Fear in the Spiritual Life
The prophet Isaiah says: “Be strong, fear not! Behold your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Fear could be healthy or unhealthy. Fear is healthy when we dread the greatest evil in life. For the greatest evil in life is separation from God and equating oneself to Him. Fear against the foregoing is called reverential fear. On the other hand, Christ tells us to fear the Devil, “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear rather him who has the power to make both the soul and the body perish in hell” (Matt. 10:28; 1Pt. 5:8-9). This does not call for cowardice in anyway. Rather, we are called to fight the Devil who is afraid of us as St. John encourages us: “Children, you are from God and have overcome them, because he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Anything short of the preceding is unhealthy fear.
It is pertinent to state quickly that fear is quite different from being afraid. Fear in the strict sense ought to be associated with God. Hence, “The fear of the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is a virtue we learn or ask for. The Psalmist says: “Come, my children, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (34:12). So, being afraid on the other hand, does not need to be learned at school; it overtakes us suddenly in the face of danger; the things themselves bring about our being afraid. Fear is one of the fruits of faith and love and it flows from our knowledge and admiration of God based on His awesomeness and immensity. This is the fear of offending our loving God and is often called “the beginning of wisdom” because it leads to making the right choices in life. Indeed, it is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit! (cf. Isaiah 11:2).
Jesus warns against fear in the spiritual life. Fear is puzzlingly dangerous in the spiritual life because it turns us away from the power of God. It makes us to focus on what we think and feel that God cannot do for us. Is it because of the limitations of fear that Jesus’ earthly life is linked by warnings against fear? The beginning of the earthly life (Annunciation) and new life (Resurrection) of Jesus are marked by the saying, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus’ counsels against fear reveals the following ways of handling fear in the spiritual life.
God’s presence: The first step towards handling fear is the recognition, realization and reverence of the presence of God. The psalmist asserts, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away … Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:1-8). The point is that one of the foundations of the spiritual life is the consciousness or awareness of the presence of God. That is having a steady conversation with God through the power of our thought system that is governed by self-awareness, prayer, meditation and contemplation. The special gift or fruit of the spiritual life is the presence of God. Therefore, God’s presence should not prompt fear, for God always comes in love – God is love (1John 4:16). God cannot harm us! He states, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11).
“Ephphatha” that is “Be opened!”(Mark 7:34) says Jesus! The spiritual life demands openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit; openness to the dispensation of all gifts and graces from our Lady the Mediatrix and Dispensatrix of all graces and openness to our refined psychological intuitions. This means we should be open to God’s entrance into our lives through the various mediums abovementioned. To this end, God’s entrance into our lives may mean something will change. Thus, we do not need to fear the new.
There is no need to fear things we don’t understand: The beginning of the earthly life of Jesus through the Annunciation and His new life through the Resurrection empowers us to learn not to be afraid. At the Annunciation, Mary’s future was not very clear, hence she was encouraged by the angel not to be afraid. Likewise, at the Resurrection the disciples didn’t understand their future and faith in Christ but soon they learned not to be afraid.
In conclusion, fear is either healthy or unhealthy in the spiritual life and Jesus warns us against it because it can limit us from experiencing the presence of God and worse still turning us away from God and making us to reflect more on what we think and feel He cannot do for us. God is capable of doing all things except evil. He says, “Do not be afraid” for 365 times in the Bible in order to take care of each day of the year. God bless and protect us against unhealthy fear. Amen
Fr. John-Mary Atep