“No one can love God consciously in his heart unless he has first feared him with all his heart.” St. Diadochos of Photiki, On Spiritual Knowledge, #16
I do not fear God with all my heart. Instead, I fear people.
This troubling realization came to me two weeks ago as I read Jesus’ words in Luke 22:34-36: “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.“ (NASB)
Jesus tells his followers to pray that they would have strength to stand before Him on the day of judgment. The convicting truth which set upon me after reading the passage was that I too often pray to have strength to stand before the judgment of other people. On the day I read this verse, my co-pastor and I were preparing to go before the commission which approves grant funding for our church. The annual season of working on our progress report and standing before the commission which oversees our work fills me with anxiety. I fear disappointing those who’ve supported our work because our church has grown less quickly (or in different ways) than expected. Irrationally, I fear the loss of support and funding for our work. And in those times of anxiety, my heart dwells in fear of people, rather than fear of the Lord who I believe and trust has called me to this work. To desire to do my work well is good and holy, but my response to this situation was driven by fear of other human beings, rather than fear of God.
Fear, Diadochos implies, is not a passive emotion. Fear is an action. And actions involve choices. Diadochos continues the chapter quoted above by saying, “Through the action of fear, the soul is purified and, as it were, made malleable and so it becomes awakened to the action of love. No one, however, can come to fear God completely in the way described, unless he first transcends all worldly cares.” To grow in the fear God requires the deliberate and active choice to pursue deeper reverence for the Holy One. And deeper growth in reverence for God requires detachment from the world. Hence Jesus’ words, “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap.” This active movement toward deeper fear of God begins with a deliberate choice to fear God alone. Once the choice has been made, it is manifested outwardly by the choices we make in relation to the things of this world and the cares which accompany them. We are not victims of our fear; we can freely choose who and what we fear. By choosing well, we are strengthened in the fight against temptation and led into freedom from the anxieties of this world.
Freedom to fear then becomes freedom to love. As Diadochos implies, this choice and new pattern of action sets in motion a process leading from fear of God to love of God. Or as Maximus Confessor puts it,