instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Seriously, though, why "fear"?

I wrote a lot of words yesterday about understanding the gift of the Holy Spirit we call "the fear of the Lord" as the fear of offending the Lord -- not that God is offended in the sense of being miffed or hurt or indignant, but that we have acted toward Him in a way we ought not.

Here let me risk yet more words to suggest why it's nevertheless proper to call this gift "the fear of the Lord," rather than, for example, "the fear of offending the Lord."

We use the word "fear" in different ways. Sometimes it refers to a general disposition ("I fear spiders"), sometimes to a specific experience ("I fear that spider, crawling toward me on the floor"). Sometimes it refers to a passion ("I fear that spider"), sometimes to an intellectual apprehension ("I fear the Russians won't receive this news complacently"). All proper uses share two things in common: first, it relates to something we don't want; second, the thing we don't want hasn't happened yet. In fewer words, "the object of fear is a future evil."

If you grant me that much, then you should grant me that, with respect to our relationship to God, the servile fear of punishment (of doing something wrong because of what will happen to be) and the filial fear of fault (of doing something wrong because it's the wrong thing to do) are both, properly speaking, fear. They both have a future evil for an object.

I propose that the primary reason the expression "the fear of the Lord" strikes us as so odd is that we tend to think of the Lord the way we think of created things. The future evils associated with created things generally are evils of punishment, or suffering, or loss; they're evils that happen to us or those we love. We are more attentive toward, and therefore more fearful about, our own good than the good of other created things -- which is not altogether improper even for Christians, since most created things were made subject to us, and the other persons who are subjects with us have (in general) no more right to do evil to us than we to them. (In Christ, we recognize a duty toward others that purely natural reason might not see, but we still have a right to self-defense, for example.)

In short, most of the time we use the word "fear," it's in a manner analogous to the servile fear of God's punishment. So when we hear "fear of the Lord," we assume servile fear is meant.

But God is unlike created things, in this way as in so many others. In the way we relate to God, what matters first and foremost is God in Himself. As the Act of Contrition has it, God is "all good and deserving of all my love." Of the two evils associated with my acting contrary to His will -- the fault itself and the consequent punishment -- the fault is far and away the worse. God is, so to speak, the first Subject of our relationship with Him, and only after everything that relates to God in Himself is attended to does what relates to us come into play.

In short, filial fear is the proper primary sense of the word "fear" when we apply it to God. We just don't realize it because we're used to talking about fear in relation to created things.

We might even go further and say that God is so good, so holy, that the distinction between offending Him and being punished for offending Him -- the distinction between filial fear and servile fear -- is more academic than practical. Then "the fear of the Lord" is a perfectly apt expression; as God told Moses, "No one can see Me and live." We fear God the way we fear a flood; it's just not in our nature to survive either one.

Recall, though, that St. Thomas called the combined fear of punishment and of fault "initial fear." The message of the Incarnation is that Jesus provides a way for us to the Father, to participate in His eternal life and see Him face to face. This is why the first and least gift of the Holy Spirit is a gift of filial fear, purified of fear of punishment. God can do no more for us than Jesus did for us on the Cross; in the light of the Gospel, the punishments for our transgressions fade to nothing -- or are even welcomed, to glorify God's justice and offer partial atonement (the welcoming part comes from the writings of the saints, not my own personal testimony).