Holy and Unholy Fear
THERE ARE different kinds of fear.. There’s a fear that’s healthy and good, a sign of maturity and love. There’s also a fear that’s bad, that blocks maturity and love. But this needs explanation.
There is much misunderstanding about fear inside of religious circles, especially around the Scriptural passage that says that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. We need to live in “holy fear”, but this is a very particular kind of fear that should not be confused with fear as we normally understand it.
Holy fear is love’s fear, namely, the kind of fear that is inspired by love. It’s a fear based upon reverence and respect for a person or a thing we love. When we genuinely love another person we will live inside of a healthy anxiety, a worry that our actions should not disappoint, disrespect, or violate the other person. We live in holy fear when we are anxious not to betray a trust or disrespect someone. But this is very different from being afraid of somebody or being afraid of being punished.
Misused power and authority intimidate and make others afraid of them. God is not that kind of power or authority. God entered our world as a helpless infant and God’s power still takes that same form. Babies don’t intimidate, even as they inspire holy fear. We watch our words and our actions around babies not because they threaten us, but rather because their very helplessness and innocence inspire an anxiety in us that makes us want to be at our best around them.
The Gospels are meant to inspire that kind of fear. God is Love, a benevolent power, a gracious authority, not someone to be feared. Indeed God is the last person we need to fear. Jesus came to rid us of fear. Virtually every instance where God appears in scripture begins with the words: “Do not be afraid!” What frightens us does not come from God.
In the Jewish scriptures, the Christian Old Testament, King David is revealed as the person who best grasped this. Among all the figures in the Old Testament, David is depicted as the figure that best exemplified what it means to walk on this earth in the image and likeness of God, even though at a point he grossly abuses that trust. Despite his great sin, it is to David, not to Moses or the prophets, to whom Jesus attributes his lineage. David is the Christ-figure in the Old Testament. He walked in holy fear of God, but never in an unhealthy fear.
To cite one example: David is returning from battle with his men. His men are hungry. The only available food is the bread in the temple. David asks for this and is told that it is only to be consumed by the priests in sacred ritual. He answers the priest to this effect: “I’m the King, placed here by God to act responsibly in his name. We don’t ordinarily ask for the temple bread, but this is an exception, a matter of urgency, the men need food, and God would want us to do this.”
So he took the temple bread and gave it to his men. In the Gospels, Jesus praises this action by David and asks us to imitate it, telling us that we are not made for the Sabbath, but that the Sabbath is made for us. Matt 12.4f
David understood what is meant by that. He had discerned that God is not so much a law to be obeyed as a gracious presence under which we are asked to live creatively. He feared God, but as one fears someone in love, with a “holy fear”, not a legalistic one. King David had discerned what it really means to be God’s child and how God is not so much a law to be obeyed as a gracious presence who desires a mutually loving relationship, one of holy fear. !5/6/12