Like any tool, it can be misused. But it's a tool we greatly need.
What is fear? How would you describe it? As a burden? As a gift? As a tool, or as something else?
The short answer to all those questions is, “Yes.”
Let’s look at these options, and see how a Christian might understand them, adapt them, correct them, and put them to use.
Fear as a burden: Perhaps the most vivid form of fear as a burden is phobia. A phobia is a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it. But for real people who suffer from real phobias, that pallid definition is rather understated, isn’t it? For a person who has a fear of, say, spiders, the phobia can become the most dominant feature of one’s life—causing one to lose time, sleep, friends and faith. The dread of what is feared becomes more powerful than what is actually feared.
So understood, how could we speak of fear as a “gift?” Fear can be understood as a gift in two ways—on the natural level, and on the spiritual level. We can understand fear as a gift on the natural level by considering the title of Gavin de Becker’s well-known book, “The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence.” In other words, it is good to have the ability to hear and obey the command: “This is dangerous! Get away NOW!” People who ignore that survival signal—well, they tend not to survive.
How about fear as a gift, on the spiritual level? A quick online search yields more than 100 bible passages that refer in some way to “Fear of the Lord.” Perhaps the best know is from Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Some folks bristle at the idea of associating fear with the spiritual life at all, claiming that if one fears God, one has a distorted view of God. I think that such people—however well-intentioned they may be—overlook the distinction between “servile fear” and “holy fear.” A servile fear, at its most base level, is simply a fear of getting caught and getting punished. Certainly, Christians can (and should) do better than that.
What about “holy fear?” Let’s turn to a summary from the wise and witty Father George Rutler:
And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12). That love is born of holy fear, or what we would call “awe,” and it is an awe as transportingly joyful as the dark fear — which “perfect love casts out” (1 John 4:18) — is frightful…. Without Holy Fear, there would be only dread. Perhaps that explains why our culture is so burdened with “phobias” and so unacquainted with awe at our Eucharistic Lord. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
(I had the great privilege of interviewing Father Rutler last week—you can listen to the interview HERE.)
Life with dread alone is unbearable; life without holy fear is not perfectable. Without awe and wonder—at the grandeur of creation, at the majesty of the Creator, of the truly awesome love of Christ—there can be no motivation to put aside sin, while there is still time, and to prepare to conform to Christ as the only suitable preparation for eternity. Holy fear is truly the “beginning of wisdom,” because it is the first step in putting our lives in order, in cooperation with God’s grace.
Tying all these strands together, let’s look at fear as a tool. Like any tool, fear can be misused; likewise, with guidance and practice, it can be used more readily, more effectively, and more creatively. A prudent fear, treated as the gift of a survival instinct, can keep us on our guard against physical harm. A holy fear, as the beginning of wisdom, can move us to repentance, and a life of ongoing conversion. A holy fear that is understood as a “filial fear,” that is, a dread of disappointing our Heavenly Father, over time can make us more and more sensitive and receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit (“like water falling upon a sponge” as Saint Ignatius Loyola would say).
With that spiritual sensitivity well cultivated, we can be alert to warnings against near occasions of sin. At the same time, such spiritual sensitivity can alert us to opportunities for charity, ready to “go the extra mile.”
With and for each other, let’s pray for the gift of fear.
When I write next, I will speak of various forms of poverty. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.