The fact that repentance furnishes hope should not be taken by us as a means to rob ourselves of the feeling of fear.
Isn’t it interesting that St. Isaac considers the loss of “the feeling of fear”to be a kind of robbery? For the Fathers of the Church, fear is a good thing. For the Fathers, fear is not a nebulous thing; it is not a vague fear of “I don’t know what.” The fear the Fathers are speaking of is godly fear, or pious fear (the Greek word usually translated as “godly” in the Bible is same word that in Orthodox Church texts is generally translated “pious”). There is a good fear, a pious fear that keeps us from sinning.
I think many of us figure that if God forgives us, then there is nothing to fear; however, the consequences of sin are more than an offence against God which He freely forgives. Life is real, and the consequences of sin are real too. What we do affects other people.
We live in a culture that values so much what goes on in the head. Notice that we will spend almost all of our youth being trained to think. We receive almost no explicit instruction in morality. It is as if thinking well were the only important matter. The moral implications and consequences of what we think or do, that seems to be completely irrelevant–so long as we don’t get sued or go to jail. And what makes matters worse is that we now have the technology (internet, video games, credit cards, birth control, and antibiotics, for example) to almost completely shield our mental immorality and much of our actual immoral behaviour from its immediate natural consequences.
This psudo-reality of life shielded from consequence is brought home for me every time I hear someone say in confession: “But it’s not hurting anyone.” Set free from most of the immediate negative consequence of our actions and robbed of the fear of God, we licentiously indulge our blood lust in video games and our sexual urges in “safe sex” and our avaricious fantasies in government sponsored gambling. We say we are not hurting anyone. And the tragedy is that many of us are sincere. We believe the lie: “I am an island. What I do doesn’t effect others.”
King David, I’m sure thought he was not hurting anyone as he was ogling at the bathing Bathsheba. And David was certain that he was not hurting anyone when he invited Bathsheba to the palace–no one would know, at least no one important, and God, God forgives everything, God will understand. But when Bathsheba was found pregnant (a failure of technology, perhaps), David had a plan. No one would be hurt. He’d just call Uriah home form the front lines to give a report on the battle. However, David did not figure that he would be dealing with a man more righteous than he. And so David did have to “let” someone get hurt–“it was his own fault, really,” I’m sure David mused, “if he hadn’t been so damn careful about his piety, everything would have worked out fine. No one would have known. No one would have been hurt.”
And so someone is hurt. A man more righteous than David is killed to cover David’s sin. But the consequences are just beginning. Nathan the prophet confronts David regarding his sin and David repents. David’s repentance is legend. It is the pattern for all repentances. And God forgives David. God forgives David, nevertheless….
Nevertheless David has turned the course of the river. Our thoughts and actions have real consequences. We change the world by what we do, what we say, and even by what we dwell on in our thoughts. David changed the world. He didn’t think he was changing the world. He didn’t think he was hurting anyone. He was just indulging his lust in a way God had warned us not to–“Don’t look on your neighbour’s wife to lust after her.” God knows the consequences of thoughts and actions even if we do not. “Don’t eat of the tree,” God warns Adam, “for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” “Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery.” Don’t do these things for you will change the world in ways you cannot anticipate; you will hurt and oppress and kill even without realizing it.
St. Isaac the Syrian makes a point of noting that God had forgiven King David before his troubles began. God was not punishing David in a retributive sense. God was not purging David of his sins through the suffering that would follow. What followed was merely the plant that grew from the seed David had planted. David’s own sons would follow his example of despising God for their lusts and thinking lightly of murder. David had thought he was hurting no one. Little did he know that he was opening the door to a civil war that would plague his kingdom for much of the rest of his life.
To fear God is to know that we don’t know. We don’t know the real consequences of our little disobediences and our hidden indulgences. We don’t know who we can not love because our hearts were distracted. We don’t know what Grace we have turned away because we loved a little darkness more than the Light. And we don’t know the wounds we have inflicted on others by our words and actions and even our thoughts because we did not fear God, thinking only of what we could see, what we wanted to see–that we weren’t hurting anyone.