Of Fear and Feet

Barbara asks a very good question: “Your last blog talks about love and faith being wed to fear. This blog talks about love casting out fear. Can you write more about what you mean by fear and its relationship to faith and love? “

What indeed is the difference between the fear that is united to faith and love as we draw near to God and the fear that love casts out?  

On one level I don’t think I can find words to talk about these different experiences, both of which we call fear. The problem is that the word ‘fear’ refers to multiple experiences. Some have tried to distinguish fear in the sense of reverent awe from fear in the sense of an emotion of dread in the face of something dangerous or potentially painful. Such a definition is certainly useful, but not adequate. God is dangerous, in the sense that He is powerful and cannot be controlled, manipulated or avoided. At a certain level, all fear has certain characteristics in common. All fear involves a certain unpleasant emotion caused by feeling out of control, by not knowing what will happen and by suspecting that whatever may happen will be painful. I think the fear of God and the fear of rattlesnakes (for example) have these things in common.

However, and this is something experienced and not easily explained, the fear of God can also be mixed with the love of God and faith in (and the faithfulness of) God in such a way that fear of rattlesnakes or fear of any other created thing is driven out. Fear of what might happen is driven away when I draw near to God with fear and faith and love. And even the fear of God takes on a new dimension when it is combined with love and faith–both my love for God and more importantly God’s love for mankind, and my faith in God and more importantly God’s faithfulness to mankind. Fear of God and faith and love enable us to draw near to God. Fear does not go away. There is always, at least in my experience, a certain trembling before God. However, fear mixed with faith and love somehow creates something new. And this something new draws us toward God whereas fear alone makes us want to hide from God.

Similarly, even on a human level, love for someone or even love for an idea or an institution can drive away fear.  Love is stronger than fear (love is stronger than death, the Song of Solomon says). Yet even when love overcomes fear, the fear does not completely go away. Compelled by love, I have faced confrontations with people or situations I have feared, willingly accepting the pain, misunderstanding or suffering that might result because I considered the love motivating me more worthy, more important than the potential pain I might endure. The fear did not go away, but the love overcame it.

And so when we talk about love driving away fear, I don’t think we mean that the unpleasant emotion that we call fear goes away completely (although sometimes it may). I think what it means is that love overcomes fear: the snake loses its fangs, the wasp loses its sting. The fearful feeling may annoy me, but it no longer overcomes me. And this is on a human level.

When we speak of our relationship with God, however, things are somewhat different. God never loses His Power. Yet as great as God’s power and justice is, God’s love and mercy are greater. “Mercy triumphs over justice,” St. James tells us. God’s love and our little love, God’s faithfulness and our little faith blend with God’s justice and our sometimes crippling yet still little fear so that with “fear and trembling” we are able to draw near to God. And drawing near, God touches our trembling heart and grants peace. I don’t know how, it just happens.  

At the washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13), Jesus said to his disciples that it is right that they call Him Master and Lord. However, two chapters later Jesus calls his disciples friends. I think this illustrates a principle of the spiritual life. When we approach God, it is always with a certain amount of fear and trembling. We are approaching our all-knowing, all-powerful Lord and Master. Yet when we approach, we find that our Lord and Master washes our feet and calls us friends. He calls us friends, we do not call Him friend: we call Him Lord and Master. And so there is a paradox. We draw near with fear and faith and love, and He comes to us with compassion and mercy and peace. How can we find words to adequately describe this? I don’t think we can.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Fr Michael;

    I am still confused by this. More by my own experience. I just do not experience fear of God. I dont understand why I "should" and so I cannot manage to cultivate it (in a healthy way?).
    If God is good, and my creator, why would I fear him? Whatever pain will come *must* come- it is the pain of my birth.
    I may fear the pain- because I am weak. But what use is served by transferring this to the one who heals… by means necessarily painful?
    I know- because I am told- that I *should* fear God. But I do not know it from experience, and I cannot seem to arrive at it from all that I know of God and do experience of him.
    How can I, or anyone, cultivate a fear of God if it is not welling up naturally?

    -Mark

  2. Father Michael,

    Would you say that this tension of fear and love is a healthy paradox that should orient us towards the goodness/greatness of God?

    I, like Mark, struggle with not really identifying myself as fearful of God. Maybe I "should"…?

    B.

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