Decide Now Whom You Will Fear: A Homily for the 12th Sunday of the Year

The Lord speaks to us today of one of the most central struggles in our life: fear. Yes, fear is one of our deepest drives and though it has a positive purpose, too often we miss the mark in directing its energy. The positive role of fear is to alert us that something is wrong and to divert us from danger. With our fallen nature, though, we often fear the wrong things while lacking a sober fear of the right things. We major in the minors of life; we get all worked up about passing things but do not have a sober and reverent fear of eternal things. We fear sinful and weak human beings, but not God, who is just, who sees all, and who will assign us our eternal destiny.

The Lord thus teaches us today in order to help us to “get fear right.” He sets forth the proper object of our fear, points to the outcome of succeeding or failing in this matter, and reminds us of our proper role in this world as we master our fear.

I.  The Object of Fear Jesus said to the Twelve: “Fear no one … And 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 Gehenna … Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Wrong Fear In speaking to the object of fear, Jesus is asking us to consider what and whom we fear most. We are going to fear someone and something. We are just too tiny and weak to be wholly free of fear. Yes, fear has its place and purpose; the problem is that we often fear the wrong things. We are a bit like Chicken Little, who was afraid of an utterly false threat (that the sky was falling) and in her panic ran right into the wolf, who devoured her.

Jesus is clear: Fear no man. The worst thing a human being can do to you is to kill you physically. Even if that happens, though, if you are faithful, dying is the path to Heaven; it’s a maximum promotion! Maybe people can steal your things or make your brief life here a little less pleasant, but life does not consist in our possessions. As an old gospel hymn says, “Trouble don’t last always.”

In a moment, Jesus will tell us whom we should fear. For now, consider again Jesus’ teaching: Fear no man. Yet the fact is that we do fear human beings. It’s incredible to find out how afraid we are. We’re afraid of everybody and everything! We’re more afraid of men than we are of God. We’re afraid of physical dangers, certainly, but even more so we’re afraid of being rejected by other people; of not being liked by others. We’ll do just about anything to ingratiate ourselves to others and to assuage our fear of being rejected or laughed at. We’ll gossip and lie; we’ll spend a lot of money on clothes, cosmetics, fancy cars, big houses, or the latest iPhone. Desperate to fit in, young people may join gangs, drop out of school, use drugs, fornicate, and/or engage in self-destructive behaviors, all in a desperate quest to be thought “hip” and loved.

Yes, too many of all ages have a mighty fear of rejection and humiliation by other human beings. And because we’re afraid of not being liked, we’ll do almost anything.

Not only does this fear drive us to do many things we shouldn’t, it also keeps us from doing many things we ought to do such as preaching the Gospel and insisting on what is right. Think of the martyrs of old who died professing the faith, and here we are afraid that someone will raise an eyebrow!

Fear is one of the chief habit patterns of sin, and it brings about countless other sins. It has to go.

Thus Jesus says, “Fear no one.” That is, fear no man. Whom do you fear more, men or God? Honestly?

Right Fear God is the proper object of our fear.

Jesus teaches very provocatively, … rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna …

Some think that this text refers to Satan, but it does not. Luke’s version makes this even clearer: But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear the One who, after you have been killed, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him (Luke 12:5).

This cannot be Satan because Satan is not our judge. Although he can tempt us, he has no authority to determine our final destiny. Scripture says that Satan, our accuser, has been cast out (see Rev 12:10). Further, it declares, The Father judges no one, but has consigned all judgment to the Son that the world may revere him (Jn 5:22).

Many are uncomfortable thinking of the Lord in this way. They prefer to think of Him as an affable fellow, a harmless hippie who’s not all that concerned with things like holiness and conversion, and who in the end will just wave everyone through.

This is simply not what Scripture teaches. God is holy, and His holiness exudes a power and glory that we must be purified in order to endure, let alone enjoy. Frankly, Heaven would be a miserable place for anyone who has not been brought up to the temperature of Heaven or been accustomed to the bright light of God’s truth. Heaven is not our personal “designer paradise.” It is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness and with all its values: forgiveness, generosity, love of one’s enemies, chastity, and so forth. There are many who don’t want anything to do with some or any of these values. They are much like the older son in the parable of the prodigal son, the one who stands outside angry and unwilling to the enter the feast given by his father. He finds forgiveness untenable; he loathes the feast because his wayward brother is honored there. Judgment Day is something to have a holy fear about, for it is the day when God will ask this question: “Do you want the Heaven I offer on its terms or not?” On the Day of Judgment, God will assess what our decision has amounted. He will either welcome us into the feast or close the door and consign us to the “other arrangements” we ourselves have made and perversely preferred. Jesus says, As for anyone who hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him… The word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day (John 12:47-48).

Balanced Fear This proper fear is not a cringing one, rooted only in the dread of punishment (though if that’s all you’ve got, go with it). Rather, it is a reverential fear that remembers God’s love for us and His desire to save us. Jesus says, Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Although this proper fear remembers God’s love and does not give way to the imbalance of purely servile fear, neither does it swing to the other imbalance, which disregards the loving respect we should have for God and His holiness. God is who He is and Heaven is what it is. We simply cannot endure such realities without being purified and prepared for them first. God must have our repentance in order to do the work necessary to enable us for Heaven’s brightness and His fiery glory.

A reverential and balanced fear acknowledges God’s love and mercy, but also His awesome glory. Such a fear takes seriously our need to prepare for judgment and to avail ourselves of God’s graces in the sacraments, the Liturgy, His Word, and prayer.

II.  The Outcome of Fear Jesus adds, There is nothing that is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known … Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.

Our fear is going to have an outcome for either good or ill. If we have the wrong fear (fearing man more than God), it will lead us to silence and even outright denial of God and His truth before others. Fearing the opinion of the world and human beings more than God makes us silent and too easily conformed to a world opposed to Him. This amounts to a tacit denial (by silence) or to an outright denial wherein we publicly scorn God and/or His revealed truth in order to ingratiate ourselves to this world. The consequence of this denial is Jesus’ affirmation of our denial of God the Day of Judgment. The martyrs and confessors of the faith shine brightly before God, but we cannot endure their brightness because we have hidden out in the dark places and preferred the darkness of error to the light of truth.

If we have the right fear, we want to please God rather than man. We delight in representing Him and His teachings before others, even joyfully enduring the world’s scorn. If we fear God, we fear no one else. If we can kneel before God, we can stand before any man. If we fearlessly, charitably, and joyfully acknowledge God before others, we will be acknowledged before God the Father as someone who truly sought Him and witnessed to Him. A proper and balanced fear brings an outcome of glory and happiness. An improper fear (of man rather than God) brings denial, because we fear and prefer the opinions of men and this world rather than God. On Judgment Day the Lord will acknowledge our preference to His Father.

For a good outcome, make sure you have the right and balanced fear!

III. The Office of Holy Fear What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.

The Lord is summoning us to speak fearlessly to the world on account of a holy fear of Him.

1. But in the face of strong opposition, we were bold in our God to speak the gospel of God to you. … We speak … not in order to please men but God, who examines our hearts. As you know, we never used words of flattery or any pretext for greed. God is our witness! Nor did we seek praise from you or from anyone else (1 Thess 2:2-6).

2. Do you think I am seeking the approval of men, or of God?… I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:10).

3. From henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear in my body the brand marks of the Lord Jesus (Gal 6:17).

4. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God. For we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).

What about you? Do you speak the word of God to an often-scoffing world? Or do you fear the world more than God, and therefore stay silent, hiding out? If we reverently fear God more than the world, then we will speak out even in the face of opposition. We love the Lord more than we love the world. Therefore, we speak!

Summation – Make sure you fear the right thing, in this case the right One. Here is what Jesus teaches: Do not fear man. Rather, have a holy reverent fear of God. Get fear right. Stop getting so anxious about what mere mortals think of you. Your destiny will hinge on getting fear right. Fear the Lord; acknowledge Him before men and proclaim His world, and you be acknowledged greatly by him in Heaven. If you fear men and the world, just watch how quickly cave in, compromise, and deny the Lord, preferring worldly trinkets and the praise to eternal glories. But if you go that route, that’s all you’ll get. Beware, the Lord will one day have to acknowledge your preference: “Father He denied. He said no to our offer.”

Decide now whom you will fear. Your destiny depends on that decision.

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? 

Fighting fear with Fear – A Meditation on the Healing Gift of the Fear of the Lord


091014In the first reading from yesterday’s (Sunday) liturgy from the Acts of the Apostles (Full text here) we encounter Apostles and see that they are changed men. Prior to Pentecost, these had been frightened man, men who fled at the sight of trouble, en who could not be (except for John) found anywhere near the foot of the Cross. Even after the resurrection, these were men who gathered only behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.”

But in this reading, which took place at yesterday’s liturgy, we see men who are no longer afraid. The Holy Spirit has quickened their faith and courage. In this passage, having been arrested for speaking of Jesus, then miraculously released by the angel of the Lord, we find them right back in the public square announcing Jesus. The  temple leaders having apprehended them yet again, say to them, We gave you strict orders [did we not?] to stop teaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching (Acts 5:28). In response to the is second arrest, the Apostles once again display courage, also known as  “Foritude,” one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which they had received it Pentecost. But, in effect, they root their courage in another of the seven gifts, the gift of the “Fear the Lord.”  They say, We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29)

Note therefore how their confidence, their courage, is paradoxically rooted in Fear. It is not a cringing fear, but rather, a holy Fear, the Fear of the Lord. In effect, the Apostles fight fear with fear. More specifically, they conquer unholy fear with Holy Fear.

What is the fear the Lord? It is, as we have already noted, not a cringing fear, a fear merely rooted in servile anxiety about consequences or punishments. Rather, the Fear the Lord is the gift to hold God in awe. It is a gift, rooted in love of Him. Because I love God, love him with all my heart, I want to please him, obey him. I hold him in loving awe and respect, and I fear offending him who has  loved me so, and done so much for me. We do not have time to fully set forth here the biblical basis for this definition of the Fear the Lord. But I have written elsewhere on this and have analyzed quite extensively a biblical understanding of what is meant by the fear of the Lord. You can read it here: Understanding the Fear of the Lord and here: Studying the Fear of the Lord in the Psalms

Our context in this post, is that to Fear the Lord, as is counseled and commanded of us in Scripture, is not some mere egocentric demand of of a demanding God.  Rather, it is his loving way of both simplifying our life, (making it about one thing), and also, by this Holy Fear,  of helping us to cancel and diminish all other fears.

For if I truly fear the Lord, and to the degree that this becomes a reality not just a slogan in my life, but I really Fear him, I do not need to fear anyone else, and  my life also becomes simpler because I do not have to please ten thousand people, but only my loving Father in heaven.

But as it is, many of us struggle to experience this  magnificent gift of the Holy Spirit, called the fear the Lord, because we either have resisted it or have not laid hold of it. And on this account, our fears are many, our lives are disordered and focused on many things, rather than one thing. Because we have not received the gift and the desire to please and Fear God, we end up trying to please everyone, and our fears  multiply because there are many contradictory and contrary demands by the ten thousand voices we seek to please and pacify.

Jesus speaks to this grave condition by sayingNo one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Mat 6:24). To be frank, our condition is far worse than simply trying to serve two masters. Most of us have many more masters, and our lives are too easy dominated by many anxieties and fears, rooted in many contradictory, complex and conflicting priorities, given by the many different people, groups, and ideologies we seek to please, placate and serve.

The book of James says, The double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). Would that we were simply double-minded, but in today’s complex situations we are often divided fifty-fold, even a hundredfold:  so many things to do, so many people to please. Frankly, too many of us are afraid of everyone and everything. What if person A is displeased with me?! But what if pleasing person A displeases person B,  and how will I explain things to person C?!! And thus our lives are divided, anxious, full of fears.

The Lord’s plan is to fight fear with Fear. His plan is to fight unholy fear with Holy Fear. God’s loving plan is, in effect, Fear me, reverence, respect and seek to please me out of love, and you will be less obsessed with what others think. “Yes,” says the Lord,  come to know me, not as some stranger, some abstract Deity running the universe, come to know me as your Father, someone who loves you, someone whom you deeply reverence and want to please. And to the degree that this happens in your life, that you receive this anointing of the Holy Spirit, this gift of the Holy Spirit called the Fear the Lord, you will be set free from ten thousand other fears and anxieties.

And this leads us back to the Apostles in Sunday’s reading. A mere few weeks ago they were frightened, even terrified men,  behind locked doors. Now they boldly go about preaching Christ and him crucified. What happened to them? The Holy Spirit has happened, and in particular, His gifts of courage (fortitude), and the Fear the Lord. And thus the apostles are boldly able to speak to those who demand their loyalty, demand obedience, and they say We must obey God rather than men.

They say this with serenity because they’ve come to know the Father, have come to know Jesus and the power the Holy Spirit. Fearing God, they no longer fear any weapon waged against them, they no longer fear any man. And this is how fear is fought with Fear. One Fear eclipses all others fears. It is Holy Fear, loving Fear, yes, even a joyful Fear. When I fear God I need fear no one else. When I kneel before God, I can stand before any man.

Here then is the gift of the fear the Lord. Seek it, lay hold of it, allow it to have its effects. If we can do this, so many other fears go away, so many other conflicts are resolved. When we need to please only One, we no longer need to please many. When we Fear one, the fear the others goes away.

On Fascinosum et Tremendum

You may say, “This title is Greek to me.”  Actually it is a Latin and it refers to an important balance in our spiritual life. It is phrase that speaks of  trembling  before the Holy that draws me close.

Fascinosum is where we get the word fascinating. It refers to something that calls to me, draws me, peaks my interest, something that strongly attracts.

Tremendum is where we get the word tremendous. It refers to something awesome. Something too big to comprehend or grasp. Hence we draw back in a kind of reverential fear mixed with a kind of bewilderment. And we feel small before the tremendous.

Many ancient authors used these words to describe the human person before God: drawn by God’s inexorable beauty yet compelled to fall prostrate before His awesome majesty. Scripture speaks of this experience in many places. Here are but a few:

  1. I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the Seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)
  2. And Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,  then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”   When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” (Matt 17:1-6)
  3. I [John] saw seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man,  wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest. The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow,  and his eyes were like a fiery flame.  His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace,  and his voice was like the sound of rushing water.  In his right hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest. When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead. He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. (Rev 1:15-17)

Note the pattern of these theophanies: They are drawn by God and behold his beauty (fascinosum), they instinctively fall prostrate and need to be reassured by God (tremendum). It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God! (Heb 10:31). The most interesting passage to me is the third one involving John the Beloved. This is the same John who, at the Last Supper, was perfectly capable of leaning back on the Lord’s shoulder to ask him a question. Yet now, as he beholds the full glory of Christ in the heavenly realm, he falls to his face. The Lord’s glory is fully unveiled here and John, who appreciates the beauty and describes it to us is ultimately compelled to fall down.

We have come through an era that has trivialized God in many ways. Perhaps it was an over correction to a more severe time of the 1950s when any misstep of ours could result in a quick trip to hell if we didn’t get to confession immediately. Mortal sin was understood only objectively by many in those days and by God, even if there were two feet of snow on the ground and you missed Church, your were in sin and had to get to confession asap. Fear was a strong motivator for many in those days.

But we over corrected and by the 1970s the usual notion was that God didn’t seem to care what we did. He was rendered quite harmless actually and it seemed that his main purpose was to affirm us. As for Jesus, gone was the unrelenting and uncompromising prophet of the Scriptures, only to replaced by a kind of “Mr Rogers,” or  “Buddy Jesus” version who just went about blessing the poor, healing the sick and asking us to love each other. The Jesus who cleansed the Temple, rebuked unbelief, demanded first place in our life, insisted on the cross, warned of coming judgement and hell, and spoke with such authority that even the guards sent to arrest him came back empty handed saying “no one has ever spoken like that man”, this Jesus was no where to be found by the 1970s

And thus we have needed a return to the balance that fascinosum et tremendum offers. Surely we sense a deep desire for God, we are drawn to him in all his beauty and glory. But we are encountering God here and we are but creatures. A reverential fear is appropriate for the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It may well be that God will reassure us, but our instinct to tremendum is a proper and biblical one. The Biblical saints knew both fascinosum and tremendum and they show us what a true encounter with God includes.

This does not mean that our liturgies need be somber,  for reverence and joy can occupy the same heart. But in the end, it is God whom we worship and falling to our knees is wholly appropriate. Seeking the necessary purification and striving for the holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14) is appropriate. I wish you plenty of fascinosum and equal doses of tremendum!

What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?

To modern ears the word “fear” is almost wholly negative. We usually associate it with threat or perhaps with some negative experience like pending punishment or diminishment. And yet, over and over the Scriptures lift up the value of the “Fear of the Lord” and encourage us in this regard. As you may already know or at least suspect, the word “fear” has different senses or meanings.

Distinctions –St. Thomas in the Summa, drawing on the Fathers of the Church as well as ancient philosophy distinguishes different kinds of fear based on the object of that fear. So, to begin there is worldly fear (wherein we fear some evil or threat from the world), and there is human fear (wherein we fear some evil or threat from others) (II IIae 19,2 & 9). Now neither of these fears concern us here since God is not the object of these fears. Our concern here is the “Fear of the Lord,” wherein God is the object of fear.

Now as to the Fear of the Lord, here too a distinction is to be made between servile fear (fear of punishment) and filial fear (whereby a son fears to offend his father or to be separated from him) (II, IIae 19.10) Now it is not servile fear but filial fear that is the Gift of the Holy Spirit and which Scripture commends. Hence, when Scripture says we should “Fear the Lord” it does not mean that we should run and hide because God is going to punish us, but rather that we should receive the the gift of the Holy Spirit wherein we dread to offend God or be separated from him. This, I hope you can see, is a very precious gift. And although the word “fear” tends to elicit negative reactions, I hope to show you that the Biblical world experienced the Fear of the Lord as a very great and highly prized blessing.

But first we have to be clear to emphasize that the fear towards God comes in two ways but only one of those ways is considered the Gift of the Holy Spirit and rightly called “The Fear of the Lord.” Scripture therefore has to be read with some sophistication. It is important to know which kind of fear is being discussed to understand the text. Consider a few examples from the New Testament:

  1. 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 Jn 4:18) – Here is described servile fear (fear of punishment). The text teaches us that Love puts sin to death. And, since we no longer sin, we no longer fear punishment. Servile fear of God is not evil or wrong but it IS imperfect since it has to do with the imperfection of sin. Ultimately we are to be free of servile fear and hence it is seen as a negative thing even though it can have some salutary effects. For example, fear of punishment can be a motive to avoid sin. But it is an imperfect motive since it does not come from our love of God but more from our love our self and our comfort or well-being. Servile fear is not therefore commended by Scripture but neither is it condemned.
  2. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, “Abba, Father (Rom 8:15). Notice again that servile fear is something to be freed of. This freedom comes by the Holy Spirit who replaces our servile fear with a filial fear, fear born in love of God that experiences him as Abba. So Holy Fear needs to replace servile fear.
  3. Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the  fear of the Lord. (Acts 9:31) Obviouslyhere,  Holy Fear is described, not servile fear. The early Christians are being encouraged by the Holy Spirit and this elicits in them a Holy Fear, a fear born in love that dreads offending Abba, the Father they love.
  4. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear  God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17) Note again the connection of fear to love. In the context of our love for the brethren we are told to fear the Lord. But the context here clearly suggests that fear is being used as a synonymn for a higher form of love. In other words, as much as we should love the brethren, even more so we should love God and that love is described as the “Fear of the Lord.”

What is the Fear of the Lord? Alright then. But what does it really mean to “Fear  the Lord?” Ah!  I am mindful of the words of St. Augustine when he was asked to describe the inner life of the Trinity. He said, “If you don’t ask,  I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.” In other words, fully defining the Fear of the Lord is problematic since it is deeply tied to love which is also hard to define in a mere words. If I were to define love to you as “a movement of the appetitive will toward a desirable good or person” you might want to strangle me for being such a geek! “Don’t ruin love by defining it like that!” you might say. Words sometimes get in the way. But with that caution in mind let me advance a few thought on the Fear of the Lord.

  1. The Fear of the Lord is rooted in our relationship to God as his adopted Children. As we have already discussed, the Fear of the Lord is not servile fear (having to do with punishment) it is filial fear (the dread of offending or being separated from God).
  2. The Fear of the Lord is rooted in our love for God. We really love God, with all our heart! He is Abba, Papa, Father. He has given us everything and we deeply love and reverence him. The thought of offending him fills us with dread! We cannot bear the thought that we have offended God in any way, we love him too much.
  3. The Fear of the Lord is rooted in our admiration for God. Through this gift of Holy Fear we hold God in awe. We are filled with wonder as we contemplate his glory and all he has done. This wonder and awe, inspire deep respect in us for God and an aversion to offending him. We respect him too much to ever want to mar our relationship with him.
  4. The Fear of God is rooted in our desire for unity with God. Love seeks union. We instinctively know that sin mars the union of love and can even sever it. We thus come to fear sin that creates distance between us and God. Because we desire union with God, the gift of Holy Fear causes us to fear ever losing the intensity of that union.
  5. The Fear of God is rooted in our appreciation for God’s Holiness. God is Holy and the gift of Holy Fear strikes within us a deep awareness of this holiness as well as a deep understanding that we must be made holy before coming into his full presence. The gift of fear helps us to appreciate that we do not simply walk into God’s  presence in the spiritual equivalent of jeans and a T-Shirt. Holy Fear inspires us to be clothed in holy attire, to get ready to meet God. Just as we might bath and wear fine clothes to visit a world leader, we reverence God enough to be robed in righteousness by his grace before we go to meet him. Holy Fear makes us serious about this preparation.

There is more but I must end. I have attached a PDF that reflects on how the Fear of the Lord is portrayed in the Book of Psalms. What is valuable about the Book of Psalms is that it is largely Hebrew poetry. Now in Hebrew poetry the rhyme is in the thought not the sound. Thus, we can learn a lot about what the ancient Jews thought about  by studying the rhyme. If you’d like to do further study or see some of the theme above echoed in the psalms you can view it here: Studying the Fear of the Lord in the Psalms