By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil (Proverbs 16:6).
What does one say to those who insist we must act only out of the love of God and never from fear?
I wish to think through the role of fear in the life of a Christian, using Scripture and St. Thomas Aquinas as a guide.
We must agree only in some respect with their proposal. It is, after all, love which is the fulfilment of the law, and we have indeed been freed from condemnation in Christ. Most importantly, it is ultimately love which motivates a person to truly obey God.
Nevertheless, there are distinct forms of fear, not all of which are incompatible with the love of God.
There is a fear which trembles before the loss of worldly goods, and such is always unlawful.
But there is a fear of punishment (servile fear), and this fear is good, though not perfect. Thomas Aquinas notes that servile fear, the fear of punishment, is not in itself opposed to the love of God, even if its focus is more directly the evil of punishment.
Finally, there is a filial fear which fears to be separated from God, to be found wanting in what is due to the One loved above all else. This fear is the fear of sonship or adoption. In fact, we only have such fear because we love someone!
The Scriptures in fact teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, that it is by fear that one turns from evil, and, further, that we are not to fear him who can destroy our bodies, but we are indeed to fear One who can cast body and soul into Hell (Prv. 9:10, 16:6; Mtt. 10:28).
The way in which Thomas understands these passages is that Scripture (and Christ) recommend servile fear to us that we might begin to act according to the Word which we love. Fear is the moving or efficient cause of wisdom, not because our highest wisdom is to fear God, but because this fear moves us to first put into practice what wisdom recommends.
Therefore, even servile fear is a gift of God because it enables us to take hold of the grace we have received, to put into practice what we have taught, that in tasting of the goodness of God and his precepts, we might love him the more and follow him more closely. If one reflects on numerous parables (the wise who build their house on the rock, those who use their talents, those who forgive their debtors), we can apprehend this dynamic at work–it is the reason Christ tells us these stories with such stern warnings.
Let us not be Gnostics who believe that the whole of salvation is in the mind. “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28).
As said in the previous post, let us not refuse this motive of godly fear when we already do not refuse the motives of the world, when we are so ready to be moved by the approval and threats of this life, but not by God’s warnings! Let us not commit spiritual fornication but learn to be faithful to our bridegroom (James 4:4; Confessions XIII.21).