Is religion meant to teach us to love God or to fear God?
Religion is ultimately meant to enable us to love God, but most people are not ready to love God. To help such people become ready, the scriptures offer four broad levels for approaching God. These levels are non-sectarian; they can be found in all the religions of the world. These levels are fear, desire, duty and love.
Some people fear, “If I disobey God, then he may punish me for my wrongdoings. So better let me go to his temple and pacify him by my worship.” This sort of worship is certainly better than atheism, but it is based on a very limited and a somewhat negative conception of God as a stern judge, as a cosmic punisher – not as an object of love.
Some people think, “There are so many things I want; if I pray to God, perhaps He will give them to me.” Here the conception of God is more positive, as a potent desire-fulfiller. But still the relationship with him is utilitarian, based on give-and-take rather than love.
Some people reason, “God has already given me so much – life, body, health, food, clothing, shelter. It is my duty to go periodically to His temple and thank him.” Here the relationship is based on gratitude for what has already been given and not on greed for what one wants to receive. So it is a somewhat steady relationship. However, duty can over time become a burden. Moreover, the focus in this level is still on what God has done for me, not on God himself.
This is the purest level of approaching God, where a devotee feels, “My dear Lord, you are the supreme object of my love; I have been offering my love to so many people and things, but that has never made me happy. Now I simply want to love and serve you eternally and I do not want anything worldly in return for my service; I simply wish to love you and to be loved by you. Just as a parent takes care of the child without the child having to ask them for anything, I know that you will similarly take care of me. I will accept whatever is your plan for me and keep serving you no matter what happens in life.”
Today most people are primarily interested in worldly pursuits: they want to avoid some misfortune or to attain some fortune. When they worship God to fulfill these ends, they do so at the levels of fear and desire. By education, they can all progress to the level of loving God, which is the ultimate purpose of religion.