Monday, June 23, 2008

Anxiety in Everyday Life and "Fear" of God

In the Gospel reading for Mass this past Sunday, and in Pope Benedict's address before the Angelus, we are presented with the idea of "fear of God."

The Scriptures and the Church teach that we should have "fear of God." Indeed, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we receive in the Sacrament of Confirmation is Fear of the Lord. However, at first blush, this is troubling and we must note our objection, given our contemporary worldly understanding and usage of the word "fear."

The Faith informs us that God is Love and God is Truth, so how is it that we should fear love and fear truth? Moreover, to fear God, as we use the word today, would seem to mean that God is not merciful after all, but merely vengeful and wrathful, someone who terrorizes and causes distress, rather than saves and protects, such that we
should be afraid, we should be very afraid; we should cower and raise our arms to shield our faces, lest we should be struck down. To be afraid of or scared of God would seem to be completely contrary to the idea that God is, again, Love and Truth, that He is Divine Mercy, which is not something that we should be afraid of, but something we should rejoice in and embrace. And indeed, the faithful do want to love Him and stand in His presence, not be frightened of Him. Clearly, then, we have an apparent contradiction in the Faith.

But perhaps the problem is not with the Faith, but in our understanding and usage of the word "fear" as it is used with respect to "fear of God." Perhaps this is another example of the limitations of language. In Sunday's Angelus, Pope Benedict explains and enlightens a little bit exactly what is meant when we speak of a proper "fear" of God:

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Angelus, 22 June 2008

In this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus teaches us on the one hand "not to be afraid of men" and on the other hand to "fear" God (cf. Matthew 10:26, 28). We are thus moved to reflect on the difference that exists between human fears and the fear of God.

Fear is a natural part of life. From the time we are children we experience forms of fear that are revealed to be imaginary or that disappear. There are other fears that follow them that have a precise basis in reality: These must be faced and overcome by human effort and confidence in God. But there is also -- and today above all -- a more profound form of fear of an existential type that sometimes overflows into anxiety: It is born from a sense of emptiness that is linked to a culture that is permeated by a widespread theoretical and practical nihilism.

In the face of the ample and diversified panorama of human fears, the word of God is clear: He who "fears" the Lord is "not afraid." The fear of God, which the Scriptures define as the "beginning of true wisdom," coincides with faith in God, with the sacred respect for his authority over life and the world. Being "without the fear of God" is equivalent to putting ourselves in his place, feeling ourselves to be masters of good and evil, of life and death.

But he who fears God feels interiorly the security of a child in the arms of his mother (cf. Psalm 130:2): He who fears God is calm even in the midst of storms, because God, as Jesus has revealed to us, is a Father who is full of mercy and goodness. He who loves God is not afraid: "In love there is no fear," writes the Apostle John. "Perfect love," he goes on, "casts out fear because fear has to do with punishment and whoever is afraid is not perfected in love" (1 John 4:18).

The believer, therefore, is not afraid of anything, because he knows that he is in the hands of God, he knows that evil is irrational and does not have the last word, and that Christ alone is the Lord of the world and life, the Incarnate Word of God, he knows that Christ loved us to the point of sacrificing himself, dying on the cross for our salvation.

The more we grow in this intimacy with God, impregnated with love, the more easily we will defeat every kind of fear. In today's Gospel passage Jesus exhorts us twice not to be afraid. He reassures us as he did the apostles, as he did St. Paul, appearing to him is a vision one night in a particularly difficult moment in his preaching: "Do not be afraid," Jesus said to him, "for I am with you" (Acts 18:9). Strengthened by Christ's presence and comforted by his love, the Apostle of the Gentiles did not even fear martyrdom.

We are preparing to celebrate the bi-millennium of St. Paul's birth with a special jubilee year. May this great spiritual and pastoral event awaken in us, too, a renewed confidence in Jesus Christ, who calls us to announce and witness to his Gospel without being afraid of anything.

I invite you, then, dear brothers and sisters, to prepare yourselves to celebrate with faith this Pauline Year, which, if it may please God, I will solemnly open next Saturday evening at 6 p.m. in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, with the first vespers for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. From this moment we entrust this great ecclesial initiative to the intercession of St. Paul and Mary most holy, Queen of the Apostles and Mother of Christ, source of our joy and our peace.

Here, the Holy Father explains that to have fear of God does not mean to be afraid of God, but rather means to feel calm and secure. And yet, here we still only have the beginning of an explanation. More is needed if we are to fully understand.

Homily of Pope Benedict XVI
Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Saint Thomas of Villanova in Castel Gandolfo
August 15, 2006

* * * Believing is not adding one opinion to others. And the conviction, the belief, that God exists is not information like any other. Regarding most information, it makes no difference to us whether it is true or false; it does not change our lives. But if God does not exist, life is empty, the future is empty. And if God exists, everything changes, life is light, our future is light and we have guidance for how to live. Therefore, believing constitutes the fundamental orientation of our life. To believe, to say: "Yes, I believe that you are God, I believe that you are present among us in the Incarnate Son", gives my life a direction, impels me to be attached to God, to unite with God and so to find my dwelling place, and the way to live.

To believe is not only a way of thinking or an idea; as has already been mentioned, it is a way of acting, a manner of living. To believe means to follow the trail indicated to us by the Word of God. In addition to this fundamental act of faith, which is an existential act, a position taken for the whole of life, Mary adds another word: "His mercy extends to all those who fear him."

Together with the whole of Scripture, she is speaking of "fear of God". Perhaps this is a phrase with which we are not very familiar or do not like very much. But "fear of God" is not anguish or terror; it is something quite different. As children, we are not terrified of our father, but this "fear of God" is our concern not to destroy the love on which our life is based.

Fear of God is that sense of responsibility that we should have, a responsiblity for that portion of earth which is entrusted to us in life. A responsibility for administering well our share of the world and of its history, and thus contribute to building a just world, towards the triumph of good and of peace
. * * *

OK, this helps and adds to our understanding. "Concern" not to destroy the love (God) on which our life is based. This suggests a fear, not so much of God, but a fear of not harming our relationship with Him. But if that is what is meant, why not simply say that directly? Perhaps what is meant is that we should fear God in the sense that we should fear the loss of salvation by our sinful thoughts and deeds, that it is better to fear God rather than have contempt for Him? More explanation is needed.

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Psalm 111(110) - To Fear the Lord

Wednesday Audience, 8 June 2005

* * * In this Psalm we find a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the many benefits that describe God in his attributes and his work of salvation * * * the heart of the Psalm becomes a hymn to the covenant (cf. vv. 4-9), that intimate bond which binds God to his people and entails a series of attitudes and gestures. Thus, the Psalmist speaks of "compassion and love" (cf. v. 4) in the wake of the great proclamation on Sinai: "The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity" (Ex 34: 6).

"Compassion" is the divine grace that envelops and transfigures the faithful, while "love" is expressed in the original Hebrew with the use of a characteristic term that refers to the maternal "womb" of the Lord, even more merciful than that of a mother (cf. Is 49: 15). * * *

The end of Psalm 111(110) is sealed by contemplation of the divine face, the Lord's very person, symbolized by his holy and transcendent "name". Next, quoting a sapiential saying (cf. Prov 1: 7; 9: 10, 15: 33), the Psalmist invites every member of the faithful to cultivate "fear of the Lord," the beginning of true wisdom. It is not fear and terror that are suggested by this word, but serious and sincere respect which is the fruit of love, a genuine and active attachment to God the Liberator. * * *

At the end of our reflection, let us meditate with the ecclesial tradition of the early centuries of Christianity on the final verse with its celebrated declaration, which is reiterated elsewhere in the Bible (cf. Prov 1: 7): "to fear the Lord is the first stage of wisdom" (Ps 111(110):10).

The Christian writer Barsanuphius of Gaza (active in the first half of the sixth century) comments on this verse: "What is the first stage of wisdom if not the avoidance of all that is hateful to God? And how can one avoid it, other than by first asking for advice before acting, or by saying nothing that should not be said, and in addition, by considering oneself foolish, stupid, contemptible and of no worth whatsoever?" (Epistolario, 234: Collana di testi patristici, XCIII, Rome, 1991, pp. 265-266).

However, John Cassian (who lived between the fourth and fifth centuries) preferred to explain that "there is a great difference between love, which lacks nothing and is the treasure of wisdom and knowledge, and imperfect love, called "the first stage of wisdom'. The latter, which in itself contains the idea of punishment, is excluded from the hearts of the perfect because they have reached the fullness of love" (Conferenze ai monaci, 2, 11, 13: Collana di testi patristici, CLVI, Rome, 2000, p. 29).

Thus, on the journey through life towards Christ, our initial servile fear is replaced by perfect awe which is love, a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Now, finally, we get to the heart of the matter. Here we find the understanding that allows us to see how "fear of God" and the God of Love and Truth are entirely consistent with each other. The "fear" that we speak of in this sense is not a kind of terror or fright due to imminent danger, but a reverential and respectful awe, a realization of just exactly how great God is, just exactly how great the "I AM" is, and just how small we mere creatures are in comparison. Instead of the prideful attitude that we are somehow God's equal, this fear of God is an act of humility, an act of profound respect that is rightly due the Creator of the universe and Author of Life.

In any event, here again we see the limitations of the English language, and learn again that we cannot simply apply ever-changing contemporary understandings to the eternal and universal Faith.


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