Isaiah lists seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, or rather, seven key descriptors of the one Spirit who is the heart of the Christ, and of those who are conformed to him. His list ends with “fear of the Lord.” (Indeed, as we saw last week, the Hebrew original cites this gift twice, though the tradition translates the first “fear” into “piety.”)
We might be tempted to do away with fear. Christanity is about love, not about avoiding punishment. Indeed, the whole spiritual life – the whole of Christian doctrine, and our understanding of God – falls apart if we see him just as the divine punisher, rather than the ultimate Good.
But fear is a key part of our Scripture and Tradition. Without an understanding of how fear can be good, we not only lose our ability to pray the Psalms, where it appears abundantly, but we cannot understand the New Testament. Jesus says, “I say to you my friends” – my friends! – “be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you should fear: Fear him, who after he has killed has power to cast into hell; yes, I say unto you, Fear him” (Luke 12:4-5; cf. Matt 10:28). In fact, threats of hell play a vastly bigger part in the New Testament than in the Old.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the key description of the early Church says, “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul” (Acts 2:42-43). This is after Pentecost – and notice how positive the rest of the verse is.
Paul tells us “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12); “submit yourself to one another in the fear of God” (Eph 5:21); and “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1). Of sinners, on the other hand, he says, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18).
And Peter says, “if you call on the Father” – again, note how positive the setup is – “who without partiality judges according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear” (I Pet 1:17). “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God” (1 Pet 2:17).
Finally, Our Lady herself says, in the Magnificat, “His mercy is on them that fear him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50).
St. Thomas helps us understand this fear by distinguishing three ways we can “fear God.” One way is clearly bad: we can think that God himself, and all that goes with him, is bad, and run away from him. Obviously this is not the fear that Scripture commends. And it points to a deeper truth: God is not evil. He is good, not bad; someone to be desired, not feared.
But another sense in which we can fear God is by recognizing the possibility of punishment. This is not the best kind of fear, not the kind of fear that Jesus has or that is a gift of his Spirit. But it can be helpful – the Church has dogmatically defined, in fact, that we shouldn’t treat this as an evil.
For many people, this kind of fear is a life raft, the last thing that keeps them from falling away. That isn’t love, but it is faith. And it points to a deeper truth.
Hell is a possibility, and punishment is a reality, precisely because God is good. Sin is defined by its opposition to the pure goodness of God. Ingratitude (the fourth commandment), a failure to worship (the second), blasphemy (the third), destruction of the innocent (the fifth), contempt for the truth (the eighth) and all the rest are evil precisely in the sense that they lack the presence of God. To pursue these things is to fall away from the goodness of God.
Ultimate punishment is ultimately nothing but the absence of God: to be an eternal creature (which we are) and to have chosen emptiness over good is . . . Hell.
But this in turn points to a deeper kind of fear, the fear which is tenderness. The fear which would never want to hurt our relationship – the care a mother takes for her child, or a bridegroom for his bride. This is a fear that is not opposed to love, but its fruit. And it is a Gift of the Holy Spirit.
Do we worry enough about staying close to Jesus? About how our actions affect other people?