This is the final issue in a four-part series on emotions. This issue discusses fear.
The word “fear” has such a negative connotation to us. We fear our kids getting hurt. We fear spiders. We fear failure. We fear a tragic and untimely death. In other words, we fear the things that we don’t like or want. And sometimes our fears stand in the way of our goals and make us miserable and anxious.
Of course, fear is nothing new. We find in the Bible many examples of people experiencing fear, and such fear is a natural response to difficulties, unfamiliar situations and real dangers.
In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, we hear that Joseph was afraid to go back to Judea where Herod’s son now ruled (2:22). Given Joseph’s task of protecting Jesus, this fear makes sense, as does Joseph’s choice to follow the guidance given him in a dream and make for Galilee rather than Judea.
In this case, we see how fear can guide us away from something dangerous. A response of fear may be crucial in helping us to make the right decision. While courage can help us face necessary difficulties, prudence in interpreting our fear may help keep us away from unnecessary dangers.
We see this, for example, when we fear the consequences of our actions. In fact, this often prevents sin! We may fear the breaking of a relationship if we choose to send an angry text. We may fear embarrassment if others witness us in our impatience or rudeness to our children. These fears can thus be seen positively. As with Joseph, the experience of such fear helps us to make a good decision.
Of course, fear can also have the opposite effect. We can fear others’ judgments if we stand up for what we believe is right. We may fear added stress if we start a new job. Sometimes these fears can be crippling, preventing us from what we need to do and making us miserable when we try to act despite our fears.
At such times, it may be helpful to recall the words of Psalm 111:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; prudent are all who practice it. His praise endures forever.” The fear of the Lord is the one fear that should put all others in perspective, allowing us the wisdom to discern whether fear is guiding us helpfully or restricting our flourishing.
Fear of God is fundamentally relational. We are sons and daughters of God; God is our Father whom we love. We may recall from our young childhoods that our parents seemed to know and be able to do so much that we couldn’t do: driving, cooking, comforting us, mowing the lawn, tying shoes, etc. There is a natural respect and a dependence that comes from the recognition of parental superiority.
The fear of God implies a similar childlike recognition; God is so far beyond us, with perfect knowledge and ability far superior to our own. We should feel profound respect from this realization. In God there is a grandeur that brings out our wonder and awe. Thus in Luke 1:12, the priest Zechariah feels great fear when the angel Gabriel appears to him. The greatness of God, seen in his messenger, is overwhelming.
Fear of God evokes in us a desire to be our best, despite our weaknesses. We have humility in our fear of God because we know we, like Zechariah, will never do anything to be as great as God. Yet we also have hope because we know that God is our beginning and our final end; God is our refuge and stronghold (see Ps 18:3). Like Zechariah, we recognize with gratitude that we are called into God’s plan. We are asked to do God’s will. Though we continue to experience fear as an emotion, we can face our fears with confidence.
(Morrow is the author of “A Busy Parent’s Guide to a Meaningful Lent” and “Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975.” She earned her doctorate in theology from the University of Dayton. She is the mother of seven children and resides with her family in New Jersey.)