Just as hope has two objects, one of which is the future good itself that one expects to obtain, while the other is someone's help through whom one expects to obtain what one hopes for, so, too, fear may have two objects, one of which is the very evil which a man shrinks from, while the other is that from which the evil may come. Accordingly, in the first way God, Who is goodness itself, cannot be an object of fear; but He can be an object of fear in the second way, in so far as there may come to us some evil either from Him or in relation to Him.
From Him there comes the evil of punishment, but this is evil not absolutely but relatively, and, absolutely speaking, is a good. Because, since a thing is said to be good through being ordered to an end, while evil implies lack of this order, that which excludes the order to the last end is altogether evil, and such is the evil of fault. On the other hand the evil of punishment is indeed an evil, in so far as it is the privation of some particular good, yet absolutely speaking, it is a good, in so far as it is ordained to the last end.
In relation to God the evil of fault can come to us, if we be separated from Him: and in this way God can and ought to be feared.
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.II.19.1
Reflection – I am going through the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, in preparation for the great feast of Pentecost when we celebrate the Spirit’s abiding presence and power in our lives. I am drawing on the sublime (and, I admit, dense to the point of being almost unreadable!) works of Thomas Aquinas who, once his meaning is seen, makes everything so very lucid and clear.
So, Fear of the Lord is a gift of the Spirit. How can this be? Why should we be afraid of God who is all good and all loving and the source and indeed substance of our happiness? Is this not a retreat to a Puritanical, Jansenistic angry God who stands ready to smite us with his fierce anger the minute we step out of line? Why fear God?
Aquinas nails it with his fine distinction. We do not fear God directly: fear is our emotion towards an impending evil which impels us to flee from it; God is Goodness Himself, our very beatitude. It would be literally nonsensical to fear God qua God. ‘Fear of the Lord’ is rather a fear of the evil that is on the flip side of every good we can possibly possess, namely, the fear of losing it.
For example, I love my Madonna House community and vocation, deeply and truly and passionately. And so, I have a healthy, hearty fear of MH being damaged, compromised, destroyed, or my own ability to lay down my life here being damaged or destroyed by my own bad choices. I don’t spend my days trembling in fear over that, but I am well aware that I do indeed, as a sinner, have the ability to ruin my own life in that way, and so am vigilant about my daily choices to love or not love, serve or not serve, pray or not pray. Because of the good that MH is for me, I ‘fear’ the loss of it through my own sinful folly.
And this holds true of any genuine and significant good that we possess, isn’t it? And since God is The Good of all goods, the only Good that perdures to eternity and the ultimate happiness of our human being, we fear not Him but that which arises from Him—the possibility of losing Him.
Fear of the Lord is simply the horror of sin, the horror of performing actions that will destroy our life in God. Now, why is this a gift of the Holy Spirit? It seems kind of logical, something our reason might come up with, while the gifts of the Spirit, as I said yesterday, make us responsive not strictly to our reason but to the action of the Spirit of God.
It is the specific kind of fear that makes this Fear a gift of God. We can fear losing God out of ultimately selfish reasons. We want to be happy and have joy and pleasure; our reason tells us God is the source of all that stuff; and so we cling to God resolutely so as not to miss the bag of goodies He wants to give us. This is called servile fear. It is not bad, really, but is obviously far from perfect.
The gift of Fear of the Lord is filial fear. In other words, we really do come, by God’s power and Gift, to love God as the Son loves the Father. Clearly only the Holy Spirit can make the Son’s love for the Father become our love for God, right? This exceeds human capacity. And yet, I believe an ordinary faithful Christian striving each day to live this life does in fact come to this and experiences it: a genuine, honest love of God as God, not as Santa Claus or as Beloved Dictator or as giant Teddy Bear in the sky, but God, Father, the Good One, the Loving One.
And as we come to know God and love Him that way, the gift of fear of the Lord is operative in us, to wean us from sin and turn us to every good choice and action. And that is the beginning of wisdom in us.