Do You Fear the Right Thing? A Meditation on the Story of Chicken Little

Fear is a complex passion. On the one hand, there are things that we ought to fear such as grave physical and spiritual dangers. The fear of being near the edge of a cliff might well save our life. The fear of serious sin and the punishment we might experience or the offense to God (who loves us) is both appropriate and holy. Sadly, more people lack this holy fear rooted in the possible loss of what is most precious to us: our eternal life with God.

There are also things we fear that we should not, and things that we fear more than we should. These sorts of fears are usually rooted in our disordered and inordinate affections.

A disordered affection is a love for something that is sinful. We ought not to love it at all, but we do; this causes us to fear anyone or anything that interferes with accessing and enjoying what is fundamentally sinful.

An inordinate affection is a love for something that is good in itself, but the love we have for it is too great. Loving it too much causes us to fear the loss of it more than we should. Many things in this world are lawful pleasures, but we come to love them too much. We love things more than people, and both things and people more than God. This is all out of order. We are to use things, love people, and worship God. Too often, though, we use people, love things, and forget about God.

There is also the great struggle that many have called the “sin of human respect,” wherein we fear people more than we fear God and seek to please people more than to please God. When we fall prey to this, we are willing to do sinful things in order to ingratiate ourselves to other human beings, fearing and revering them more than we do God.

Fear is a necessary passion for us, but too often our fears are misplaced and inordinate. Our fears are easily manipulated by Satan and the world.

A major area for spiritual growth is knowing what and whom to fear. Apart from God we will seldom get this answer right. We are easy prey for the devil and the world to draw us into all sorts of inordinate and even foolish fears.

Because a story can often have an impact that mere discourse cannot, I would like to illustrate this teaching with a well-known children’s story.

The story is the basis for two phrases in common use. Most are familiar with them, but some have never read (or have forgotten) the story from which they come. The first is “The sky is falling!” and the second is “Chicken Little” (used as a description of a person).

Both these phrases come from the children’s story Chicken Little. It is a story that speaks to the need to be careful about what we fear and what we do not fear. For indeed, one of the traps of Satan is to get us to focus on what we ought not to fear, or on what is secondary, so that we do not focus on what we should fear, or on what is more important. Aristotle, citing Socrates, said that courage is the virtue of knowing what to fear and what not to fear.

Please take the time to read this story completely. It may seem tedious to us modern folks with limited attention spans, but its conclusion is made more powerful by the litany of details. Please share it with your children as well.

Chicken Little was in the woods one day when an acorn fell on her head. It scared her so much she trembled all over. She shook so hard, half her feathers fell out. “Help! Help!” she cried. “The sky is falling! I must go tell the king!” So she ran in great fright to tell the king.

Along the way she met Henny Penny. “Where are you going, Chicken Little?” Henny Penny asked.
“Oh, help!” Chicken Little cried. “The sky is falling!”
“How do you know?” asked Henny Penny.
“Oh! I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears,
and part of it fell on my head!”
“This is terrible, just terrible!” Henny Penny clucked. “We’d better run.”

So they both ran away as fast as they could. Soon they met Ducky Lucky. “Where are you going, Chicken Little and Henny Penny?” he asked.
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling! We’re going to tell the king!” they cried.
“How do you know?” asked Ducky Lucky.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” Ducky Lucky quacked. “We’d better run!” So they all ran down the road as fast as they could.

Soon they met Goosey Loosey waddling along the roadside. “Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, and Ducky Lucky,” called Goosey Loosey. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?”
“We’re running for our lives!” cried Chicken Little. “The sky is falling!” clucked Henny Penny. “And we’re running to tell the king!” quacked Ducky Lucky.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Goosey Loosey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Goodness!” squawked Goosey Loosey. “Then I’d better run with you.”

And they all ran in a great fright across a meadow. Before long they met Turkey Lurkey strutting back and forth. “Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, and Goosey Loosey,” he called. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?”
“Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little. “We’re running for our lives!” clucked Henny Penny. “The sky is falling!” quacked Ducky Lucky. “And we’re running to tell the king!” squawked Goosey Loosey.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Turkey Lurkey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Oh dear! I always suspected the sky would fall someday,” Turkey Lurkey gobbled. “I’d better run with you.”

So they all ran with all their might, until they met the fox, Foxy Loxy. “Well, well,” said Foxy Loxy. “Where are you rushing on such a fine day?”
“Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey. “It’s not a fine day at all. The sky is falling, and we’re running to tell the king!” “How do you know the sky is falling?” said Foxy Loxy.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “I see,” said Foxy Loxy. “Well then, follow me, and I’ll show you the way to the king.”

So Foxy Loxy led Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey across a field and through the woods. He led them straight to his den, and they never saw the king to tell him the sky was falling.

Notice how fearing the wrong thing, and fearing it to excess, blinded them to what was more truly to be feared, what was more truly a threat. Here lies a doorway for the devil. He incites us to fear lesser things like unpopularity, loss of money, poor health, the loss of worldly trinkets, the next election, global warming, persecution, and worldly setbacks, so that we do not fear Judgment Day and the possibility of Hell.

The day of destiny is closing in, but never mind that! The sky is falling: the wrong political party is in power; the planet is overheating; the economy is about to collapse. You might lose your home to a storm; people might not think you are pretty enough, tall enough, or thin enough. Be afraid; be very afraid! You don’t have time to pray and ask God to get you ready for Judgment Day because you are too busy being afraid that eating food X may cause cancer, or that people may be laughing at you because of the five or ten pounds you gained last Christmas, or that the Yellowstone Caldera may blow at any time.

I will not tell you that the aforementioned concerns have no merit, only that they have less merit than what most people never think about or fear: where they are going to spend eternity. Chicken Little and her friends were easy prey for Foxy Loxy because they were obsessed with lesser things and ignored more dangerous (and obvious in this case) things like a fox!

Yes, “Foxy Loxy” has you worried about smaller and passing things. Now you are easy prey. It will take but a moment for him to lead you astray and have you for dinner!

Make sure you fear the right thing. God has a plan to simplify our lives. We are to fear Him and be sober about getting ready, with His help, for the certain-to-come Day of Judgment. If we fear Him, we don’t need to fear anyone or anything else.

Bishop Robert Barron has observed that the three tallest buildings in Chicago are insurance buildings. Fear “looms large” in our culture, but no insurance company can insure you against the only certain threat you face: Judgment Day. Only God can do that.

The sky may or may not be falling. (Personally, I doubt 80 percent of the media’s fearmongering.) But Judgment Day surely is looming. Foxy Loxy (Satan) is waiting for you. Will he get you? Will your fear of the Lord help you to avoid falling prey to his deceptions?

Courage is fearing the right thing and the right one.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Do You Fear the Right Thing? A Meditation on the Story of Chicken Little

Overcoming Fear on a Stormy Night in Galilee

The Gospel from Saturday’s daily Mass (Saturday of the 2nd Week of Easter) describes troubles rising and demonstrates how to endure them:

When it was evening, the disciples of Jesus went down to the sea, embarked in a boat, and went across the sea to Capernaum. It had already grown dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea was stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were afraid. But he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading (John 6:16-21).

The images in this passage are reminiscent of the journey of life. The disciples have set out in a boat to cross to the other shore. We, too, have set out for another shore in our life. Darkness grows for them as it often does for us. The winds are contrary, and the sea becomes choppy. The must row because the sails are useless. So it is for us also. We would rather let the wind carry us effortlessly to the other shore, but while life has many pleasant moments when we can do this, there are other times when the storms and winds assail us and make our journey difficult.

The disciples are a few miles into their journey when the crisis arises—or is it a blessing? They see Jesus walking on the water. Although He is their blessing, they don’t see it that way. Other gospel passages say that they thought they were seeing a ghost (e.g., Matt 14:26).

Life can be like this. Our blessing, our solution, our healing can be right in front of us, yet we are terrified. I remember one time when my cat was trapped in the attic of the rectory (I have no idea how she got up there). We made an opening in the ceiling to get her out, but she was too terrified to come near enough that I could let her down. It took a long time (and some kitty snacks) to lure her. Although I was her rescuer, she saw me as her tormenter. We are often like this, fearing the very Savior sent to us. We are like children who scream in fright as the doctor approaches with the shot that will cure or prevent sickness. The Lord God once said of us,

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. But the more I called them, the farther they ran from Me …. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in My arms, but they never realized that it was I who healed them … [who] bent down to feed them (Hosea 11:1-4).

Yes, we often fear the very source or means of our blessing.

The text says, “… and they were afraid.” They are looking right at Jesus, their savior, yet they do not realize it; they do not recognize Him and are afraid. We, too, are like this. Why do we sometimes fear Jesus, the very source of our salvation? Because He does not always heal us on our terms. He talks of strange remedies like the cross. Strangely, He permits storms in our life and we are both fearful and resentful. However, the very cross and storms we fear are often the means by which He saves us! We need some degree of suffering and storms to keep us humble, to help us to grow in wisdom, to trust Him, and to keep calling on Him. Jesus talks of unsettling things like taking up our cross and following Him, losing our life so as to find it and save it. Jesus Himself won the victory hanging on a cross, not astride a war-horse slaughtering His enemies.

We see Jesus coming toward us in a storm, but rather than simply stopping the storm, He tells us not to be afraid. Why doesn’t He just take away the storm? I don’t know; He simply says, Do not be afraid. It is I. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, In this world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).

Jesus wants His presence to be enough for us. He is with us, so why are we afraid? There are going to be storms; that’s a promise—but He will be with us; that, too, is a promise. There’s a saying that’s particularly: “Don’t tell God how big your storm is. Tell the storm how big your God is.”

The gospel passage we are discussing ends abruptly by saying, They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading. Well, what do you know, they finally understand that it is Jesus and they reach the shore!

Note that there is no indication in the passage that the storm ended. The winds may have still been blowing, the seas still rough, but none of that matters once they have reached their destination. One may think that this destination merely refers to the boat docks at Capernaum, but that would be worldly, limited, and erroneous. The shore to which we all sail is none other than the Lord Himself. He is our peace, our goal, our destination.

At times His solutions may involve paradox. The cross is strange medicine to the worldly—but loss can usher in gain, a door may close only that another may open, death can bring life. Do not be afraid; He is near. That is not a ghost approaching you in the storm, it is the Lord! All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).

This is a vignette, an essay on life. Storms will come, but the solution is near: Do not be afraid. It is I.

Help me, Lord, to know that you are the source of my peace. You are always near; Help me to hear your voice, saying, Do not be afraid. It is I.

There is an old gospel song that has these lyrics:

I love the Lord;
He heard my cry;
And he pitied every groan.
Long as I live;
And troubles rise;
I’ll hasten to his throne
.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Overcoming Fear on a Stormy Night in Galilee

Couragio! A brief refutation of our cultural fear of being against things

092414One of the critiques that many make of the Church is that we are sometimes known more for what we are against than what we are for. This critique, and fear, exists even within the Church. A similar critique is made of God’s law, wherein some wonder, “Why are the Ten Commandments generally worded as negatives: ‘Thou Shalt not …’ ?”

It is a fact that, at least in modern culture, many prefer to say what they are for rather than what they are against. Somehow, being “positive” is valued over being “negative.” Thus, even in the tragic conflict over abortion, both sides declare that they are “pro” something, either life or “choice.” I am certainly “pro-life,” but as to the matter in question, I am anti-abortion. But most of us who do any media work are strongly cautioned to avoid the prefix “anti-” altogether.

In fact, even when a group gathers to denounce something (e.g., war, poverty, or taxes) the participants are called “protesters” (a word that refers to those who stand up for or witness to something) rather than “contesters” (a word that refers to those who stand or witness against something). Frankly, “contester” more accurately describes what is going on in a “protest.” If I am protesting higher taxes, I am against the idea, not for (“pro-“)  it.  But we are funny this way, and very sensitive about it. We don’t like to be perceived as being against things.

And of course this is problematic for a preacher of the Gospel, who needs to engage a culture that is increasingly heading to some very dark and sinful places. At some point we simply have to be willing to say that we are foursquare against many things and endure the “terrible” charges that we are “negative,” even if our overall goal is to affirm something that is better than the practice we are against. Thus we are against abortion because we are for life and the potential and dignity of the unborn. We are against fornication, pornography, adultery, and homosexual acts because we are for chastity and God’s vision for sexuality. We are against euthanasia because we are for the wisdom of the Cross and the glory that our life brings to God. We are against greed because we love the poor and think our excess should be shared with them in appropriate ways.

But at the end of the day, we DO have to be willing to say that we are against certain things. We will not always have the luxury of being able to give elaborate speeches that attempt to show how we are really “for” something else and therefore are not bad people or sour-faced “downers.” Our ego needs to be a little stronger so that we do not feel the need to always seem nice, pleasant, positive, and affirming. These all have their place, but they can also be pernicious enemies of the truth.

And this leads us back to the Ten Commandments, wherein eight of the ten unapologetically use the formulation “You shall not …” God is not all that worried that He might be perceived as being “against” something—and neither should we be.

But there is another reason for the negative formulation that is worth exploring as well. Simply put, it is often easier to say what something is not, than to describe what it is. The commandments are depicting love, but if I ask you to wholly and completely define love you’re going to have a difficult time, since love is so comprehensive and multifaceted.

Thus, if you ask me, “What does it mean to love God?” I could go on for pages and pages trying to describe it and its implications and I would barely scratch the surface. Alternatively, however, I could say, “Well, to love God is to stay faithful to Him by not sleeping with other gods or giving them my love and worship. To love God means that I will not disrespect His precious name, but will honor it for its precious dignity and for the sign of intimacy it is. To love God means that I will not fail to spend time with Him on Sunday and enjoy His blessings.

If you ask me “What does it mean to love my neighbor?” I am going to have a hard time saying all that it means. But surely I can say that if I love my neighbor I will not kill him; I won’t use her sexually; I won’t steal from or lie to him; I won’t covet her; I won’t greedily seek to possess what he has.

And thus God begins by telling us essentially what love is not, and then enriches the “shall nots” with examples that help to fulfill the vision. Thus “not killing” is more than merely not taking a life. It is letting go of all the things that lead to murder such as hatred, bitterness, mercilessness, ridicule, extreme competitiveness, and so forth. The “shall nots” lead to positive implications and a summons to freedom wherein one is set free from anger, hatred, bitterness, fear, and so forth.

This is essentially what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, His great moral treatise in which He speaks of fulfilling the law. To fulfill the law means to fill it full, to consider all the implications of the commandments and precepts.

It is also what I try to do in my new bookThe Ten Commandments, wherein each commandment, though precise in its formulation, is seen in its richer implications. Pardon the shameless plug, but this blog post has its origins in a radio interview I did today with Matt Swaim on the Sonrise Morning Show. I go on the show about every two weeks, but today Matt was kind enough to interview me about my book.

The bottom line though has to be this: we need to expose the lie (or at least the fear) in our culture that being against things is always a bad thing. We need to have the courage to admit and even to be bold in saying that we oppose things. This, of course, does ultimately mean that we are also for some other thing. But even if we cannot fully proclaim all that we are for, which admittedly is hard to do, it is necessary to say what we oppose.

Couragio!

As for this video, I happened upon it as I was looking for the song “Signs” (Sign, sign, everywhere a sign …), a “protest” song against rules that was so typical of the rebellious ’70s. I found it, but it also has this humorous collection of strange signs. So enjoy the funny signs even though the song is emblematic of today’s “be nice,” and “don’t have any rules” mentality.

Have You No fear of God?! A Meditation on the Need to Recover Salutary Fear.

112413In yesterday’s (Sunday) Gospel, the good thief on the cross rebukes the bad thief at the other side of Jesus with a very poignant question, Have you no fear of God?.

Now this question is very well addressed to us as well; especially those of us who live in this modern age, so often marked by things like presumption. Further, with the rise of militant atheism, there is even a contemptuous dismissal of  the fact that we will ever answer to God or anyone for anything we do.

Even among believers, there are many who have all but set aside any notion that we will ever face a judgment of any significance. The error of “Universalism” is dismissive of the notion that judgment will result in anything but Heaven for the vast majority, especially me.

Yes, even those who faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, have often to come to this non-biblical notion and pay little regard to the day of their judgment. For this, the preachers of the Church are largely to blame. And when blogs like this, where we regularly discuss these issues, discuss them, many write to me saying they’ve never heard this from their pulpits. A few others, react with a kind of anger or dismissiveness.

Thus the question, the rebuke of the “Good Thief” Have you no fear of God?  is an important and poignant one for us today. Somewhere we have lost balance and erected a kind of “no fear” zone which is ultimately unbiblical and unsound.

Now granted, fear is not usually perceived of as a good thing, at least at an emotional level. It is not something to which we usually say, “Isn’t that nice.”

But fear, especially understood as respect and reverence, is an important and noble virtue. And, as we shall discuss, even servile fear, understood here is kind of fear of punishment, serves as an important foundation for the higher and more noble “Holy Fear” that is rooted more in reverence, respect and love for God.

And thus, while fear can be complex, it is important to get it right and restore proper balance, for Scripture speaks of it often at many different levels, and Jesus makes great use of it in his counsel to us.

In considering fear, let’s begin at the top with the “Holy fear” of the Lord. Holy Fear is distinct from servile fear in that servile fear has to do with punishment, where is Holy Fear is rooted in love.

Among the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is Holy Fear. The Holy Fear the Lord is to hold God in awe, to be amazed at his glory, and his wisdom, his beauty and truth. And this awe, this Holy Fear draws us into a deep love for God which seeks union with him, so as to share in His awesome glory and majesty and to delight with wonder in it. And thus, we fear to offend him in any way, or to act in any way that might harm our union with him. And we do this, not so much out of fear of punishment, but simply because we love him so much, hold him in such reverence, awe and respect. Yes, this is a very great gift from God the Holy Spirit, the gift of Holy Fear!

Of this Holy Fear Scripture says,

  1. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:16-18)
  2. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15).

But honestly, most of us cannot, and do not begin with this sort of fear. For this Holy Fear presupposes the kind of deep love, awe, and wonder that comes more often with spiritual maturity. Note how the Scriptures above speak to this reality of deep love and presuppose it for us to be free from the fear of punishment.

No, most of us begin with, and must be schooled in, a less perfect form of fear, but a fear which the Lord nevertheless counsels. Many theologians call it “servile fear,” since it speaks of the kind of fear that a servant might have of being punished for disobedience.

It is popular today to be dismissive of the sort of fear and see it as the relic of a immature faith, and not befitting of people who have come to an adult faith.

Some of the modern rejection of servile fear has resulted from the arrogance of the modern age, wherein it is common thinking that we moderns have attained it to a kind of maturity that our puerile ancestors did not have. After all, we have been to the moon, and have technology. So, not only are we smarter, we are some how more mature are well. They had “simplistic” and “childish” faith (e.g. “pray, pay, obey”), whereas somehow we have come of age, and are more mature and sophisticated; or so the thinking goes.

Of course the arrogance and error of this thinking (that tended to predominate especially in the 60s and 70s), becomes evident as we see how our culture has devolved to a kind of teenage fixation. Many in our culture never grow up, and the majority seem to remain rooted in a kind of teenage thinking, of which I have written more here: Modern Culture: Stuck on Teenage?

Thus, to presume that we can utterly reject servile fear as a relic of an immature faith and time, must be rejected. Not only is the height of arrogance, but also must be reject simply on the evidence. We are not mature, if anything we are far less mature than those who went before us, who generally knew how to take responsibility for their actions and assume adult responsibilities such as making commitments and keeping them, not making so many excuses, and by accepting consequences of decisions.

Thus, for all our braggadocio, about maturity, the fact is, many of us are nowhere near what it takes to be totally free of servile fear and fully capable of a mature Holy Fear rooted in love of God.

So, we need to rediscover a place for servile fear as necessary for most of us in our initial stages, and, even if we have developed a deeper Holy Fear rooted in love, to appreciate that there is still need to the preaching tradition to appeal to servile fear as well, for not all have passed on to mature faith (cf, Heb 5:14, 1 Cor 3:2).

Still not convinced? Jesus uses it. So do the Apostles he commissioned. Consider,

  1. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Mat 10:28) (N.B. He is referring to himself here, for he is the only one who has the power to cast into hell).
  2. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Mat 5:22)
  3. [Jesus says] But as for those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me. (Luke 19:27)
  4. And Jesus was saying to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. “Therefore I told you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” (Jn 8:23-24)
  5. Then he [Jesus] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Mat 25:41)
  6. Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Mat 7:23)
  7. Later the [foolish virgins] also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matt 25:11-13)
  8. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it
    is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body cast into hell. (Mat 5:29)
  9. And the King (the Lord) said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. “Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:12-14)
  10. Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor those who commit homosexual acts , nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God! (1 Cor 6:9-10)
  11. But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. (Rom 2:5)
  12. If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb 10:26-31)

Honestly, I could multiply texts like these tenfold. The point is, I hope, clear.  Jesus and the Apostles he commissioned to preach in his name had frequent recourse to the fear of punishment, judgment and hell, to servile fear.

Why? Because not all are at a place were loftier appeals will have any effect. Very often children must first be schooled in the discipline of punishment. Only later when discipline has had its proper effect can appeals to loftier concepts such as love, loyalty, enlightened self-interest, the common good and simple love for God and the truth, be motivating.

We grow in stages and the preaching and teaching of Scripture, and the Church rightly respect this and will appeal to many motives to convince us unto repentance. This must include the lesser fear of punishment as well as the greater motive of Holy Fear.

It will be granted that appeals to fear cannot and should not be our only focus. Clearly appeals to love of God and neighbor must also be included, along with appeals to reason and enlightened self interest as motives for keeping the commandments. The mercy and love of God can and must be preached.

But the point here is that things have gone out of balance and we need to recover that balance by pulling back in the other direction. Hence this blog post and I pray the voices now of many others who sense the current lack of balance.

Some will argue that fear based arguments simply do not hold the sway they once did. Perhaps. But why is this so? Perhaps the steady diet of cross-less Christianity, mercy without repentance, and universal salvation, a sort of sin without consequences, have deceived many. This sort of preaching and teaching is unbiblical and it is a lie.

All the more reason we must reacquaint the faithful with the true Scripture and the real Jesus. All the more reason we must work to inculcate a proper fear of judgment and consequence for unrepented sin.

Given the current climate referencing fear may NOT be effective at first and cause some to scoff and wonder if “Father is in a bad mood.”

But, my own pastoral experience is that people are at first surprised, and do sometimes scoff, but as I build the evidence for them over time in sermons and teachings, they gradually adjust to the biblical world view again. It is a process.

And once we get our own house in order, then our faith can once again begin to influence a culture that has inoculated itself from proper and healthy fear.

Yet all the inoculations in the world cannot ultimately erase the truth that Scripture affirms: So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Rom 14:12) and again, [Jesus said] But I tell you that even for every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. (Matt 12:36). Yes we will answer to God. And that is worth having some salutary fear about it.

And thus the question of the Good Thief rings true and poignantly today: Have you no fear of God? 

Jesus never hesitated to preach the fear of punishment, and neither should modern preachers.

071113Some years ago I was stationed with a priest who, while he often liked my homilies, would often critique my use of what he called “fear based preaching.” Perhaps I had warned the congregation of punishment for sin, or even let slip that certain things were mortal sins that would exclude one from heaven and land them in hell. I would often playfully remind the congregation that missing Sunday Mass was a mortal sin by saying, “Go to Mass or go to hell.” I would also warn that fornicators would not inherit the Kingdom nor idolaters nor adulterers nor those who practice homosexuality, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (cf 1 Cor 6:9).

Of course I was quoting Scripture and preaching out of a voluminous biblical tradition of warning texts. Nevertheless, the older priest would often wag his finger and say, “Ah that’s fear-based preaching…fear based!”

Perhaps it was, but so what? And yet many (not all) priests of his generation were of the mind that to warn at all or to incite any fear in the people of God was some “abusive” and bad pastoral practice. They seem to have been a generation in reaction to something before them. Perhaps they had grown up with what they thought was too much fire and brimstone preaching and not enough of a summons to higher motives rooted in love and mature spiritual reflection.

It is true, that the First Letter of John does set for a kind of goal for us that we be free of the mere fear of punishment and root our moral life in love:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)

And yet, if this goal, good and important that it is, is meant to eliminate any appeal to ordinary fear of punishment, apparently Jesus never got the memo. Neither did St. Paul, St Peter, St. James, St Jude, the Author of the Letter to the Hebrews, and even John himself seems to have forgotten the “rule” from time to time.

For the fact is, the quote from First John sets for a goal for the spiritually mature. But that does mean that we are all there. In fact, people are at many different stages of spiritual growth. Surely the Lord, and the gospel and epistle writers knew this, as does every experienced pastor.

Frankly, many are still at a spiritual stage where the fear of punishment is both necessary and salutary.

Jesus certainly saw fit to appeal to the fear of punishment, loss, and hell. In fact, it is arguable that this was his main approach and that one would struggle to find very many texts where Jesus appeals more to a perfect contrition and a purely holy fear rooted in love alone as a motive to avoid sin. But over and over in dozens of passages and parables Jesus warns of punishment and exclusion from the Kingdom for unrepented sin and for the refusal to be ready. Here are just a few:

  1. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matt 7:13-14)
  2. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Mat 13:41-42)
  3. “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ” (Mk 13:35-37)
  4. And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with carousing, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come on you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man. (Luke 21:34-36)
  5. “But about that day or hour no one knows…For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away…“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matt 24:36-44)
  6. The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 24:51)
  7. Then the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matt 25:10-13)
  8. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat…“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matt 24:41-42, 46)
  9. Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell. (Matt 5:28-29)
  10. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5:22)
  11. And if your foot offend you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched. (Mk 9:45-46)
  12. Friend, how came you in here not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matt 22:12-14)
  13. Then said Jesus again to them, I go my way, and you shall seek me, but you shall die in your sins: where I go, you cannot come….I have told you that you will die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins (John 8:21, 24).
  14. by their fruits you shall know them. Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name done many wonderful works? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt 7:20-23)
  15. He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)
  16. He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day. (John 12:48)
  17. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give youthis testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” (Rev 22:14-16)

Dozens of other texts, parables and warnings could be added unto this list. But let these Suffice. The bottom line is that Jesus warned and appealed to the fear of punishment a LOT.

No one loves you more than Jesus and yet no one warned of judgment and Hell more than Jesus. He knows how stubborn and hard we are, and thus he is plain and warns with clarity and charity.

St. Paul and all the other Epistle writers have many warning texts as well that proclaim a salutary fear of punishment. A common example of the Pauline warning texts is this:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous  will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

Translation: if one stays in serious and unrepented sin, they go to Hell. And thus, St Paul too, as well as the other Epistle writers all appeal to the fear of punishment.

Now why should we, who are summoned to preach and teach in Jesus’ name, reject a key strategy that he and his chosen apostles employed? And yet, it has been a consistent modern practice to all but ignore the substantial warning texts that occur throughout the preaching of Jesus and the Apostles.

Part of the reason for our rejection would seem rooted in the fact that we live in rather dainty times wherein people easily take offense. Further the “self-esteem” culture and its premises are inimical to speaking of people as sinners or in anyway rejected. Thirdly, many today have cast God in the role of doting Father, and Jesus as a harmless hippie. No matter how unbiblical the images of the Lord are, they are pervasive and people do not easily let go of them, even when confronted with biblical texts.

But, at the end of the day, those of us who preach are without excuse if we neglect or refuse a pastoral practice used extensively by Jesus himself. By our silence in this regard we mislead God’s people and become, in effect, deceivers who do not preach the “whole counsel of God” (cf Acts 20:27).

While it is true that we can help to lead God’s people from an imperfect contrition (rooted in fear of punishment) to a more perfect contrition (rooted in love for God), it remains a rather clear fact that many of the faithful are at different stages and are not yet at the perfect contrition stage.

For this reason the Church has always allowed that imperfect contrition was sufficient to receive absolution. The traditional act of contrition (which is to be preferred) says,

…I detest all my sins, not only because I fear the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend you my God who are all good, and deserving of all my love….

This act of contrition is to be preferred because it distinguishes perfect and imperfect contrition and properly notes that most of us have by sorts of contrition admixed. But this act of contrition also helps the penitent recall the journey we ought to make out of the fear of punishment to the deeper and more perfect motive of love of God and neighbor to avoid sin.

But for most of us, this is a journey that is underway, and some have made more progress than others. Meanwhile, the preachers of the Church do well to appeal to the fear of punishment among other motives to avoid sin.

Jesus and the Apostles never hesitated to recall the fearful results of sinful obstinance. And neither should we who Preach today. Fear of punishment is needed after all.

Here is an excerpt from one of my funeral sermons that uses warning and incites fear of judgement and hell.

Our Most Primal Fear and the Source of Our Bondage

In yesterday’s blog we pondered the sin of human respect and its remedy, the holy Fear of God. In this post I’d like to go one level deeper and ponder a significant yet often overlooked text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think is rooted in an even deeper fear at the very core of our being and the Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the source of our bondage.  In order to unlock the secret of the text I want to suggest to you an interpretation of the text that will allow its powerful diagnosis to have a wider and deeper effect.

Consider then this text from Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)

Now this passage is clear enough that the first origin of our bondage to sin is the devil. But it also teaches that the devil’s hold on us is the “fear of death.” This is what he exploits to keep us in bondage.

When I explore this teaching with people I find that it is difficult for many to understand at first. For many, especially the young, death is kind of theoretical. It is not something many people fear on a conscious level. This is especially so today when medicine has so successfully pushed back the boundary of sudden death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency about death (perhaps a brush with death) but as a general rule the fear of death is not something that seems to dominate the thoughts of many. So what is  meant by the “fear of death” and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”?  To be sure this is an adaption of the text. The Greek text (φόβῳ θανάτου – phobo thanatou) is surely and simply translated as “fear of death.” This can help us to see what this text is getting at in a wider sense. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? At one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter, or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel handsome enough, pretty enough, we’re too tall, too short, too fat, wrong color hair. Maybe we hate that others are richer, more powerful, better spoken, better looking. Maybe we are older and wish we were younger and stronger, thinner and more energetic again. Maybe we are younger and wish were older, wiser, richer and more settled. Maybe we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, nicer home, better kids, or live in a better neighborhood. Maybe we compare ourselves to a brother or sister who did better financially or socially than we did.

Perhaps you can see how the fear of diminishment (the fear that we don’t compare well to others) sets up a thousand sins. It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride too since we seek to compensate our fear of inadequacy by finding people whom we feel superior to. We thus indulge our pride or we seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Perhaps we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really are not. Perhaps we spend money we really don’t have trying to impress people so we feel less adequate.

And think of yesterday’s meditation on the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and fit in. Young people, and older ones too, give in to peer pressure and do sometimes terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, gossip etc. Adults too have many of these things on their list. All these things in a quest to be popular and to fit in. And fitting in is about not feeling diminished. And diminishment is about the fear of death because every experience of diminishment is like a mini death.

Advertisers too know how to exploit the fear of death (diminishment) in effectively marketing their product. I remember studying this in the Business School at George Mason University. What advertisers do is to exploit our fear of diminishment. The logic goes something like this: you are not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, comfortable enough, you don’t look young enough, you have some chronic illness (depression, asthma, E. D. diabetes) , etc. So use our product and you will be adequate again, you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete and basically diminished. If you drink this beer you’ll be happy, have good times and friends will surround you. If you use this toothpaste or soap or cosmetics,  beautiful people will be around you and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car people will turn their heads and so impressed with you. Message: you are not adequate now, you do not measure up, you are not perfect (you are diminished) but our product will get you there!  You will be younger, happier, healthier and more alive.

Perhaps you can see how all this appeal plugs into greed, pride, materialism, worldliness, and the lie that these things will actually solve our problem. They will not. In fact appeals like this actually feed our fear of diminishment and death even more because they  feed the notion that we have to measure up to all these false or unrealistic standards.

It is my hope that you can see how very deep this drive is and how it ensalves us in countless ways.

This demon (fear of death, fear of diminishment) has to be named. Once named and brought to the light we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of a Jesus. As we start to recognize and name the thought patterns that emerge from this most primal of fears we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted and “stinking thinking” with proper, sober and humble thinking. A thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of his grace and mercy.

The text from Hebrews above is very clear to say that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. The same text says that Jesus Christ died to save us and free us from this bondage. Allow the Lord to give you a penetrating and sober vision of this deep drive, this deep fear of diminishment and death. Allow the light of God’s grace and word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.

This Video pokes fun at the fad-centered culture that is always trying to make us feel inadequate:

What is the Wrath of God?

Not long ago I saw a bottle of hot sauce with the creative name “Wrath of God!” Now that’s gotta be some hot sauce! But what is God’s wrath? It is spoken of often in the scriptures and it is a concept with which we have to be careful. On the one hand we cannot simply dismiss the concept as contradictory to the fact that God is love. But neither can we fail to see God’s wrath apart from his love.

As a followup from yesterday’s blog it seems worthwhile to consider some aspects of the very complicated and reality of the wrath of God. There is not enough space to cover the whole topic in the post but the comments stay open as always for your additions and subtractions. What are some ways that we can explain and understand the wrath of God? Let me propose a few.

The wrath of God is not merely an Old Testament Concept. In fact we find it mentioned quite frequently in the New Testament as well. For example consider the following:

  1. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him. (John 3:36)
  2. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18)
  3. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Rom 12:19)
  4. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things [i.e. sexual immorality] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (Eph 5:6)
  5. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:9)
  6. The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. (Rev 14:19)

And there are at least a dozen other texts from the New Testament that could be referenced but allow these to suffice. So it is clear that the “wrath of God” is not some ancient or primitive concept that the New Testament has dispensed with. And notice too that the wrath of God is not something simply for the end of the world. It is also spoken of in some of the texts above and others not listed as something already operative in certain people.

So what is God’s wrath? And how can we reconcile it with his love?  Consider some of the images, explanations of God’s wrath. None of them all alone explain it but together a picture and understanding may emerge.

  1. Image: God’s wrath is his passion to set things right. We see this image of God’s wrath right at the beginning in Genesis when God cursed Satan and uttered the protoevangelium (the first good news): I will make you and the woman enemies….one of her seed will crush your head while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15). God is clearly angered at what sin has done to Adam and Eve and he continues to have anger whenever he beholds sin and injustice. He has a passion for our holiness. He wants what is best for us. He is angered by what hinders us in this regard. Surely all sins provoke his wrath but there are five sins that especially cry out to heaven: Wilful murder – [Gen. 4:10]; The sin of the Sodomites, [Gen. 18:20; 19:13]; The cry of the people oppressed, [Ex. 3:7-10]; The cry of the foreigner, the widow and the orphan, [Ex. 20:20-22]; Injustice to the wage earner. [Deut. 24:14-5; Jas. 5:4] (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1867). In terms of all sin and injustice and anything that afflicts or hinders the possibility of salvation,  God has a wrathful indignation and a passion to set things right. This is part of his love for us. His wrath may be manifest through punishments, disturbances of our conscience, or simply by allowing us to experience some or all the consequences of our sin and injustice.
  2. Clarification: God’s wrath is not like our anger. In saying that God is angry we ought to be careful to understand that however God experiences anger or any passion, it is not tainted by sin. God is not angry like we are angry. When we get angry we often experience an out of control quality, our temper flares and we often say and do things that are either sinful or at least excessive. It cannot pertain to God to have temper tantrums and to fly off the handle, to admix anger with an unreasonable lashing out. The way God does experience anger is not something we can fully understand but is it surely a sovereign and serene act of his will, not an out of control emotion.
  3. Clarification: God is not moody. It does not pertain to God to have good days and bad days, good moods and bad ones. Scripture seems clear enough when it indicates that God does not Change. Consider this from the Book of James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning. Hence to speak of God’s wrath does not mean that he has suddenly had enough or that his temper has flared, or that his mood has soured. God IS. He does not change. As the text says, he is not variable. And this leads us to the next point.
  4. Image: Given what we have said,  the primary location of God’s wrath is not in God,  it is in us. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of God’s wrath is this: God’s wrath is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the Holiness of God. Sin and God’s holiness just don’t mix. They can’t keep company. Think of fire and water. They do not mix. They cannot coexist in the same spot. Bring them together and you you can hear the conflict. Think of water spilled on a hot stove and hear the sizzle and popping and the steam as the water flees away. If, on the other hand there is a lot of water the fire is overwhelmed and extinguished . But the point is that they cannot coexist. They will conflict and one will win. This is wrath, the complete incompatibility of two things. It is this way between sin and God’s utter holiness. We must be purified before we can enter the presence of God otherwise we could never tolerate his glory. We would wail and grind our teeth and turn away in horror. The wrath is the conflict between our sin and God’s holiness. God cannot and will not change so we must be changed. Otherwise we experience wrath. But notice the experience is in us primarily and not God. God does not change, he is holy, serene, he is love. If we experience his wrath it is on account of us, not him. Consider the next example.
  5. Image: It is we who change, not God and this causes wrath to be experienced or not –Consider an example. On the ceiling of my bedroom is a light with a 100 watt light bulb. At night before bed I delight in the light. I am accustomed to it. But then at bed time I put out the light and sleep. When I awake it is still dark (at least in the winter). Hence I put the light on. But Ugh! Grrr! Now the light is bright and I curse it! Now mind you, the light has not changed one bit. It is still the same 100 watt bulb it was hours earlier. The light is just the same, it is I who have changed. But do you know what I do? I blame the light and say, “The light is harsh!” But the light is not harsh, it is just the same as when I was happy with it. Now that I have changed I experience its wrath but the wrath is really in me. So also consider the experience of the ancient family of man with God. Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the evening when the dew collected on the grass (cf Gen 3:8).  They had warm friendship with him and did not fear his presence. After sin, they hide. Had God changed? He had not, they had and they now experience him very differently. Fast forward to another Theophany. God has come to Mt Sinai and as he descends the people are terrified for there are peals of thunder, lightning, clouds and the loud blast of a trumpet. The people told Moses “You speak to us, but let not God speak, else we will die!” (Ex 20:19) God too warned Moses that the people could not get close  lest his wrath be vented upon them (Ex 19:20-25). Now again, had God changed? He had not. He was the same God who walked with them in the cool of the evening in a most intimate way. It was we who had changed. We had lost the holiness without which no one can see the Lord (Heb 12:14). The same God, unchanged though he was, now seemed to us frightening and wrathful.
  6. What then shall we do? If we can allow the image of fire to remain before us we may well find a hopeful sign in God’s providence. Since God is a holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:26; Is 33:14) how can we possibly come into his presence? How can we avoid the wrath that would destroy us? Well, what is the only thing that survives in the presence of fire? Fire is the only thing that survives! So it looks like we’d better become fire if we want to see God. And thus it was that God sent tongues of fire upon the Apostles and us at our confirmation. God wants to set you and me on fire with the Holy Spirit and in holiness. God wants to bring us up to the temperature of glory so that we can stand in his presence: See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.  But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. (Mal 3:1-4). And indeed Jesus has now come:   For you have  turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. 1 Thess 1:10-11)

So there is a wrath of God. As I have tried to show it is more in us than in God. But I will not say to you that there is NO wrath IN  God. Scripture seems clear to indicate that wrath does pertain to God’s inner life. What exactly it is and how God experiences it  is mysterious to us. We can say to some extent what it is not (as we did above) but we cannot really say what it is exactly. But far more rich is the meditation that the wrath of God is essentially in us. It is OUR experience of the incompatibility of sin before God. We must be washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb and purified. Most of us will need purification in purgatory too. But if we let the Lord work his saving work we are saved from the wrath for we are made holy and set on fire with God’s love. And fire never fears the presence of fire. God is Love but he will not change. So it is that Love must change us.

One of the greatest cinematic depictions of the Wrath of God occurred in the move the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Nazi’s sinfully think they can open the Ark and endure the presence of God. What they get is wrath for sin cannot endure the reality of God’s presence. “Enjoy” this clip:

What Are you Really Afraid Of?

What is it that really hold us in bondage? What is it that is truly  the source of our problem, our sins, our selfishness, our anger, our lust and pride? Original Sin? Yes but where does the wound of sin really set up shop in us and stay open for business? What does it tap into for its strength? Scripture has an interesting answer to this question:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)

Now this passage is clear enough that the first origin of sin is the devil. But it also teaches that the devil’s hold on us is the “fear of death.” This is what he exploits to keep us in bondage. When I explore this teaching with people I find that it is difficult for many to understand at first. For many, especially the young, death is kind of theoretical. It is not something many people fear on a conscious level. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death) but as a general rule the fear of death is not something that seems to dominate the thoughts of many. So what is  meant by the “fear of death” and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? This can help us to see what this text is getting at. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? At one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter, or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel handsome enough, pretty enough, we’re too tall, too short, too fat, wrong color hair. Maybe we hate that others are richer, more powerful, better spoken, better looking. Maybe we are older and wish we were younger and stronger, thinner and more energetic again. Maybe we are younger and wish were older, wiser, richer and more settled. Maybe we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, nicer home, better kids, or live in a better neighborhood. Maybe we compare ourselves to a brother or sister who did better financially or socially than we did.

Perhaps you can see how the fear of diminishment (the fear that we don’t compare well to others) sets up a thousand sins. It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride too since we seek to compensate our fear of inadequacy by finding people whom we feel superior to. We thus indulge our pride or we seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Perhaps we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really are not. Perhaps we spend money we really don’t have trying to impress people so we feel less adequate. And think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and fit in. Young people, and older ones too, give in to peer pressure and do sometimes terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, gossip etc. Adults too have many of these things on their list. All these things in a quest to be popular and to fit in. And fitting in is about not feeling diminished. And diminishment is about the fear of death because every experience of diminishment is like a mini death.

Advertisers too know how to exploit the fear of death (diminishment) in effectively marketing their product. I remember studying this in the Business School at George Mason University. What advertisers do to exploit our fear of diminishment is to actually diminish us. The logic goes something like this: you are not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, comfortable enough, you don’t look young enough, you have some chronic illness (depression, asthma, E. D. diabetes) , etc. So use our product and you will be adequate again, you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete and basically diminished. If you drink this beer you’ll be happy, have good times and friends will surround you. If you use this toothpaste or soap or cosmetics,  beautiful people will be around you and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car people will turn their heads and so impressed with you. Message: you are not adequate now, you do not measure up, you are not perfect (you are diminished) but our product will get you there!  You will be younger, happier, healthier and more alive. Perhaps you can see how all this appeal plugs into greed, pride, materialism, worldliness, and the lie that these things will actually solve our problem. They will not. In fact appeals like this actually feed our fear of diminishment and death even more because they  feed the notion that we have to measure up to all these false or unrealistic standards.

OK, got the point? Fear of Death (diminishment) is the fundamental drive that keeps us in bondage.  Now the text above says that Jesus died to free us from all this. So if freedom is available where do I find it?  Let me recommend the following steps:

  1. Recognize the demon, name it: “Fear of Death” or if it helps “Fear of Diminishment.” Learn its moves, tactics, hidden appeals (like we discussed above). And when you see the ugly little demon rebuke him in the name of Jesus.
  2. Ask the Lord for the gift of gratitude; the gift to be grateful for what he has given you, how he has made you, the talents and abilities he equipped you with, the home, family and life he has granted.
  3. Beg for the grace to experience that you are mightily loved by God. That you are unique and irreplaceable.
  4. Watch less TV, draw back more from popular culture. Draw deeply from the font of Scripture and Catholic Tradition, read time-tested classics and edifying materials (like this blog ( 🙂 ).
  5. Accept that there are people who have gifts you do not have. Pray for the gift to rejoice in their gifts and that the Lord can bless you through the gifts and talents of others. Realize that you have gifts others do not have and bless them with these gifts too.
  6. Remember that we can only see the outward appearance of things. Often when we size other people up as having a wonderful life we don’t really know what we are talking about. Many people have hidden sorrows, sins and setback of which we know little.
  7. Realize that you are going to die. But realize too that if we die in Jesus we are not diminished, we gain everything. Allow this understanding of physical death to be vision you have of every true diminishment, large or small. It is not ultimately death, it is humility. And without humility we will never get to heaven.
  8. Enjoy what you have.