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Fear is bad news. Everybody knows it. If we don’t know from any other source, we know it at least from what Yoda had to say about it in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” But it’s not just Yoda. All of the great world religions recognize the danger it poses in our lives. Pretty much all the philosophies of life and methods of self-help worth their salt warn us about the problem of fear. In the Bible, the words “do not fear” (or their equivalent) are found hundreds of times.
In a culture that is losing its identity in Christ, and grasping for whatever substitute identities it can find, it makes sense that fear would run rampant and destroy lives. And it makes sense, in turn, that we would constantly have wise words told to us about the dangers of fear. In the Church, we hear repeated the Scriptural teaching, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). We would do well also to consider the words of Adam to God shortly after the fall: “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, … and I hid myself” (Gen 3:10). We don’t want to fear God in any way that would lead us to flee from Him, even if just in our hearts, internally. Such fear is an effect of the fall and a big problem in our spiritual lives.
And yet fear is useful, in smaller doses. A little fear comes in handy when learning to climb mountains, or after trespassing into the territory of an apex predator. But too much fear, and you might never get off the ground; or panic, make a mistake, and become tiger food.
The Sacred Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, clearly give an important and positive role for fear. They repeatedly praise the virtue of the fear of God: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). It is depicted as the sign of a healthy faith: “The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied” (Acts 9:31).
This tells us that even though “perfect love casts out fear,” there is such a thing as a good and praiseworthy fear of God that we should have in the meantime, before we’ve reached love’s perfection. In fact, the quote above, from Acts chapter 9, gives us a hint on how this can be. The early Church was “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” How are the harmful effects of fear avoided? Through balancing off the fear with other kinds of emotions. At the same time that we fear God, we also can receive His comfort.
In the final analysis, fear itself isn’t really a problem. Emotions should correspond to whatever reality is inspiring them. When there is a mountain to climb, the emotion of fear is appropriate, but also perhaps emotions of excitement, determination, and even happiness. When we’ve entered the immediate habitat of a wild tiger, we might experience a certain fascination with God’s majestic creature even as we take fear-induced steps to get ourselves to safety.
Likewise, when we consider God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Judge — our emotions ought to include trust, hope, and love, as well as fear. But our love makes our fear a particular kind of fear. The tradition of the Church calls it “filial fear.” Filial fear is the type of fear that sons and daughters have for their loving father. They know that the father loves them, and they love their father. They therefore fear offending the father who loves them so much. Or perhaps, knowing that the father will discipline them if they do wrong, they fear the father’s discipline. And knowing that he is strong and they don’t understand all of his ways, they hold him in awe, fearing and respecting him. Either way, because of the strength of the love they have for their father, their fear does not cause them to run away from him, but to “run away” from offending him. Fear is balanced off, or moderated, by trust, hope, and love.
This is the basic understanding of the fear of the Lord that the Scriptures and the Church proposes to us. We should strive to fear the Lord in this way. Fear of the Lord is good news.
We ought to keep these truths in mind when we carry out the work of evangelization. Do not be afraid to instill into people a healthy fear of the Lord. Do not be afraid to preach the truths about God’s righteousness and righteous punishment of sin. In no way do these truths impinge on the reality of God’s powerful, never-ending, never-failing, merciful love for each and every person. Many times, people consider the idea of fear of God or God’s punishment for sin, or of hell, and misunderstand them to imply some defect in God’s love. So be aware of that. But help such people to move beyond these faulty ideas. Help them move towards a healthy, filial relationship with the Lord.
Fear of the Lord is good news.