The Epiphany of Joy, Chapter 5: Joy in Fearing the Lord [2 of 3]
As I mentioned in Chapter 3, the first Proverb Hannah memorized as part of her first grade My Father’s World curriculum was Proverbs 9:10, “If you really want to become wise, you must begin by having respect for the Lord. To know the Holy One is to gain understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10 NIrV). The NIV translation is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10 NIV). And Psalm 111:10 echoes this proverb: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” (Psalm 111:10 NIV). When we recognize our limitations, when we dismiss our flippancy and our pride, when we quit trying to use God as a genie to obtain our selfish desires and accomplish our self-centered goals, when we take God out of our little box and place Him back on His throne, recognizing His vastness, His infiniteness, His omnipotence, and His absolute sovereignty, that is fear of the Lord. And after this foundation of proper perspective has been established, only then can wisdom begin to grow in our hearts, and with wisdom, joy.
Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica: “If a man turn to God and adhere to Him, through fear of punishment, it will be servile fear; but if it be on account of fear of committing a fault, it will be filial fear, for it becomes a child to fear offending its father.” (The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Chapter 19: The Gift of Fear, Article 2, as quoted from http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3019.htm). To put it another way, servile fear is the fear a slave has for his master, i.e., fear of punishment. Filial fear is the fear a son has for his father, a deep respect and reverence, but also a fear of offending his father because of his deep love for him.
I have to admit I spent a large part of my life as a slave to ignorance, living in servile fear of God’s punishment, and one of my deepest fears was dying in a state of sin and going to hell for even the smallest infraction. Every time I missed the mark, no matter how big or small, I logged the trespass in the massive filing system I’d built in my head until I purged it in a confessional weeks, months, or sometimes years later. Then the mental filing would begin again as I left the confessional, knelt down, said my prayers of penance, then remembered the one sin I’d forgotten to confess and wondered if I’d just bought myself another one-way trip to hell because of my sin of omission. This continuous monitoring of my current state of sinfulness diminished my energy and focus, impacted my health, and severely limited my experience of joy. In fact, this obsessiveness had a tendency to morph into depression, which dragged me further into the pit of ineffectiveness for the Kingdom. Just what the devil wanted.
The thought of eternally treading water with the other banished souls in the lake of fire held me captive, compliant, and subservient to fear, and the vision of hellfire and damnation I learned and reluctantly accepted over the first four decades of my life motivated my actions way more than the truth of God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance. Somewhere along the way I never quite comprehended the true purpose for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, until the toxicity of the build-up-and-dump pattern I’d learned finally drove me into the arms of a Savior Who’d already forgiven all my sins, past, present, and future.
Somehow, in all the years of faithful churchgoing and religious education, I missed the point in the story about how God put on a flesh suit and emptied Himself out to show us the Father’s love and take away our sins “once for all when he offered himself” as the final sin offering on the cross 2,000 years ago (Hebrews 7:27 NASB). Needless to say, the very real, very powerful, and very destructive mentality of having to work myself to exhaustion to remain in a state of grace and stay out of hell overshadowed my capacity to experience and express gladness. I didn’t think about much else, and consequently I was not free to enjoy the life God gifted me with. Not even close.
Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge the reconciliatory truth of repentance, and the healing power of confession, both spoken and unspoken, but it wasn’t until I began to experience the freeing power of God’s word and the real Truth of Jesus’ sacrifice and the freedom it brings that my servile fear began to yield to filial fear, maybe for the first time ever, and joy again began to bloom in my life. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus promised. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV).
Copyright ©2013 by David C. Hughes