instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fear of the Lord

One of my Lenten self-improvement projects is to use my gifts of the Holy Spirit more. The seven gifts are listed in Isaiah 11:2-3 (I'll throw in verse 1 for some context):
And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse,
and a flower shall rise up out of his root.
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him:
the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding,
the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude,
the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness.
And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord.

The Douay Rheims has "godliness" for the gift traditionally called piety. Every Christian receives these gifts when they are baptized (although someone keeps telling our deacons it happens at Confirmation). The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a brief explanation of their purpose:
The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
If you want to see what the gifts look like in action, I suppose you should watch someone who is docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Of myself, I'd say I'm not particularly docile, though I wish I were, though I'm pretty sure I wouldn't enjoy the process of becoming that way. Docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit means stubborn in resisting contrary promptings, which means death to self, and that sounds painful.

Which, I gather, is where fear of the Lord comes in. You'll note it's the last gift listed in the passage in Isaiah, and yet as the Bible says in a couple of places, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (It also says the fear of the Lord is the crown of wisdom and the beginning of knowledge.) St Augustine suggests Isaiah's ordering "begins with the more excellent,"1 making fear of the Lord the humblest, which explains both why it's the beginning of the other gifts (you've got to work your way to the top) and why it's not a particularly welcome gift. Who wants to be humble?

It's hard to say much about the fear of the Lord without apologizing for, if not backpedaling away from, that word "fear." "We aren't afraid of God," I hasten to tell you, "we're afraid of offending him." Which makes sense, sort of, as long as no one notices how close that is to, "We aren't afraid of the lion. We're afraid of waking him up."

Close, but St. Thomas can help us distinguish between them. Following Peter Lombard, he proposes four kinds of fear we might have relative to God:
  • human or worldly fear, which draws away from God in fear of the evils (as we see them) we would suffer if we stay close to Him
  • servile fear, which draws us toward God out of fear of punishment (basically the same motive as human fear, only we're more afraid of what will happen to us if we don't follow God's commandments than if we do)
  • filial or chaste fear, which draws us toward God out of fear of committing a fault
  • initial fear, which is a mixture of servile and filial fear
St. Thomas says the fear of the Lord that is a gift of the Holy Spirit is filial fear. With filial fear, we're afraid of doing something wrong, not because of any particular consequence, but simply because it's wrong  If we love God (Who, by the way, infuses us with the virtue of charity with which to love Him as well as the gifts to do it well), we don't want to do wrong by him. It's sort of like how someone might say, "I'm afraid my father won't like his birthday present." They aren't afraid their father will beat him if he doesn't like it, they're afraid of missing an opportunity to please him.

That's the difference between fear of the Lord and fear of the sleeping lion. Unless I'm a zookeeper and the lion is in desperate need of rest, I'm not afraid of injuring our relationship by waking him up; I'm afraid of getting mauled, which is analogous to a servile fear of God.

Being afraid of doing something is an incentive against doing it. I offend God by doing something He doesn't want me to do or not doing something He wants me to do. If I have a filial fear of the Lord, then I'm motivated to do what He wants me to do and to not do what He doesn't want me to do.

Now go back to the CCC's description of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: "These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit." The fear of the Lord doesn't in itself tell me what God wants me to do, but it does motivate me to do it. In this sense, it is the first or beginning of the gifts; by it, I want to be docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

1.St. Augustine contrasts Isaiah's more excellent to less excellent ordering with Jesus' less excellent to more excellent ordering in the Beatitudes. Hence:
  • Wisdom <--> "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God. "
  • Understanding <--> "Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God."
  • Counsel <--> "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."
  • Fortitude <--> "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill."
  • Knowledge <--> "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted."
  • Piety <--> "Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land."
  • Fear of the Lord <--> "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The different sortings make sense, too. Isaiah was prophesying the coming of Christ (the most excellent emptying Himself) and Jesus was preaching salvation (how the least excellent can be raised up to life with God). Note also what this suggests about how our possession and use of these gifts makes us like Christ.