"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Gift of Fear

We need more fear of God these days. One way to tell whether somebody holds the "faith once delivered to the saints" is how they react to the idea of the "fear of God." Proverbs says the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; but the preferred spin for decades has been to depict such fear as immature religiosity that becomes toxic when not outgrown. How to reverse the spin?

Religion teacher Douglas McManaman has the right idea. Here's a sample of how he develops it:

It didn’t take long for me to learn how to teach Religion to drug dealers, professional thieves, violent bullies and teenage psychopaths; for what they all had in common was precisely a lack of the fear of God. Young criminals don’t respond to the language of love and compassion. It means nothing to them, it does not move them, and those who employ it are seen as potential targets of manipulation. A very different approach is required if one is to have any chance of success with such people, one more akin to the hair-raising sound of an Evangelical preacher (Cf. Mt 3, 7-10; 11, 20-24).

But it was during these years that I began to realize just what a gift the fear of God really is, even the very rudiments of servile fear. For these kids were already involved in some of the worst crimes, and they were committed to a criminal lifestyle, but they had no fear of divine repercussion. The gift of fear is, at least initially, a reverent fear of the divine justice. Traditionally, it has been divided into servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear inclines a person to reject sin out of a fear of punishment, whether temporal or eternal. Filial fear, on the other hand, inclines a person to reject sin more out of a fear of offending the beloved, namely God. Indeed, the latter is higher and nobler, but the latter does not displace the former. Filial fear does not supplant servile fear. Rather, the more a person grows in the love of God — and thus filial fear — , the more refined does servile fear become.

The reason is that as we grow in the knowledge of God’s mercy, we grow, simultaneously in the knowledge of our own frailty and proclivity to sin, for His mercy bears upon our sins. And as we grow in an understanding of God’s pure generosity, we begin to appreciate more the seriousness of sin. Joined to an awareness of our own frailty and dependency upon divine grace, we are led to pray for the gift of perseverance within a spirit of hope, which includes a spirit of fear that recognizes what we truly deserve. Indeed, the saint really fears the damage that his sins will do to himself as well as to others.

Read it all.
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