The clearest way I have ever understood the fear of God is this: Pain is to the body what the fear of God is to the soul. Do any of us enjoy pain? Do we seek it out? No. When something is painful, we avoid it. We naturally seek to lessen the pain in our lives, which has the effect of promoting our health.
Nor does one need to obsess about pain for it to be effective. It is the body’s guardian, and a helpful friend, when you think about it. The damage done to the body of a leper is exactly because they feel no pain (the nerves are damaged by the virus).
In a similar way, the Fear of God is like the soul’s guardian. The Bahá’í Writings call it a “shield”, and an “assurance of victory”. Do we like it, or seek it out? Of course not. But when we’re in a situation that could turn out bad for us, at times when our own understanding is not fully developed, it is fear of God that keeps us safe. As with pain, it’s not something that needs constant attention. If one is healthy, and not endangering his spirit, he needn’t feel it at all. It only comes into play when needed – if it has been cultivated.
This is utterly different from anxiety or terror, which have no true basis, and occur at unnecessary times. The fear of God, on the other hand, is based on our respect for God’s authority, and should come into play only when it is required: at those moments when we are tempted to ignore God’s command. Then the fear of God is like a friend, preserving the future against unwise choices in the present.
We fear God for own sakes, just like fearing a doctor. Without such a fear we might take his counsels lightly – at our own peril. Having a deep respect for authority, such that it engenders fear if we consider defying it, can be an excellent thing if: 1) The authority is a true one, with our best interests in mind; and 2) if we are not yet mature enough to understand its decisions. In those cases, fear is the only thing to keep us on the right track when sorely tested.