What The Fear Of God Is And Isn’t

I was intending to leave the topic of fear and the fear of God, but today in my reading I ran across some references that deal directly with my last couple of blog posts.  

I’ve been working my way through “Directions to Hesychasts, in a Hundred Chapters” by The Monks Callistrus and Ignatius, of Xanthopoulos (14th century) found in Writings From The Philokalia On Prayer of The Heart. To tell the truth, I have not read very much of the Philokalia, except for Maximus the Confessor’s “Four Hundred Texts On Love” found in Volume II of The Philokalia:The Complete Text. I have not read much of the Philokalia because what little I have read, except perhaps for some of St. Maximus, has been way over my spiritual head. Much has not made sense to me, nor has it seemed applicable or helpful to my actual spiritual life.  Nevertheless, I heard an interview with Metropolitan Kalistos Ware, the only surviving translator of the Philokalia, and in that interview he recommended “Directions to Hesychasts” as an introduction to the whole work for those who want to have a sense for what the whole Philokalia is saying. I must admit, so far, “Directions to Hesychasts” has been somewhat accessible and helpful.

A good example of this accessibility is the following insight into two kinds of fear and how the good fear, the fear of God, is experienced differently throughout our life.

Two passages in “Directions to Hesychasts” speak of different kinds of fear. One passage is in the context of talking about the benefits of gathering oneself to singleness (in the heart) together with “wise and sensible fasting” (much could be said on this, but I’ll save it for another post). One of the benefits is that one gains “that fear…which cuts off laziness and carelessness; and that flame of zeal which disregards all danger and overcomes all fear.” Two fears: the first is a good fear that “cuts off laziness and carelessness.” The second fear is a fear that keeps us from doing what is good and right, a freezing fear that keeps us from turning to God or doing what we know we ought.

The first fear, the good kind of fear, is treated further in another section. Chapter 17 is entitled, “Of the fear of God, which is twofold: in beginners, and in the mature.” In beginners, the fear of God expresses itself in a hatred of sin. Beginners need to focus on turning away from what they know is sinful or displeasing to God in their lives. However, in the mature, the fear of God expresses itself in the “love of virtue and in fear of changeability.” On the one hand, the difference between beginners and the mature is that beginners seek to avoid sin, whereas the mature are seeking to pursue the good, to pursue virtue (Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness…). On the other hand, the mature have another care that the beginners do not have. The mature should fear lest they change from the good that they have attained: they should fear lest they backslide: “for no man is safe from changing (i.e. backsliding).” No one should become so confident in his or her spiritual state as to think they couldn’t fall.

So that no one reading this thinks he or she is past the beginner stage, I want to point out that Callistrus and Ignatius say specifically that the reader should persevere in the first fear, as a beginner.  

As beginners, we nonetheless notice that there is often a change in our motivation in doing good or abstaining from sin. I have noticed in myself that there are some behaviours that I began to eschew because I was convinced that they were sinful; but over time, I find myself eschewing the same sins because I don’t want to injure or offend others. There are things I began to do because I felt I had to do them–I basically made myself do them because not to do them would be sin. However now I do some of them because I love the results, the fruit of the good activity. I’ve noticed a change in a few areas, but mostly I’m still a beginner. Mostly I have to hate sin and make myself do or not do what I should.

So what does this tell us about what the fear of God is and isn’t? The fear of God is something that motivates us to avoid sin and do good. The fear of God is not a fear of being punished or smacked by God because we sinned, failed or made a mistake. The fear of God is not a terror that freezes us or makes God seem unapproachable or far away. The fear of God is not dread of the torments of hell nor is it a stick that we beat children, unbelievers or sinners into submission with. What is the fear of God? The fear of God is that in us which motivates us to avoid sin, and with time and practice, motivates us to pursue good and virtue.

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