Fear of the Fear of the Lord

It’s possible that we could grow accustomed to the newfound freedom of the life of grace, to the point of downplaying the fear of the Lord. For the past few days, a group of priests has been performing their yearly spiritual exercises here—the upshot being that during our meals, instead of Christopher Duggan’s History of Italy, we are reading passages from René Voillaume about the spiritual life. At any rate, around the third day, the meditations drifted towards the theme of death, and how our death is likely to be how we have lived. That we ought to maintain a healthy fear of God in our lives. I admit, the theme causes no little squirming on the part of many, myself included. And yet, there are those who would say the fear of the Lord is overrated: why do they have to try to frighten us with these things—why not let us learn to love God for who he is, rather than out of fear?

It is true, at the end of the day, we must love God not out of fear, but out of love. But with all the sin and punishment talk of Lent, perhaps we ought to re-examine our understanding of fear.

The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. (Proverbs 9,10) Is God strongarming us into taking up his path and learning his way? We don’t always understand why God asks us certain things (the Ten Commandments, moral precepts of the Church, etc) but we certainly understand the consequences of not living them. So should we just blindly submit to God lest we be condemned?

First of all, not all fear is bad. St Thomas Aquinas speaks chiefly about two types of fear (II-II q19): servile fear vs. filial fear. Servile fear is a fear that shrinks from punishment—even when due. Filial fear is still fear, it too shrinks from evil. But filial fear shrinks from the evil of fault—i.e. fault committed against someone else.

It is correct to fear the evil of punishment. The whole point of punishment is to correct a fault. Cops slap parking fines to keep us from blocking fire hydrants (and not only to fill a weekly quota). And funny enough, it usually only takes one fine to remind us for the rest of our lives never to park in front of the yellow lines.

So this first fear is not ignoble—it is good, and directs us to avoid the evil of punishment. Filial fear, on the other hand, directs us to avoid offending someone—for the sake of rendering that person due respect.

It is in this sense that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. At first sight, we acknowledge him as he-who-sets-the-standards, and he-who-will-not-be-happy-if-we-don’t-keep-his-rules. That initial, servile fear of punishment gives us pause, and makes us think twice before committing another sin.

But we can never consider fear of the Lord without the full picture of who the Lord really is: mercy in person. Once we experience his mercy in confession, we recognize his patient love; we recognize that his anger (or our servile fear of punishment) is not the last word. He is our Father, and we are his people, the sheep of his flock.

Now with a deeper understanding and respect for who God really is, our approach is different. Now I avoid sin not merely to avoid paying the price, but because I am grateful to God, and I love him; and I want my life to reflect that gratitude to him with all my heart.

(Part II tomorrow…)


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