Fear of the Lord

The first reading (Acts 9: 26-31) at Mass today (Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B) begins: "When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple."  The early Christians were afraid that what they had heard about Saul's conversion was not true, that Saul was a "plant" who was infiltrating the community in order to eventually persecute it.  It took Barnabas, known as the "son of encouragement," to facilitate Saul's entry into the community.

The reading ends with the Church "at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers."

We have here two kinds of fear.  The first is fear of danger, pain, suffering, and death.  The second is a gift of the Holy Spirit that gives peace and consolation.  Clearly this second kind of fear is the opposite of the first.

But what is "fear of the Lord?"

Pope Francis spoke about it in his weekly General Audience of June 11, 2014. He said:

It does not mean being afraid of God: we know well that God is Father, that he loves us and wants our salvation, and he always forgives, always; thus, there is no reason to be scared of him! Fear of the Lord, instead, is the gift of the Holy Spirit through whom we are reminded of how small we are before God and of his love and that our good lies in humble, respectful and trusting self-abandonment into his hands. This is fear of the Lord: abandonment in the goodness of our Father who loves us so much.

When the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts, he infuses us with consolation and peace, and he leads us to the awareness of how small we are, with that attitude — strongly recommended by Jesus in the Gospel — of one who places his every care and expectation in God and feels enfolded and sustained by his warmth and protection, just as a child with his father! This is what the Holy Spirit does in our hearts: he makes us feel like children in the arms of our father. In this sense, then, we correctly comprehend how fear of the Lord in us takes on the form of docility, gratitude and praise, by filling our hearts with hope. Indeed, we frequently fail to grasp the plan of God, and we realize that we are not capable of assuring ourselves of happiness and eternal life. It is precisely in experiencing our own limitations and our poverty, however, that the Holy Spirit comforts us and lets us perceive that the only important thing is to allow ourselves to be led by Jesus into the Father’s arms.

This is why we need this gift of the Holy Spirit so much. Fear of the Lord allows us to be aware that everything comes from grace and that our true strength lies solely in following the Lord Jesus and in allowing the Father to bestow upon us his goodness and his mercy. To open the heart, so that the goodness and mercy of God may come to us. This is what the Holy Spirit does through the gift of fear of the Lord: he opens hearts. The heart opens so that forgiveness, mercy, goodness and the caress of the Father may come to us, for as children we are infinitely loved.

When we are pervaded by fear of the Lord, then we are led to follow the Lord with humility, docility and obedience. This, however, is not an attitude of resignation, passivity or regret, but one of the wonder and joy of being a child who knows he is served and loved by the Father. Fear of the Lord, therefore, does not make of us Christians who are shy and submissive, but stirs in us courage and strength! It is a gift that makes of us Christians who are convinced, enthusiastic, who aren’t submissive to the Lord out of fear but because we are moved and conquered by his love! To be conquered by the love of God! This is a beautiful thing. To allow ourselves to be conquered by this love of a father, who loves us so, loves us with all his heart.

Pope Francis then went on to say "the holy fear of God sends us a warning: be careful!"  We ought not to fear God but we should have a healthy fear of ourselves and what we are capable of doing that breaks our relationship with God and our brothers and sisters.

We need not fear God who does not send anyone to hell.  Hell--alienation from God and the Communion of Saints--is not something God chooses but something we choose for ourselves. We, not God, do the sending.  The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" states clearly: "This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" (#1033).  We are the ones who do the excluding and sending.

St. John Paul II explained this in one of his General Audiences (July 28, 1999):

God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely,  can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell.  It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life “hell”.

“Eternal damnation”, therefore, is not attributed to God's initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In  reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. 

The choices we make are life and death choices.  

In the Gospel (John 15: 1-8) Jesus makes this clear with the image of the vine and the branches.  Through Baptism we are joined to the Vine that is Jesus Christ.  We have life as long as we are united to the Vine.  But we are free to cut ourselves off from the Vine.  We do that through mortal sin.  God never cuts us off but because God loves us and does not force us to remain in him, we have the freedom to cut ourselves off. Doing so, we choose death--separation from God and from the other branches, our brothers and sisters.  

But there is hope.  We can be grafted back on the Vine through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And our union with the Vine is strengthened with every Holy Communion by which the life force of Jesus' Precious Blood flows through us and keeps us closely united to him.  

Therefore, choose life!  Or, as St. John puts it in the second reading (1 John 3: 18-24): "Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth."