The Church’s teaching that we must have both trust in God and “fear of the Lord” seems contradictory at first glance. Recently, reflections from an unlikely source prompted me to see that this fear is fundamentally different from what we typically mean by fear, and is entirely compatible with trust, in light of our relationship with God as Father.
There is a great commercial on TV now of a dog floating on a raft in a pool. The dog floats by the camera and the commercial advises that sometimes the smartest thing to do is nothing. It is a commercial for a brokerage (I think; I am always so amused by the dog on the raft that I never pay attention to the company being advertised). I believe that the commercial is geared to older investors. Sometimes, when the market turns, people get afraid and they sell, but they sell at the wrong time and never recoup their losses. Many investment advisors tell their clients to wait out the downturn. Do nothing.
Trust and “Fear” of the Lord
Most people need to react to situations. Many people are impulsive. Fear—our reaction to potential or impending harm—motivates people. The commercial of the dog on the raft is a great reminder for us to not be impulsive in our lives in general, not just in investing. Psalm 46:11 proclaimed, “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” In other words, do nothing and rest in the Lord. We read of the many people in the Bible who were afraid of the Lord. Usually, they had something to be afraid of. Sometimes, this fear pushed them farther from God, as when Adam tried to hide after his fall. Other times, it proved the first step toward repentance, as when Nineveh was converted.
But fear of the Lord as we knew it changed with the Incarnation. How can we be fearful of a loving, merciful God who took on our human flesh and allowed Himself to become the Sacrificial offering to expiate the sins of His lowly creation? This mercy would be the equivalent of Adolf Hitler’s father suffering the punishment for the crimes of his son (assuming daddy Hitler was a good guy). It doesn’t make sense if we think of fear of the Lord in those terms. Fear of the Lord is a great spiritual mystery, but it should not be confused with the human fear we experience during our lifetime. True fear of the Lord is loving the Lord and not wanting to offend Him.
When I was growing up, my dad always told us that your name is all you have, it is important to have a good reputation because you represent the family. If you disgrace yourself, you disgrace the family. I always kept what he said in mind. I always tried to conduct myself in such a way as to be honorable and respectful, because I represented my family. I was given my father’s name and I did not want to sully it. Fear of the Lord is the exact same thing. It is not fear born out of terror. It is fear of offending the Lord who made us. We are His, we represent Him.
Witnesses of the Martyrs
To understand this point better, one need only look at what results from lack of this holy fear. Christians have been, in many cases, very bad representatives of Christ. It has been that way since Judas. Given just the last year, if we look at the news, we can see many Christians doing the exact opposite of what Christ wants us to do. The Church scandal has almost completely eroded the moral high ground the Church once had and people are flocking in droves to alternatives to organized religion.
It seems that the Church is underground, in hiding. Its shepherds were not good shepherds. But that is no different than it was from the beginning. How could one of the Lord’s specially chosen, intimate circle betray Him to His death? Mightn’t that generate doubts about whether the rest of these twelve Galilean peasants were any more trustworthy?
I think that is a simple way of explaining why people are not being drawn to the Church. The difference between then and now, at least in the modern Western World, was the witness of the martyrs. Fear is a great motivator but Fear (love) of the Lord is greater. I am sure the martyrs were afraid of torture and pain, but they were more afraid of offending the Lord. There are so many witnesses in the Old Testament that chose death over offending the Lord and it occurs today, well, mainly in places we do not hear about, such as Nigeria, India, and, recently, Sri Lanka. Jews and Christians are being martyred for their faiths and many are choosing martyrdom over offending God.
We too, more than ever, need to be souls of this “fear of the Lord,” the fear that means preferring death to offending the Lord we love. We also need to be souls of steady, unshakeable trust. In these times, when the storms swell around the faithful, it is the right time to “do nothing”; except, I would add, pray. So “do nothing but pray” would be my tagline if I were to put a commercial out there.
Being Still Before God
As anyone finds out who tries it, this kind of patient trust is not easy, but it can be practiced. “Toe Dipper” is how I describe my wife. She is oftentimes someone who waits and weighs circumstances before she makes a decision, a toe-dipper. She dips her toes before she gets in the pool. I am a decision maker. I react to circumstances, make quick decisions and jump in the pool. No toe-dipping for me.
My dad used to say that he who acts in haste repents in leisure. In other words, wait, do nothing. My wife is exactly the same way. I think the wait-and-see approach in most instances is the best approach and I am trying to remember to do that. So far I have not been successful. I need to be the dog on the raft. I need to slow it down, both in the secular realm and in the spiritual realm. Rome wasn’t built in day. A day is like a thousand years to the Lord and a thousand years is as if a day.
Our adoration chapel has the saying of the Psalmist on the wall framed: “Be still, and know that I am God.” I love to spend time with the Lord in silence. Many times, I simply rest in His Presence. So many people have so many things going on in their lives these days—worries about health, finance, children, jobs, and on and on. So many people are frazzled and fearful and at the end of their ropes. Acceptance of circumstances is paramount in dealing with them head on. Acknowledging them, embracing them and then placing them in God’s hands is what we must do.
The Serenity Prayer asks God to “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” We must remember that we cannot fix other people who are broken, we cannot change certain circumstances (health issue, death of a loved one, etc.), and we cannot force God’s hand to act more quickly. God is a toe-dipper too—not because He does not know what to do next, but because His plans in our world develop gradually, bit by bit.
Fear of the Lord is trusting Him, loving Him, desiring not to offend Him. This combination of holy, loving fear—which involves focusing our concern on what is most important—and confident trust will help us to set aside all our human fears, to place them in God’s hands. We are only human and He knows that. So if you are reading this right now and your life is a mess, know that God knows that. If you feel things are out of control, take a minute, rest in the Lord and do nothing. Listen for Him, know that He is God. Everything will work out. Be that dog on the raft.
I like to imagine myself in the boat with Jesus and the Apostles on the lake when the storm kicked up. I imagine myself as a passenger on the boat watching what was going on. In my mind’s eye I am huddled in one corner of the boat. It is windy, raining and scary. Lightning is flashing, thunder is booming and the boat is being tossed around like a toy. I see Peter wake the Lord, who is sleeping soundly, and cry, “Save us, Lord!” I see Jesus rise up steadily and in power. I see Him raise His hands and I feel the calm restored. “Save us, Lord” is my prayer. Stay in the boat, trust in God, give it to Him, He has it!