"Happy are those who fear the Lord."
I was attending a wedding last Saturday afternoon when the above responsorial psalm took me aback. It's not an altogether nice combination of words; I mean, when was the last time you saw both "happy" and "fear" in the same sentence?
I don't have a good relationship with organized religion. I think it's because I keep asking questions that never receive any solid answers. Almost every religious discussion in which I've been involved has turned out unsatisfying for all parties: I end up unsatisfied because I don't get any responses that justify the common aspects of modern faith, and my fellow conversationalists end up unsatisfied because they can't seem to supplement my understanding. Or, failing that, they usually seem to get angry at me, which I find to be a very un-Christian way of dealing with things.
With that background out of the way, you can probably see why I felt that the above phrase was more than a little disconcerting. Doesn't the emotion of fear imply feelings of apprehension, dread, and anxiousness? If so, how is it possible for a man to be happy at a point where he still fears an certain entity? And if we proceed along this line of thought, is it therefore appropriate that Christians feel terror at the presence of God?
Yes, this most definitely does not sound right.
I'm aware of a lot of literal definitions of the "fear" of God, and none of the connotations are good. Conversion by the sword, for example, was common in the Middle Ages: You either converted to the Christian faith, or you were killed. The Spanish Inquisition instilled a fear of torture in the free-thinking masses, under the guise of rooting out the heretic and the seditious. Even now, there are more than a few modern Christians who threaten that you will go to hell if you go against the local religious or moral practices. There are all too many incidences where "the fear of God" often translates into "the fear of pain", or "the fear of rebuke".
This feels wrong somehow. I don't want to be afraid of God, after all; It implies that he's looking to harm me in some way.
Let me consider, then: I am aware of God. I am aware of God's presence. I believe in his kindness and benevolence, and I believe that he sent his son to die for our sins (unconditionally the heaviest of all sacrifices). I believe that God is just and forgiving, that he sees what lies in each and every one of our hearts, and that on a great and final day, he will return for the last of the people worthy enough to enter his kingdom of heaven. I believe that the Bible houses the word of God, and that its writings were created by the divine source through human authors. And as a Roman Catholic: I stand by the institution of the church, I hold faith in the sacraments, and I trust in the infallibility of the Pope.
If anything, I hold respect for God. I'm refuse to be afraid of him as the pagan communities once were before sword-wielding crusaders, as philosophers and theologians were before the knives of Torquemada, or as little children before a well-meaning but misunderstanding parent. That would imply that I believe in God out of a mere desire to save my own skin. I don't.
So why, then, do we have such a concept as "God-fearing"?
Webster defines fear as "an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger", and I'm not surprised there. I mean, it conveniently covers what we've discussed so far.
Interestingly enough, however, Webster also defines fear as "profound reverence and awe especially toward God", a definition that is echoed in a number of Catholic dictionaries as well. So there is a way to interpret the "God-fearing" concept without bringing to mind images of terror and subjugation, it seems.
The second definition also makes sense: God may not necessarily inspire feelings of terror in us, but I figure that God most definitely inspires feelings of reverence in his corresponding believers. We don't fear God in the sense that he frightens the heck out of us; We fear God in the sense that he is an omnipotent, omniscient entity. In this way, I think, the act of fearing God implies an acknowledgement of his incredible self, which is a far cry from seeing him as a spiritual bully.
The whole discussion, however, still makes me wonder why so many people continue to utilize God as a threat. Preachers still throw fire and brimstone from their pulpits. Fundamentalists attack other religions in the name of faith. We even get snatches of it in the common vernacular: "Go to Hell!" and "May God strike me down!" are two of the more familiar phrases.
Does the prospect of going to hell scare us? Perhaps. It doesn't take a genius to see what's scary about the possibility of drowning in a lake of fire for the rest of eternity. (And that's only one of the many different interpretations of hell, to boot.)
But does the threat of going to hell justify placing one's faith in God? I kind of doubt that. If the man-on-the-street tells me that God is going to send me to hell because I don't go to church on Sundays, then I'll be more likely to strike back at him than listen. Actions like that hurt faith in a lot of ways.
Happy are those who fear the Lord? I don't think so. Any man who is instilled with the terror of God gives me the impression of a cornered animal, ready to lash out at anybody and everybody.
I think that the responsorial was supposed to be "Happy are those who fear in the Lord", which drives home the point of reverence and awe that the phrase is supposed to express. Any believer who holds the fact that God is all-encompassing, that God is at his side for every hour of every day, is obviously happy. We bask in the glory of God; we don't cower at his iron-fisted might.
What a difference a word makes, eh?