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Have Fear But Do Not Be Afraid

We must not be afraid of, nor fear human beings; we must fear God but not be afraid of him.
by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O | Source: Zenit.org

ROME (Zenit.org).- "Have fear but do not be afraid." Jesus says: "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 Gehenna." We must not be afraid of, nor fear human beings; we must fear God but not be afraid of him.

There is a difference between being afraid and fearing and I would like to take this occasion to try to understand why this is so and in what this difference consists. Being afraid is a manifestation of our fundamental instinct for preservation. It is a reaction to a threat to our life, the response to a real or perceived danger, whether this be the greatest danger of all, death, or particular dangers that threaten our tranquility, our physical safety, or our affective world.

With respect to whether the dangers are real or imagined, we say that someone is "justifiably" or "unjustifiably" or "pathologically" afraid. Like sicknesses, this worry can be acute or chronic. If it is acute, it has to do with states determined by situations of extraordinary danger. If I am about to be hit by a car or I begin to feel the earth quake under my feet, this is being acutely afraid. These "scares" arise suddenly and without warning and cease when the danger has passed, leaving, if anything, just a bad memory. Being chronically afraid is to be constantly in a state of preoccupation, this state grows up with us from birth or childhood and becomes part of our being, and we end up developing an attachment to it. We call such a state a complex or phobia: claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and so on.

The Gospel helps to free us from all of these worries and reveals their relative, non-absolute, nature. There is something of ours that nothing and no one in the world can truly take away from us or damage: For believers it is the immortal soul; for everyone it is the testimony of their own conscience.

The fear of God is quite different from being afraid. The fear of God must be learned: "Come, my children, listen to me," a Psalm says, "I will teach you the fear of the Lord" (33:12); 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.

But the meaning itself of fearing God is different from being afraid. It is a component of faith: It is born from knowledge of who God is. It is the same sentiment that we feel before some great spectacle of nature. It is feeling small before something that is immense; it is stupor, marvel mixed with admiration. Beholding the miracle of the paralytic who gets up on his feet and walks, the Gospel says, "Everyone was in awe and praised God; filled with fear they said: ‘Today we have seen wondrous things'" (Luke 5:26). Fear is here simply another name for stupor and praise.

This sort of fear is a companion of and allied to love: It is the fear of offending the beloved that we see in everyone who is truly in love, even in the merely human realm. This fear 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).

As always, the Gospel does not only illumine our faith but it also helps us to understand the reality of everyday life. Our time has been called "the age of anxiety" (W.H. Auden). Anxiety, which is closely related to being afraid, has become the sickness of the century and it is, they say, one of the principal causes of the large number of heart attacks. This spread of anxiety seems connected with the fact that, compared with the past, we have many more forms of economic insurance, life insurance, many more means of preventing illness and delaying death.

The cause of this anxiety is the diminishing -- if not the complete disappearance -- in our society of the holy fear of God. "No one fears God anymore!" We say this sometimes jokingly but it contains a tragic truth. The more that the fear of God diminishes, the more we become afraid of our fellow men!

It is easy to understand why this is the case. Forgetting God, we place all our confidence in the things of this world, that is, in the things that Christ says "thieves can steal and moths consume" -- uncertain things that can disappear from one moment to the next, that time (and moths!) inexorably consume, things that everyone is after and which therefore cause competition and rivalry (the famous "mimetic desire" of which René Girard speaks), things that need to be defended with clenched teeth and, sometimes, with a gun in hand.

The decline in fear of God, rather than liberating us from worry, gets us more entangled in worry. Look at what happens in the relationship between children and parents in our society. Fathers no longer fear God and children no longer fear fathers! The fear of God is reflected in and analogous to the reverential fear of children for parents. The Bible continually associates the two things. But does the lack of this reverential fear for their parents make the children and young people of today more free and self-confident? We know well that the exact opposite is true.

The way out of the crisis is to rediscover the necessity and the beauty of the holy fear of God. Jesus explains to us in the Gospel that we will hear on Sunday that the constant companion of the fear of God is confidence in God. "Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows!"

God does not want us to be afraid of him but to have confidence in him. It is the contrary of that emperor who said: "Oderint dum metuant" -- "Let them hate me so long as they are afraid of me!" Our earthly fathers must imitate God; they must not make us afraid of them but have confidence in them. It is in this way that respect is nourished: admiration, confidence, everything that falls under the name of "holy fear."

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

* * *

Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Jeremiah 20:10-13; Romans 5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33.

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