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? 

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

    1. Well ya know, the whole “universalism” which as you rightly put it as ‘unbiblical and unsound’ came from the esteemed Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Wow, the man who spread this heresy was once esteemed by the Vatican:

      “Hans Urs von Balthasar (12 August 1905–26 June 1988) was a Swiss theologian and Catholic priest who was to be created a cardinal of the Catholic Church but died before the ceremony. He is considered one of the most important Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century.” – Wikipedia

      The WHOLE MADNESS, I don’t even know what to make of this! It’s like the Church is trying to destroy Herself from within!!!!

  1. Jesus Christ is the King!! Hail to the King!! Jesus Christ is my friend!! Hail to the King!!

    I approach my Lord, Jesus Christ the King with fear and respect, for He is God and all is in His hands. But He calls me “friend” and sits me at His feet to speak to Him and to listen to His Wisdom. Knelling and bowing I approach my friend the King. With His right hand He lifts me up to save me, to behold His Majesty.

  2. I know I have commented before on my conversion experience, so forgive me for repeating myself. However, it confirms what you are writing here.

    I had fallen away from the faith, but had decided to read the Bible since I was looking for answers about life. After several months of reading, I woke up to the fact that God is real. Unlike so many who say they felt so loved, I had an opposite experience. I was terrified. And I was terrified because I realized that my ways and my life had been highly offensive to God (even though I had always regarded myself as a good person before this moment). I knew that if I were to die, I would be condemned. It was frightening. I was also truly sorry for having offended God, because I also realized how good He had been to me, and how wonderful He is, and how he didn’t deserve the way I treated Him. I was crushed.

    I am happy to say that I shortly thereafter felt His forgiveness. However, it was difficult for me to say I loved Him; I realized that I didn’t even know Him. Relationships take time. Thankfully, I’ve enjoyed the Lord’s friendship/fellowship for 20 years now.

  3. Proverbs 9:10 and Psalm 111:10 both state: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Not the end; the beginning. But a necessary beginning. That fear must turn to awe; the awe to love; the love to union. To me it seems that one of the biggest problems facing Christianity – and Western Civilization – is that so few people fear God’s just judgment.

  4. Thank you for this post and so many others that bring us back to spiritual sanity. Although I sometimes err
    on the side of too fearful but you so rightly put it–with Biblical citation- in its proper order.
    I think of the ones Jesus praised: the publican, the tearful Magdalene, the obedient, the meek. When you start from humility and holy fear, the fact that Jesus does call us friend makes it even more awesome and wonderful!

    On a simple practical note, I think of how a little fear prompts good behavior (do I really want to risk my
    salvation by skipping Sunday Mass on this cold morning?), and I regard that little fear as a help not a negative. God knows us through and through, in all our weakness.

  5. About universalism: in the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22) both those hostile to the King and those merely indifferent to Him appear to suffer the same fierce punishment.

    I often think that one should have both servile fear and Holy Fear at the same time. I don’t know if the great doctors and saints teach precisely on that.

  6. Christianity conquered the pagan Roman empire, so we are fierce. However, at least the pagan Romans believed in the spiritual world. How do you convince someone who has been told all of their life that there is nothing outside of our world to have any fear? What about those who have been told that everyone goes to heaven. Who wants to choose to believe that they might go to Hell rather than crossing the rainbow bridge to perfect happiness–golf all the time, and chocolate without getting fat? I suppose the answer is that God’s law is written on our hearts, no matter what the world tells us, we know the truth whether we like it or not, so if we speak the truth, we have to have faith that God will let those who hear us hear His truth and recognize it. Difficulty doesn’t absolve us from the command to take Jesus to the world.

  7. +JMJ
    At a recent Pentecost Sunday the deacon gave the Homily (instead of the priest who presided in the absence of our Pastor). He spoke to each of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in an order that ended with the gift of Fear of God. The deacon interrupted the flow of his message that he did not like the ‘sound’ of this gift, because we shouldn’t fear God, but feel comfortable and assured of His love when we pray. He explained that he prefered to call it the Awe of God. (I am paraphrasing) ‘When we consider the beauty of His creation and God’s awesome power, we are captivated by his greatness.’

    His comments were really disturbing, because I believe that the Scriptures, especially the Psalms refer to the Fear of God in its absolute form. (As this article has reproduced many) There need not be any confusion over the difference between the beauty of God’s creation and the Gift of the Holy Spirit named ‘Fear of God’. God is All Good and in light of our Fallen state should we not, like a little child who knows that she has disobeyed her parents ‘fears’ their reaction… should we not Fear God? Why have the the ‘awesome’ Sacrament of Reconciliation if we do not Fear God in light of our sinfulness…. unless of course one does not believe in sin ?

    Everything in life is ‘Gift’ given to us by our Loving God. Fear is a gift… at every level, if it is not obsessed upon it. Recognizing our fears opens us to the power of the Holy Spirit to work through our fears and give us wisdom. The Novenna to the Holy Spirit asks for the “Gift of Wisdom that I might despise the perishable things of this world and aspire after the thing that are Eternal.” and “The Gift of Holy Fear that I might be filled with a loving reverance toward God and dread in anyway to displease him.”

  8. Thank you Father. I know too many people who think of Jesus as the happy surfer dude who is down with what ever we want to do and wouldn’t dream of asking pardon for their sins. They don’t believe in the concept.

    But Jesus praises the humble, the faithful ones. Not the proud ones. I think of the Centurion with the sick servant who said “Oh Lord I am not worthy”. Or even John the Baptist who said he was not worthy to unlace Jesus’s sandals. Or the penitent woman who washed the feet Jesus with her tears.

  9. Amen I say to you my brother,
    Msgr. Pope you I pray for as you bring truth in your witness. My Diocese is full of Priests that witness the truth about sin and repentance, no sugar coating here and our pews are full. The young Seminarians are coming out with the love of the truth and they are heeding the call from Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI to bring the true message to the people.

    After reading the questions that Pope Francis has given to the Bishops of the Church I would guess Pope Francis would concur with you. I believe the survey is to have an accounting of the truth that some priests have been teaching that may be contrary to our Faith and to remind the laity that we believe these truths and not the truths of the secular world.

    I at first would cringe when Pope Francis would speak, knowing the secular Media would have a Hay day with his candor and spread that the Catholic Church would finally secularize. I have heard many Catholics across the country that believe the Church must fall to the secular pressure to embrace same sex marriage, abortion and contraception forgetting the truth of the word of God.

    I have come to admire Pope Francis and his diplomatic skills in the area of Evangelization, one must first engage in conversation before the heart begins to change. Change comes from love not coercion.

    I am somewhere between Servile fear and Holy Fear, more Holy Fear.

  10. Paraphrasing Chesterton, we could perhaps say that when people stop fearing God, they start fearing everything.

    There is a saying in Spanish which goes like this: “Dime de qué presumes y te diré de qué careces”.

    Our society brags about its fearlessness, especially its supposed feat of overcoming “medieval fears”. But never society was so epidemically overridden by anxiety and depression. And anxiety and depression are nothing more than morbid fear. Actually, most of the restlessness, arrogance, noise, violence and rage we see everywhere today can be traced back to fear. We fear everything. We fear the boss, the colleague, the spouse, our children, the guy next door, the guy driving the car at our side. We fear unemployment, inflation, war and terrorism in the wide world, crime and vandalism in our neighborhood, sickness and old age. We fear the opinion of others, we fear our words and acts, and those of our neighbor.

    We are so overwhelmed by fear that we forget to fear the Lord.

    And yet, the psalmist says:

    Dominus illuminatio mea et salus mea: quem timebo?
    Dominus protector vitæ meæ: a quo trepidabo?
    Si consistant adversum me castra, non timebit cor meum;
    si exsurgat adversum me prælium, in hoc ego sperabo.

    As was the case with Father Pope, I suffer from severe anxiety, and also depression. Lately, I have been studying Wisdom Literature, and the reference to fear of the Lord is everywhere.
    Paradoxically, I discovered that I can overcome my daily worries remembering that. So now, every time I feel anxious about something (that is, about 60 times a minute), I say to myself: “If you are going to fear something or someone, then fear the Lord! Do not fear the little creatures that cannot harm you!” And, believe me, this calms me immediately and makes my anxiety subside.

    Thanks, Father Pope, for the beautiful meditation, as always.

  11. I like what you’ve said here about how we grow in stages. A few weeks back you posted something something on St. Bernard’s stages of sin. St. Bernard also wrote about stages of love. He described four stages of growing into perfect love:

    1) We love ourselves for our own sake
    2) We love God for our own sake
    3) We love God for God’s sake
    4) We (in addition to 3) love ourselves for God’s sake

    For many people a servile fear helps move them from stage 1 to 2. People begin to serve God out of a selfish concern for themselves: they want to gain heaven and avoid hell. It is important to recognize that this is where some people are in their spiritual journey, and thus the attempt to do away with all servile fear may just drive people back to stage 1.

    However, I think it is also important to help people grow beyond stage 2. I have heard too many priests focus so much on servile fear without properly distinguishing it from Holy fear or making clear that the latter should be our goal. (“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love.” – 1 John 4:18)

    I think an important way to help people grow from stage 2 to 3 is to help them understand what hell is. As the Catechism states, hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (CCC 1033). It isn’t a torturous punishment imposed on us by God to get back at us for not obeying him. It is the natural result of persisting in unloving patterns of behavior. We render ourselves incapable of being with God because God is love. If all my life I have chosen to cling to my own desires, possessions, and will rather than being to let go of these to follow God, then I will make that same choice in eternity. I will want to stay as far away as possible from a place that involves total giving, which is what heaven is: a community of total self-gift.

  12. Dear Msgr. Charles Pope, Thank you for this great article. Much appreciated. God bless you always.

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