Monday, July 18, 2005

Fear and Fear Not

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, says the Bible in several places. It is also a gift of the Holy Spirit and is even said to "delight the heart and give gladness and joy and long life" (Sirach 1:12). So what are we afraid of? These days "fear of the Lord" is seen as just a bit too theologically "retro" for 21st-century well-adjusted integrated Christians. Back in the 1990s, when I was talking to a young man who had confidently jettisoned most of the teachings of the Church, I heard his justification for that: "Hey, I'm a man of the nineties!" I suppose that today he is a man of the new millennium, which would mean he's not a "God-fearing" man.

There is a good kind of fear as well as a bad kind of fear. The good one is the "fear and trembling" that overtakes any human soul to whom God would reveal his blinding and terrifying majesty, with the inevitable experience on the human's part of his own utter insignificance and wretchedness in the face of that absolute holiness and ineffable glory. The good fear is also the healthy respect and reverence we ought to have for the commandments of the Lord, for every word that proceeds from his mouth, and for the Holy Mysteries of the Church. Even on a purely human level, fear is quite beneficial when it prods us to flee or to protect ourselves from life-threatening dangers. Our salutary fear of committing sin and thus offending God is likewise beneficial. It is perhaps unfortunate (because of our sinful weakness), but all the same quite helpful for our salvation, that meditation on the eternal consequences for unrepented sin should "put the fear of God" in us. The good kind of fear isn't opposed to peace, either. We pray in the Divine Liturgy: "Let us stand in fear, that we may offer in peace the Holy Oblation."

The bad fear is the cowardice and anxiety, the psychologically debilitating agitation, dread, or apprehension that is an enemy not only of ordinary inner peace but also of the spiritual life. "Fear of the Lord" is not the same as being "afraid of the Lord," in the sense I just described. We are often full of all kinds of fears, and we fear fear itself and the very possiblity of approaching fearful circumstances or events. To this the Bible says repeatedly: "Fear not!" I read somewhere that this call to abandon inappropriate fear is found 366 times in the Bible: that's one for each day of the year, leap years included!

We learn from St John that God is love and that perfect love casts out fear -- it doesn't cast out "fear of the Lord" properly understood, for a fruit of the Spirit (love) cannot cast out a gift of the Spirit (fear of the Lord). It is rather, as the Apostle says, the fear that fears punishment that is cast out by perfect love. Let us note, however, that until our love is perfected we may still need to be reminded of the consequences of lack of love, and if that motivates us to get back on track, then it is salutary fear indeed!

Love is the goal; love is what lasts to eternity. There will be love in heaven but no fear (though there will always be reverent and awestruck wonder before the glory of the Lord). Let us begin to understand how to fear and fear not, for each in its own way is enjoined by the word of God. Fear nothing but grieving your God, and you will be advancing in wisdom. Let the "evolved" people of the new millennium receive the gift of the fear of the Lord -- and rejoice!