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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Fear and Trembling

I had an interesting conversation with a learned, but new, Catholic the other day.  I say learned because the man comes to Full Communion with a wealth of knowledge of Holy Scripture.  He is a former Pastor and totally in love with Jesus.

My experience is becoming thus:  when a Catholic leaves the Eucharist to join a Protestant denomination, that denomination gets a disgruntled, weak Catholic.  When a Protestant comes to the Fullness of Faith, the Catholic Church gets a strong and willing and knowledgeable Christian.

Our discussion was around a statement made by a Franciscan Theologian.  Without directly quoting or naming the man, basically the Franciscan summarized the idea of 'Fear of the Lord' in a way that our new Catholic found a little 'too PC'.  The assertion by the Franciscan is that 'Fear of the Lord' means that we are to stand in 'awe and wonder' of God - His Power, His Love and His Might - rather than be actually afraid of God.  The new Catholic was concerned that this overlooks the need to have a certain level of actual fear and he used Hebrews 10:26 as a way to underscore his idea.  (If we deliberately keep on sinner after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God).

I understand his point...I do.  What I think he may be missing is the classic approach that Catholicism uses when understanding the relationship of creature to Creator, sin and righteousness.

I think, and I may be wrong, that we need to first consider the difference between our relationship when it breaks and our relationship when it is strong, and the role that contrition plays in the life of a Catholic.

When I commit a sin I have broken my relationship with God.  Like the Prodigal, I have taken what the Father has given me and I have willfully walked into a land that is bereft of grace.  Like a Loving Father, God stands ready to run to meet me when I return.  What causes me to return may be a combination of things:

1.  Sorrow that I offended God  (perfect contrition)
2.  Fear that the sin(s) I committed will send me to hell (imperfect contrition)

Both of these require that I have resolved to not sin again.  I am going to try.  I am going to open myself up to the power and grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and do my best to walk towards heaven without any side stepping or backsliding.

Contrition, according to the Council of Trent (Sess XIV, Chap iv) is the "sorrow of soul and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future".    The Church teaches that this hatred may arise from a variety of causes but to detest sin solely because of my love of God, the God I offended, is deemed perfect.  If I detest my sin because I am afraid of the fires of Hell, of receiving a JUST punishment for offending God by being kept from His Presence for all eternity, that is a good enough reason to be forgiven - but it is not perfect contrition.

I think the same kind of reasoning could be applied to having a Fear of the Lord.  When I am in alignment with His Will, I am not afraid of Hell or being punished.  My 'fear' is of the 'awe and wonder' variety.  I stand amazed that the Great I Am loves me enough to never stop thinking of me and the idea of doing anything that would hurt or offend that amazing God is the furthest thing from my mind.

However, when I am firmly in MY will and determined to do things MY way, it behooves me to remind myself of Divine Justice.  It is okay for me to be afraid of the Justice of GOD, while never losing sight of His Mercy.

As with most Catholic discussions, I think it truly becomes a matter of both people acknowledging that which is the Power that holds us all together.  We may approach from different directions and different mind sets.  What we have in common is the understanding that we are in such great care when we stand united in His Church.


R.L. G said...

This passage from “Radical Monotheism and Western Culture” by H. Richard Niebuhr, was a good place for me to start:

“What is it that is responsible for this passing, that dooms our human faith to frustration? We may call it the nature of things, we may call it fate, we may call it reality. But by whatever name we call it, this law of things, this reality, this way things are, is something with which we all must reckon. We may not be able to give a name to it, calling it only the "void" out of which everything comes and to which everything returns, though that is also a name. But it is there -- the last shadowy and vague reality, the secret of existence by virtue of which things come into being, are what they are, and pass away. Against it there is no defense. This reality, this nature of things, abides when all else passes. It is the source of all things and the end of all. It surrounds our life as the great abyss into which all things plunge and as the great source whence they all come. What it is we do not know save that it is and that it is the supreme reality with which we must reckon.”

I read this and immediately understood “fear of the Lord.” The previous PC “awe and wonder” concepts looked like shadows cast by flimsy cardboard cutouts compared to this. And the “beauty” of Niebuhr’s perception is that it has all of the awe and wonder, as well as the fear and terror. My personal opinion is that people like an “accessible” God, one that they can get a handle on, and negotiate with, or have some control with. The infinite God is not at all something you can control. This fact is disturbing to many, and I have seen people metaphorically run shrieking into the night after reading that paragraph, and then spend the rest of their time rationalizing why God really isn’t like that.

Leslie Klinger said...

I think we have a tendency to make God a bigger version of ourselves and that is why we are uncomfortable with having a healthy fear of The Lord. Thank you for what you wrote!