Teaching Fear Not--I am with you always (Is 41:10)

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1Keep silence before me, O coastlands;

let the nations renew their strength.

Let them draw near and speak;

let us come together for judgment.
2Who has stirred up from the East the champion of justice,

and summoned him to be his attendant?

To him he delivers nations

and subdues kings;

With his sword he reduces them to dust,

with his bow, to driven straw.

3He pursues them, passing on without loss,

by a path his feet scarcely touch.

4Who has performed these deeds?

Who has called forth the generations from the beginning?

I, the LORD, am the first,
and at the last I am he.

8But you, Israel, my servant,

Jacob, whom I have chosen,

offspring of Abraham my friend—

9You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth

and summoned from its far-off places,

To whom I have said, You are my servant;

I chose you, I have not rejected you—

10Do not fear: I am with you;

do not be anxious: I am your God.

I will strengthen you, I will help you,

I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
11Yes, all shall be put to shame and disgrace

who vent their anger against you;

Those shall be as nothing and perish

who offer resistance.

12You shall seek but not find

those who strive against you;

They shall be as nothing at all

who do battle with you.

13For I am the LORD, your God,

who grasp your right hand;

It is I who say to you, Do not fear,

I will help you.

I will help you—;

the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.

There are three kinds of fears. One is natural; one is unnatural; both are human. The third is a result of faith and grace. If I come across a bear, there is a natural fear or instinct which arises within me. This natural fear speaks of imminent danger and the need to remove myself or protect myself from this threat.

The second fear is unnatural because there is no objective reason for it to rise up in me. This may be called worldly fear, because it tends to prevent us from living a full, healthy natural life. It is psychological or taught and it debilitates and paralyzes me. There are many such fears that we may have allowed to control us, such as fear of stepping on a crack in the sidewalk, fear of heights, fear of the future, fear of enclosure, fear of the bully, fear of the unknown, etc. I have a fear of eating fish that is not deboned. This comes from my father who, when I was young, would say when we would eat fish, "Watch out for the bones." It is hard for me to enjoy a good fish, unless it is filet and even then I am concerned about the bones.

The third fear is Fear of the Lord. Unfortunately, the English word Fear does not adequately translate the Hebrew words in the Scriptures, which are several with different meaning. We should fear the judgment of God or falling into the hands of God if we are among the wicked and not the just. However, we are to Fear the Lord not because he will hurt or punish us but because, knowing who he is and who we are in relationship, we have a reverential awe of the Lord. This comes from faith and grace. God, who is all in all, chooses to be part of our lives and for us to be part of his. Even though this spiritual fear may begin in the fear of God’s punishment for our wrong doings, its end is to delight in love for and of God which is eternal union with him.

Some of you may remember the Baltimore Catechism version of the Act of Contrition. "O my God, I am heartily sorry for my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because I have offended you, O my God, who is all good and deserving of all my love." This is known as an imperfect Act of Contrition. A perfect Act would be: "O my God, I am heartily sorry for my sins, because I have offended you, O my God, who is all good and deserving of all of my love." The focus is not fear of punishment, even though I deserve it, but the love and mercy of God which is pure gift. The focus is God and not us.

This is the intent of the prophetic word from Isaiah, with which we began. God reveals again and again who he is ("I, the LORD, am the first, and at the last I am he.") He is the mighty Creator of the Universe. There is no other God. At the same time, he reveals that he has chosen Israel to be in relationship with him as Servant. Therefore, because of this choice and this relationship there is no need of human fear but of awe and wonder. Then he gives them once more the assurance of his presence with them and providential care for them. Listen to his words again: "Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand….For I am the LORD, your God, who grasp your right hand; It is I who say to you, Do not fear, I will help you. I will help you—; the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer."

If we do fear, we are not to fear God, who is love, but we are to fear his just punishments as a result of our non love which we call sin. Instead of fear, we are called to fall in love with God. In fact, what we should fear, because of God’s grace and our relationship with him, is sin and its consequence in our life. We should not even fear Satan the bully who wants us to think he has power to control us. His is only pseudo power. It is the power of the bully. The bully though stronger than us has only the power of making us afraid of him. Once we are afraid of the bully then we are under his power. If the bully sees that we are not afraid, then he realizes that even if he hurts us, we will not yield to his power.

Satan is real and spiritual warfare is real. He is the spiritual bully "who roars like a lion, roaming about the world seeking whom he may devour." But the Scriptures reminds us of the One who has the greater power. "Fear not, I am with you." I John attests to this: "He who is within you is greater than he who is outside."

When Adam and Eve were innocent and in right relationship with God, they were in awe and wonder of the Creator. They had a holy Fear of the Lord. There was no other focus. This was because they shared in his own divine life. But they were tempted to take their eyes off God and seek what is good for them outside of God. Thus, came sin into the world. But when they sinned, they became afraid of God and hid themselves. They knew they had done wrong, they had violated his command and they became afraid of his punishment, which they deserved.

We should not fear Satan nor his many temptations. As I have said, what we should fear is falling into sin. Wasn’t this what Moses told the Israelites on their journey? "Do not be afraid. For God came in order to test you, and so that the dread of him might be with you, and you would not sin." (Ex 20:22)

Like Jesus, when tempted, we should keep our eyes on the One whom we are in awe with, God, for he is with us at that moment. It is at those times we need to recall the words of Deuteronomy 31:6 : "Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread…, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you."

Throughout the Scriptures there is this constant word from the Lord. Fear not, I am with you. Probably next to the command of God for us to love, this is the next most frequent statement from God, occurring nearly 150 times. This was his message to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Elijah, King Jehoshaphat, Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, Peter, Jairus, etc.
We are cautioned about allowing the ordinary human fears, whether natural or psychological and emotional to overwhelm us. For these fears make us the center of our life, rather than the Lord. We become afraid because we can’t do anything humanly about a situation. The Word of God tells us to trust in him at those moments. That is why he reminds us: "Fear not, I am with you."

According to Isaiah, Fear of the Lord is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. We read in Isaiah 11:2 "The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD." These are known as Sanctifying Gifts of the Holy Spirit in contrast to the Charismatic Gifts of the Spirit spoken of in the New Testament.

Even though Fear of the Lord is the last mentioned, it is actually the key to wisdom and the other gifts, as we read in Ps 111:10 and other places. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" It is the Holy Spirit that empowers and enables us to be in reverential awe and humble wonder of God so that we may be able to see a situation as God sees it, which is Wisdom.

Fear of the Lord enables us to obey the commands of the Lord and to love the things the Lord loves, which is the Gift of Piety. As a consequence, we are told: "Behold, thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD. ... See how the Lord blesses those who fear him." 

Many years ago, I came across the five stages of our spiritual journey from fear to perfect love, based on our choices. The first stage is fear of punishment. When we were children, we did what our parents told us to do for fear of punishment. "If you do this one more time, you will have to go into time out." As children do we remember being told that if we died in sin, we would go to hell? What dread and anxiety did that stirred in our little hearts? Jesus addressed this initial motivation in Matt 10: 28: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul. But instead fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell."

The second stage was the motivation of reward. "If you past your exams, I’ll take you to eat wherever you want to go." We were motivated to do our best because of the promised reward. As children, and maybe as adults, the promise of heaven was the motivating reason we tried to avoid sin.

The third stage why we chose to do something was obligation based on law or commandment. We stop at a red light in the middle of the night and wait even though there is no other cars on the road. It is the law.

The fourth stage is that we choose to love in order to be accepted and loved or because it is expected of us. The final stage is to choose to love because of the other person, who the other is and for the sake of the other. This is the perfect love, John talks about, that casts out all fear. It is the person of God who is all in all rather than the fear of punishment from a Just God that is my underlying motivation.

So if fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then love of the Lord is its completion. Paul tells us 2 Cor 7:1: "Knowing the promises of God, let us cleanse ourselves from all sin, growing in holiness in the fear of God." What we should be afraid of is offending the Lord, not because of his punishments, but because of who is. He is the Lord who loves us and whom we love. Initially, fear of Lord may keep us from evil, as Proverbs tells us, but when love becomes the underlying motivation, then all evil becomes abhorrent to us. In love, we delight in what God delights in and we freely choose to love God with our whole mind, heart and strength.

What is happening is the focus shifts from us primarily to God entirely. When I am afraid of God’s punishments I am concerned about what I will suffer. When I am aware of who God is and when I embrace Him as my Lord and God in love, I trust him, even if I have to suffer. I do not want to suffer, but I am not afraid of suffering. Jesus chose to be obedient to the Father’s will even to the death of the cross, because he loved the Father.

The journey we are on is one of holiness. Paul tells us in Philippians 2:12 "work toward your salvation with fear and trembling." What is this fear? It is the fear of being unfaithful to God or the fear of displeasing him in the choices I make. I am aware of my woundedness and of my past sins. I am aware that I have had good intentions in the past but have failed to always act on them in the way that would keep my eyes focused on the Lord. Thus, it is with fear and trembling not that God will abandon me but that I may, out of weakness, abandon him. Only the grace of God will enable me to not focus on the fear but on the strength of the moment from God.

Here is what St John Paul II said about this Gift of the Spirit: Fear of the Lord: "Here it is a matter of something much more noble and lofty; it is s sincere and reverential feeling that a person experiences before the tremendous majesty of God, especially when he reflects upon his own infidelity and the danger of being "found wanting" (Dan 5:27) at the eternal judgment which no one can escape. The believer goes and places himself before God with a "contrite spirit" and a "humbled heart" (cf. Ps 50 [51] :19), knowing well that he must await his own salvation "with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12). Nonetheless, that does not mean an irrational fear, but a sense of responsibility and fidelity to the law.

"All this is what the Holy Spirit takes up and elevates with the gift of the Fear of the Lord. It certainly does not exclude the trepidation that arises from an awareness of the faults committed and the prospect of divine chastisement, but mitigates it with faith in the divine mercy and with the certitude of the fatherly concern of God who wills the eternal salvation of each one. With this gift, however, the Holy Spirit instils in the soul most of all a filial love which is a sentiment rooted in love of God. The soul is now concerned not to displease God, whom he loves as a Father, not to offend him in anything, to "abide in him" and grow in charity (cf. Jn 15:4-7)." (June 11, 1989)

We have all received the Holy Spirit and all his gifts in Baptism and Confirmation. The seven gifts mentioned in Isaiah 11:1-3: Wisdom, Knowledge, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Piety and Fear of the Lord, are called Sanctifying Gifts. They are given to us to help us grow in our relationship with God, to grow in holiness of life, to grow in love, a love that rests in God. Though given to us we must appropriate them and activate them with the grace of God, so that they may be fruitful in our lives.

How do we appropriate more fully the Gift of Fear of the Lord? First, by invoking the Holy Spirit, the Giver of all gifts, for a fresh anointing and empowering of this gift. The more we choose to obey God in all things and to abhor sin in its many manifestations, the more we will grow in love of God. The more we see and come to know God as He is and the more we see ourselves only fulfilled in God and nothing else, the more we will draw closer to him with reverential awe and adoration.
It is also important for us to both read, meditate and act on the Word of God as found in the Scriptures. For instance: Psalm 56:3 tells us "When I am afraid, I put my trust in you." Psalm 34:4  says: "I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Psalm 23:4 "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." Psalm 118:6 invites us to pray with confidence: "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?" However, these are only someone else’s words, unless I appropriate them into my heart and act on them in my life.

As we grow in our willingness to be obedient to the will of God no matter the cost, we will grow in our awareness of God as the Other and the beginning and end of our lives. With Paul we can proclaim: In him we live and move and have our being. Whom should I fear? Obedience to the will of God was the motivating factor of the three men in the Book of Daniel to refuse to worship the golden statute and embrace the consequence, being thrown into furnace of fire. They knew God could save them, but even if he chose not to, they would be obedient to him. They feared the consequences of disobeying God rather than the possibility of death by fire. Their relationship with God who had done such marvelous deeds in their lives was more important than living without God. Like the Apostles who were threatened with punishment if they continued to proclaim Jesus as the Risen Lord and Savior, we too will be able to rejoice for suffering for the Name of the Lord.

What are the fruits of the Fear of the Lord?

First of all, Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom which enables us to see things from God’s perspective.

Secondly, the end of Fear of the Lord is a greater love of and for God, the Gift of Piety. This is the heart of holiness.

Thirdly, it enables us to flee the evil of sin because it offends God.

Fourthly, Fear of the Lord helps us to find our security not in things but in God. As Paul tells us in Rom 8:38-39: "For I am certain that neither death, nor life, nor Angels, nor Principalities, nor Powers, nor the present things, nor the future things, nor strength, nor he heights, nor the depths, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Fifthly, Fear of the Lord brings inner peace and true satisfaction because my life is in right relationship with God, others and myself. As Proverb 22:4 states: "The end of moderation is the fear of the Lord, riches and glory and life."

I end where I began with the words of God through the prophet Is.:

" It is I who say to you, Do not fear,

I will help you.

I will help you—;

the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer."

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