It seems that some of my beloved readers do not recognize what I am talking about as I have been speaking about fear of God. Let me keep working on it.
Certainly one of the hurdles to overcome when speaking about the fear of God is images of God that paint Him as vengeful. However, an equally important hurdle to overcome is the dualism that often accompanies correctives to the false image of the vengeful God. What I mean is that in trying to combat the false image of the irrational, vengeful and punitive God, we end up creating another false God, a God who is powerless, who merely weeps and suffers with us, as if that were all love was about. We create a God for whom there is no justice, a God who is powerless in the face of suffering, a God whose ways are not higher than our ways.
It is this dualism, it seems to me, this inability to experience God as both just and merciful that is a large part of the problem. And while I am the first to plead St. James’ words that mercy triumphs over justice, still the triumph of mercy is not without its (or should I say our) encounter with justice. And it is this encounter with justice that is the source (or one of the sources) of the fear of God.
It seems to me that this is one of the main points of the Book of Hebrews. The audience of the book wants to shrink back from following Christ because it’s getting hard. They are being persecuted. Their property is being plundered. They are being rejected by their Jewish friends and family who do not follow Christ. They are misunderstood, maligned and mistreated. It’s just getting too hard for them to live as Christians any more. The author of Hebrews tells the readers to hang in there. That their suffering is a form of God’s chastisement: God is treating them as His own very children. God is forming them through suffering. However, the author adds that if they “willingly sin,” if they turn away and “trample the Son of God underfoot,” then they will suffer a much worse punishment (chastisement or discipline for reformation). “It is a fearful thing,” the author tells us, “to fall into the hands of the living God.” It is fearful because God does love us. It is fearful because God will not let us go, no matter how hard we make it on ourselves.
The God who suffered death in the flesh and descended into hell “to loose the bonds of those who were there” will certainly not shy away from entering with us into any kind of death or hell in order to save us. That, for me, is another source of the fear of God. God will indeed let me shoot myself in the foot. God will indeed let me turn away from Him. God will indeed let me choose the torment of a burning conscience carried even into eternity because I consistently and unrepentantly sought selfishness and hated all who got in my way. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, God loves me that much.
Some of you know that I have universalist tendencies. I do not think I am an actual universalist, I just trust that God loves everyone and will be as merciful and kind to everyone as is possible (though I really have no clue what that will look like in the age to come). But even if I were a full-fleged, card-carying universalist, I would need to make the case for the fear of God. I believe it is Dimitry in the Karamosov Brothers who presents a universalist vision of heavenly reformation likened to a man walking for thousands of thousands of miles and slowly, slowly coming to his senses. But even such a vision of heavenly reformation, while much less severe than eternal conscious suffering in fire, is still a pretty frightening prospect. Imagine walking for almost an eternity wondering: “Why did I spend my life ignoring God, driven by lusts and fears, selfish and unsatisfied, hurting people and in the end dying miserably?”
And for me, fear of God has much less to do with what I may suffer than it has to do with the suffering I may cause others. This hit me really hard when I had children. I could do something really selfish and stupid and God would let me do it and my kids or my wife (most likely both) would suffer for it. I also knew (from experience) that often my conscience would bother me before I fell into something really stupid (literally: like in a stupor). However, I often ignored my conscience, preferring the pleasure of the moment. And when I ignored my conscience, my conscience got quiet. I didn’t want God to let my conscience get quiet. I didn’t want others to suffer because of my sinful, selfish stupidity. This feeling, akin to fear, I have also come to associate with the fear of God.
Having said all this, I’d like to make a few caveats. First and most importantly, my experience is not normative. What I have experienced in my life and relationship with God and have associated with words (fear, faith, love, peace, etc.) may not be exactly what you have experienced and associated with those words. That there is something called the fear of God the Church makes pretty clear. What exactly that feeling/emotion/experience is probably varies somewhat (maybe a great deal) among people. So much depends on our own journeys, at least in terms of what we actually experience in life and how we associate those experiences with words.
For example, it seems that St. John the Beloved and St. Peter the apostles had somewhat different encounters with the Saviour. Both were in the “inner three,” both were with Him from the beginning, and both followed Jesus after he was arrested. But St. Peter denied Christ three times. He said so confidently that he was ready to die with Jesus–while St. John was leaning quietly on His breast. Jesus said that St. Peter would deny Him three times, but he firmly denied it. St. Peter was so confident that he attacked those who came “with clubs and staves” to arrest Jesus and cut off Malchus’ ear. St. Peter was so, so confident. And yet, at the word of a little girl he denied Christ. And again. And again. And then he heard the cock crow and ran out and wept bitterly. St. John, on the other hand, stayed with Jesus all of the way to the Cross.
Perhaps St. John never experienced anything like what I think of when I speak of the fear of God. But I am not much like St. John. I am more like St. Peter. I have tended to be boastful and arrogant, and like St. Peter I have experienced some of how terrifying the love of God can be. Words are so tricky. In heaven, I have heard, there are no words. We just know as we are known. Perhaps St. John knew that. He knew that it was enough to lay quietly at Jesus breast.
Another caveat I’d like to make is that there seems to be a progression in the Christian experience from fear to love. I believe it was St. Anthony the Great who said, “I used to fear God, but now I love Him.” This progression is probably not liner because our growth in godliness, our paths, our journeys, and our circumstances in life are all so varied. Nonetheless, I think it is definitely the case that both one’s experience with God and one’s interpretation of one’s experiences with God grows and changes in life. Where each of us are in our journeys may influence our abilities to hear one another clearly. I, too, may be missing the mark. We have to love and listen to one another and let the Holy Spirit make hidden things plain.
And finally, some of us may have been so abused or beleaguered by false understandings of the fear of God that the phrase itself has become toxic. We can’t imagine anything associated with that phrase being connected to our loving Father. It may be that some of us can’t understand or associate any experience to that phrase because the phrase itself carries too much baggage for us. These people may indeed experience the fear of God, but they do not call it that. Their aversion to the phrase is such that they can only use love language when they speak about their relationship with God, despite the fact that the Church uses both words: love and fear. In as much as this is the case with some of us, patience and charity is required by all. Again, words are tricky. The advice of St. James is, I think, the best: “let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.”