best within us for our and society’s good.

One-sentence summary: 

Fear of God is healthy when it inspires deference and deterrence, but becomes unhealthy when it incites paranoia and paralysis. 

Think it over:

  • Why is fear of God healthy?
  • When does fear of God become unhealthy?
  • How can we ensure that our fear of God stays healthy?


04.08: To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.

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