There is something natural and healthy in our souls that St. Maximus the Confessor calls the “irascible aspect of the soul” and St. Basil the Great calls “temper” (at least in the English translations I am reading). This irascible aspect of the soul, or temper, when it is functioning in a healthy human being empowers the person do good and reject evil. One might even say it is something like zeal. However, in fallen, sinful human beings, temper is manifest as a passion called anger. Anger is a sort of mother passion, for from anger come passions such as irritability, impatience, frustration and sometimes even despair.
The Fathers of the Church generally teach that our goal in repentance is not the complete eradication of the passions, but rather the healing of the passions. God created us to be zealous for Him and to reject sin; therefore, we seek not to obliterate all strong feeling, but rather we seek to heal our passions, to bring them under control, into obedience to Christ.
I wonder if fear doesn’t also function a similar way. admit I do not recall reading in the Holy Fathers anywhere a treatment on fear in its healthy and unhealthy (passionate) forms. So what follows is merely my opinion based on my observation.
It does seem to me that there is such a thing as unhealthy, passionate fear. When I speak of the fear of God, I am not talking about that kind of fear. Unhealthy, passionate fear freezes us and keeps us from reaching out to God. This, for example, is the kind of fear Adam and Eve felt when they hid from God in the Garden of Eden. Unhealthy, passionate fear terrorizes us–often for no reason. It is irrational. It is vague. It does not lead to repentance. It does not lead to the loving embrace of God.
However, just as the passion of anger must be healed and returned to its healthy function as zeal for God and against sin, and just as lust must be healed and returned to its healthy function as longing for God and goodness; so it seems to me that unhealthy, passionate fear must be healed and returned to its healthy function as respect for and awe of God. When fear is functioning in a healthy way, when one fears God, then one respects the seriousness of life and the reality of the painful consequences of sin. One experiences the love of God as both a warm embrace and a good scrubbing. I wonder if the Prodigal Son, after the warm embrace of his Father and before the party, didn’t also receive a good scrubbing?
This morning as I was going to the Liturgy I had to back my car out of my driveway. I have to back out through a gate. The driveway is wide, but my mirrors and mind are foggy in the early morning. I always experience a little fear when I back up my car. I think it is a healthy fear. I know there are spots I can’t see. I know there are posts and gates and wheel barrows that I can run into. I know that God will not stop the car if I back up carelessly–I can indeed back into the gate, or even worse into someone walking down the street early in the morning. I must be careful. My fear does not freeze me, it just makes me go slowly, carefully, and prayerfully. I commit my way to the Lord and slowly, carefully back the car out of the driveway.
This, it seems to me, is an example of how healthy fear should function. In the fear of God we serve and love Him. We serve and love God thoughtfully, not willy-nilly as if God didn’t care, as if it didn’t matter what we did so long as we called it “serving God.” We care. We are careful with holy things, holy prayers, and holy places. We are careful with one another. I can’t treat my brothers and sisters any way I like, any way that feels loving to me at the moment. I must be careful. I have to pay attention, use wisdom, and learn to love the way God loves. Because God does love us and because we can know this love, actually experience it, we can grow and learn. Healthy fear doesn’t freeze us.
This distinction between healthy and unhealthy fear may not be very helpful (it may not even be very accurate), but it does come close to how I understand the matter. I’m growing and changing. Perhaps in twenty years I will see more clearly, perhaps I’m still in the early morning of my relationship with God and my mind is as foggy as my mirrors.
Christian life is a life of paradox. Love and fear live in the same heart. Heaven and hell are separated by a thin membrane, a flexible, moving membrane that is sometimes hard to see right away. And yet in all of this, God is merciful. God is loving. And God is saving us in and through and despite the messy and often painful realities we experience.