F is for Fear
The schoolyard bully puts up her fists and taunts a quiet girl untrained in violence, saying, “What, are you afraid?!” The accusation touches a nerve, because not even the gentle wish to be seen as fragile. The smaller girl may indeed be afraid, and this may not be a bad thing, because it may lead her to make a wise decision and use her legs instead of her fists. I know a woman who, as a young girl, complained to her parents that her cousin kept hitting her. Her father told her to hit him back next time, so she did – and got pummeled even harder.
The girl is older now, a Christian on the cusp of adulthood. She is not afraid of bullies anymore, or of what people might think of her. She has learned to reserve her fear for a worthier subject. She has learned that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” She also trusts that God is love – so her fear is not a matter of despair or fright, but a matter of awe, reverence, and humility in the presence of the holy. It does not make her cower, but it does inspire her to kneel. And it gives shape to her highest aim: not to protect herself, but to practice the love of God and the love of neighbor, whose life God has made sacred. Her fear has become a virtue.
Throughout the pandemic, I have heard about Christians who taunt their own sisters and brothers for being afraid of the virus. This is problematic, not only because of the judgmental (and reckless) nature of such an attitude, but because it misses the point of why a person of faith may feel called to practice extreme caution in their daily lives and socializing. The girl who wouldn’t raise her fists, then or now, may be led today to keep her distance, not because she is afraid of being harmed herself, but out of reverence for God, who blesses all human flesh.
So let us be kind to one another, neither taunting those who are cautious nor shaming those who are less so, but leaving ample room for the fear of the Lord – and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
The painting is “Saint Peter Penitent” by Gerard van Honthorst (1592–1656) (photo: Public Domain)