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Like all the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Fear of the Lord is a habitual perfection of the powers of the soul that makes the believer responsive to the inspiration and movements of the Holy Spirit. When we say this, we mean that Fear of the Lord is a lasting and stable condition, a refinement
-9or disposition that makes us consistently and happily receptive to God.
Without being receptive, without being submissive and docile (teachable), how could we go on to enjoy the other Gifts? The Fear of the Lord paves the way for the rest of the Gifts by leading us to revere God and avoid anything that might alienate us from him.
The Fear of the Lord is not a matter of anxiety or terror. Rather, it is marked by a calm yet eager resolve. How does Fear of the Lord help us follow God? Saint Thomas helps us see how when he points out a common fact of life: before people can begin to do good, they must first withdraw from evil. As we know from our own experience, fear always involves turning away from something that we consider a threat to our wellbeing.
In our relationship with God, fear can play a role in two ways. First, fear can be a fear of punishment (especially Hell). We can and should turn us away from evil, run to God, and stay close to him whenever we feel intimidated by the reality of punishment. Saint Thomas refers to this kind of fear as “servile” fear, or the fear of one who obeys the master because of the possibility of punishment. Servile fear, however, does not involve the full range of freedom and grace that Our Lord wants us to enjoy. There is a second and holier kind of fear that has to do not with punishment, but with the wonderful good of communion with God.
This second kind of fear is not afraid of punishment but of losing God. Saint Thomas calls this “filial” fear, the fear of sons, since it is the kind of fear a good son should have about ever violating or losing his relationship with his father. To have filial fear means to be eager to avoid the evil of offending God or doing anything that might damage our relationship with him.
The Holy Spirit’s Gift, Fear of the Lord, is a Gift of filial fear. By this Gift, we respond to the Spirit’s guidance in withdrawing from evil pleasures out of love for God. In fact, this Gift transforms the way we regard God. Saint Thomas goes so far as to say that the charity which informs the gift of fear enables us to look upon God as at once our father, and even our spouse! In other words, the Charity (love) active in Fear of the Lord is one that makes us keenly sensitive to how God loves us and to how
- 10 we need to answer that love. Through Fear of the Lord, we become deeply sensitive to anything that might diminish our life of loving God and of enjoying his love.
There is, then, something quite ironic about Fear of the Lord. This fear is produced by love. As Saint Thomas explains, love is the mother of which fear is born, for a person fears to lose only what he loves. When our desires get firmly fixed on something, we loathe ever losing it. To be deprived of the object of our affections is something we fear as an evil. In this respect, then, fear of its very nature arises from love. This insight urges us to ask ourselves the question: “What do I really fear losing?” If we see what we are afraid to lose, then we will see what we really love in life.
With this understanding of fear, we can see why it is right to say that even Jesus himself had the Gift of Fear of the Lord. For when we fear another person with filial fear (even a divine person, like God the Father), we are fearing the loss of some overwhelming good. What Christ feared— what he was eager never to lose—was what is most overwhelming in God, in particular his infinite love. As a result, Jesus’ human soul was moved under the impulse of the Holy Spirit to a profoundly awed reverence of God. Saint Thomas comments that, as man, Christ had a deeper sense of reverence for God than anyone else ever had.
Because of this holy, loving fear, Jesus did not turn away from his agony or the anguish of the Passion. Something greater than the torment of torture overwhelmed him and moved him to reject utterly any deed that would have separated him in the slightest way from doing the will of his Father. Thus it was precisely the evil of violence and punishment—the evil that was meant to discourage Jesus (“Do you not know that I have the power to crucify you?” [John 19:10])—that urged him on! For by faithfully responding to the Gift of Fear in his human soul, Jesus provided the way for the servile fear of others to be transformed into authentic filial fear. By his own suffering and love, Jesus teaches us and enables us to seek reconciliation and unending communion with God above all things.
In Jesus’ Fear of the Lord we come to understand how we can expect the Gift of Fear will be active in our own souls. As we see in the Passion,
- 11 one chief effect of Fear of the Lord is a total and pure humility. With Fear of the Lord, we are not only willing but eager and joyful at the prospect of enduring suffering for the sake of God and his plan of salvation. Holy Fear disciplines us, so that we stop seeking glory for ourselves, but instead seek God’s glory and our own happiness in him. Fear of the Lord reveres and loves God, and so uproots the very beginnings of human pride. Fear is a remedy for all pride and arrogance of spirit, which are the evils most likely to lead us away from the Lord.
This effect of humility increases in proportion to our charity. The more we love God, the more we fear to offend him and to be separated from him. Yet the more we love God, the less we fear punishment—true love saves us from being preoccupied with our own welfare, and makes us pay attention not to punishment but to the awesome love that we cannot afford to lose. The humble love that securely attaches us to God also causes us to have greater confidence of reward, and consequently less fear of punishment.
A second effect of Fear of the Lord, then, is the enhancement of Hope. Saint Thomas notes that Fear humbles the spirit so that it will not grow proud about present things. And it strengthens us with the bread of hope as we look forward to things yet to be. The Spirit’s Gift does not make us worry about whether God will save us, but makes us eager to avoid any disregard or sin or neglect on our part that would reject or diminish the effectiveness of that divine help. This way, Fear and Hope work together. Hope is confident that God will do great things for us, while Fear keeps us pure and humble, in the perfect state to receive the loving graces of God. In a sense, Hope even makes Fear more intense, since the more we confidently hope for from another (from God, in this case), the more eager we will be not to forfeit that gift by offending our benefactor or by separating ourselves from him.
Fear of the Lord also enables us to live the Beatitude, “How blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), in a more authentic way. For the Gift of Fear does not only liberate us from seeking the self-exaltation of pride;
it also saves us from craving the fame that can be gained through exterior goods, such as honors and wealth. Thus, through Fear we become eager for
- 12 God alone, and are set free from the pride and greed that would send us racing after treasures other than God himself.
Fear of the Lord also strengthens the virtue of temperance (that virtue that keeps us free and reasonable about things that are pleasurable to the body). Because the Gift of Fear of the Lord prompts us to look to God first of all while shunning everything that could offend or separate us from him, this Gift also readily restrains us from giving ourselves up to bodily delights. When we love God above all and are lead by the Holy Spirit to prize his love absolutely, then we are more easily going to avoid sins related to bodily desire and pleasure.
Saint Thomas tells us that, of all the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Fear of the Lord comes first in the order of need, last in the order of nobility. Fear of the Lord opens a door for doing good. It is the foundation or beginning for the activity of all the other Gifts. In this way, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10)—it is where wisdom has its roots, and where it first begins to come alive.
In heaven, when love is perfect, there will be no room for fear of punishment (1 John 4:18) and no possibility of offending God.
Nevertheless, we can still say that the holiest part of fear—reverence for God—will remain even in the glory of heaven. There, Fear will not involve any anxiety or concern about sinning, but will be perfect in complete peace, in the absolutely firm and final rejection of evil, and in the total tranquility in loving God above all and in all.
The Gift of Piety Can we ever show God the kind of honor and devotion that he deserves? Try as we might, we will never be able to do so on our own. If we are ever going to render to God the kind of homage that we owe him as his creatures and adopted children, then we will need the help of the Holy Spirit. The Gift of Piety is the particular Gift by which God the Holy Spirit himself enables us to come to God paying the kind of homage and worship that is appropriate and best. The fact that only God can lead us to praise and honor him in a fitting way is expressed by the Church in
- 13 one of the prayers of her liturgy: “Father, you have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Gift of Piety helps to realize the ultimate purpose of our existence: “God puts us in the world to know, to love, and to serve him, and so to come to paradise.” While Fear of the Lord helps us shun evils, Piety enables us to make a right and holy approach to God so as to deepen and advance our relationship with him through worship and good works.
To understand the Gift of Piety—that is, the special disposition of soul by which the Holy Spirit makes us more sensitive to his own guidance—we must know what piety is in general. Unfortunately, piety is often misrepresented and parodied by misconceptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. We tend to confuse true piety with a kind of pretended sweetness, with superficial exterior devotion, and with fake emotionalism in church. Authentic piety, however, is far from all these things. Real piety, in fact, is a virtue that governs our behavior at all times, and not only when we are engaged in prayer, worship, and other acts of religious devotion. The essence of true piety lies in showing appropriate honor, respect, and appreciation to those deserving of such esteem.
In speaking of piety (the general virtue, not the Gift), Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that it is concerned with fulfilling our duty and conscientious service towards those who are significant in our life. First and foremost among these stand those to whom we are related, our flesh and blood, and especially our parents. Piety also involves patriotism, our duty and devotion to our country. Saint Thomas says that piety denotes the reverence which we have for our father and our fatherland. But the virtue of piety naturally extends its regard to all those with whom we share a common allegiance or interests; thus, it is ordered to the common good of all.
With this in mind, we can see how the virtue of piety matches the Gospel call to justice: piety makes us acknowledge how indebted we are to others, either because of a superior role they play in our life (as in the case of parents, teachers, coaches, and others in authority) or because of specific
- 14 benefits they contribute (as with friends, benefactors, co-workers, and supporters of all sorts). As a matter of justice—giving each person what is his due—piety impels us to show gratitude and appreciation to anyone who is a source of life, maturity, human development and personal enrichment in our life. As a virtue, piety affords us the opportunity to give sanctified expression to the love we bear for and owe to family, nation, friends, colleagues, and associates.