Anxiety and Fear
Fr. Thomas Hopko · September 4, 2010
Everyone at one time or another has been fearful. But how do we deal with unhealthy anxiety and fear? Fr. Tom looks at this problem in light of Holy Scripture.
In the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel, which is in fact the Christian Torah or Christian Instruction—it’s very interesting that St. Matthew’s Gospel is literally the Christian Torah—Jesus is the New Moses. In the infancy narrative, he goes to Egypt. They bring him out of Egypt. They try to kill the children to kill him, and so on. It patterns the Moses story. Certainly the Sermon on the Mountain, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, seems very much, very consciously patterned after Moses going to the mountain and receiving the law of God and delivering it to his people. Of course, the New Testament is very clear, particularly the Letter to the Hebrews, that Jesus is the Son of God and Moses is the Servant of God.
In St. John’s Gospel, of course, the people accused Jesus—we have Moses; we don’t need you; we don’t know who this fellow is; we have Moses as our teacher. Well, Jesus says very clearly, “Yes, Moses wrote about me. Moses spoke about me.” But Moses also spoke face-to-face with God in the tabernacle, in the desert, and on the mountaintop. Whereas, in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks with God from before the foundation of the world. Everything he says, he hears from God, from all eternity. He is incarnate on earth as the Word of God in order to proclaim what he has and has heard and received from the Father from before the foundation of the world.
But getting back to Matthew’s Gospel, we have the Evangelist putting together Matthew 5, 6, and 7—what we call the Sermon on the Mount. This is the first of five sets of teachings in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Some scholars even think that Matthew is five sets of teachings, because the Law of Moses is five books. The Pentateuch is called the Five Scrolls, the Five Writings, the Five Books. So Matthew is a kind of a pentateuch: it’s made up of five sets of instructions. For example, when Jesus finishes the Sermon on the Mount, it says, “When Jesus finished these teachings”—these sayings, these words—“the crowds were astonished at his teaching”—his Torah—“for he taught them as one who had authority and not as their scribes.” So, the Sermon on the Mount is the first set of instructions.
But then if you would read through Matthew, you would see how there are four more sets of instructions. Each time they end, for example, the first verse in chapter 11, with “And when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.” So that’s the end of the second set of instructions. The first is on the mountain’s top, and that’s why, in Matthew, this teaching is given on the mountain. Some scholars say that the reason the similar teachings in Luke’s Gospel are given on the plain or level place is because Luke is a kind of a gospel for the Nations, a gospel for the Gentiles; whereas Matthew, written probably even originally in Aramaic, was for the Jews. So you have these five sets of teachings in Matthew as a kind of Christian Torah or Christian Pentateuch.
But what we want to see today and reflect on is one part of the Sermon on the Mountain which begins with the Beatitudes. It’s where you have the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer delivered, which is also in Luke 11 but in a different setting. Liturgically, in the Ancient Christian Church and in the Orthodox Church to this day and in most churches, when the Beatitudes or Lord’s Prayer are used liturgically or are said at baptism or remembered, it’s from Matthew and within the Sermon on the Mountain.
Then you have, of course, in the Sermon on the Mount, the completion of the Mosaic teaching: “It is said of old, but I say to you,” and then Jesus interprets the Law of Moses for Christians. The ultimate, final interpretation of the Law is given by Jesus. In St. Matthew, it is kind of compiled together in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, “You shall do no murder, but I tell you if you hate you’re a murderer. You shall not commit adultery, but I tell you if you lust after someone you’re an adulterer,” etc.
But what we want to see today is this section in the sixth chapter of Matthew, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mountain, where you have this teaching about anxiety, about not being anxious. It’s a commandment. Here it’s important to realize, right from the beginning, that when we think about anxiety, we have to know that we are commanded as Christians not to be anxious. It is an imperative. It’s a command. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a commandment. This is how we find it in the Sermon on the Mount, in the sixth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus, in that particular section of the teaching, tells the people that they shouldn’t lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust can consume and people can break in and steal. They should have treasures in heaven where no moth or rust can consume or someone can steal. Then he says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also.” His point is that our treasure should be in God and in the coming Kingdom of God, not here in this corrupted world [from] which, as St. Paul said, “form is passing away.”
Then Jesus again says, and this is a common teaching, you can’t be what St. James will call in his epistle dipsychos. You can’t be double-minded, double-souled. You can’t have two forms of life. You have to be single-minded. He says that no one can serve two masters. He will love one and hate the other. He will be devoted to one and despise the other. And then, you cannot serve God and mammona—you cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon is a kind of catch-word for carnal life in the fallen world. The carnal life in the corrupted world is mammon (mammona); it probably was a name for a pagan god, the god of carnality, the god who provides the fulfillment of greed and lust. That’s mammona. You can’t be double-minded. You can’t have one [and] you can’t have the other [too]. As he says, further up in the beginning of this chapter, the “eye” of the person has to be single. It’s interesting. It has to be one. You can’t have your eyes in many places. You have to focus on one thing.
In fact, there’s a famous Christian philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard who actually wrote a book called Purity of Heart. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Kierkegaard says “purity of heart” is to will one thing, to be single-minded, single-eyed, and not to be looking all over, not to be double-minded, but to will one thing. The eye has to be single and, when that eye is single, as Jesus says in the sermon, then the whole body is filled with light. But when that eye is not single, then the body is filled with darkness. Then he has that strange expression, “If the light that is in you be darkness, how great is your darkness.” So, we don’t want to be filled with darkness; we want to be filled with light. That means to have a single eye, a single will, a single mind, and have it focused on God and the Kingdom of God, and let that be our treasure.
Since this is the case, then he begins to speak about not being anxious. Here, from the twenty-fifth verse until the end of that chapter, the verb about being anxious is used six times. Six times you have Jesus mentioning “not being anxious.” Let’s just read it and hear what it says. Jesus says:
Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink or about your body, what you shall put on it. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? (A variant reading is: cannot add one cubit to his stature, to our height. We can’t make ourselves a half an inch higher. We are as tall as we are, and we’re going to live as long as we’re going to live, and there’s nothing we can do about it.)
And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, and yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O, you of little faith. Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or what shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
Let’s take a little closer look at this. First of all, we see these imperatives. We see “me merimnate, me merimnisate”—those are imperatives. They are commandments—“do not be anxious, be not anxious.” Now, this word, “merimna,” means “anxiety” or “being troubled about things” or “being worried about things.” Sometimes this is even translated as “do not be worried.”
I was in church once at a Liturgy where this text was read. The text that was read said, “Do not worry about your life, about things, or about tomorrow.” Well, “worry” might be a good word. It’s certainly better than the translation that you find in the King James Version, which says “take no thought about your life” or “take no thought about tomorrow” or “have no care” or “be not caring about it.” I think that’s not a good translation, personally, because we should be careful. You’ve got to be careful. We’re going to have cares. We’ve got to care about what we eat. We’ve got to care about what we drink. And we certainly have to take thought about it. What kind of a family life would we have if the parents didn’t think about food, drink, and clothing? You’ve got to think about it. It’s not a case about not caring or not thinking about it, but the commandment is not to be anxious about it.
Now, what is anxiety? I think a definition of anxiety is where you are constantly worried and troubled and thinking and so on about what might be: maybe we won’t have it; maybe there will be no food; maybe the clothes will be gone; maybe I’ll lose my job; maybe the economy will crash; maybe the world will end; maybe the terrorists will attack. It’s all put into an imaginary, I would even say, fantasy world. Anxiety, in some sense, plunges us immediately into a fantasy.
People who study anxiety distinguish radically between anxiety and fear, and we’ll talk about fear today also. When you are afraid—and we’ll get to fear—there’s a very clear object: somebody is chasing you with a knife and wants to kill you, or an earthquake is going on. There’s plenty of reason to be afraid of things. Fear generally has an object—it’s pretty clear what you’re afraid of or afraid about—but anxiety doesn’t. Anxiety is kind of a vague, general feeling without some kind of an object. It’s almost like a state of mind, a state of soul, where you are just worried and troubled and anxious. But there’s not anything there concretely that you are really anxious about, except a general feeling that something might go bad.
So, in this particular commandment about anxieties; anxieties are real. People can have anxieties about what they’re going to eat or drink and so on, but very often they’re not connected with the fact that they just don’t have any food or don’t have any clothing. It’s that they’re worried that they might not have any.
So, you have this teaching about not being anxious. Here it is connected with faith in God—the whole point is the faith in God. If you seek the kingdom of God, if you live for God, then you have to believe that God will give you what you need. If he doesn’t, and if calamity strikes, then that’s the will of God, too. Anxiety is not going to change anything.
There is a Russian saying that God is everywhere except in fantasy. The minute you being fantasizing about what might be or what might not be or what could be, or what could not be, or what may happen or not happen—when, in fact, it’s not really happening yet and you have no reason, so to speak, to be fearful or really concerned or worried—then that’s anxiety. That is considered to be like a mental illness, and, of course, it can be connected with brain chemistry and all this stuff we know now—anxiety, depression, despondency, anger, and all those things. We’re embodied spirits, we have bodies, we have brains, and we have things that are rooted in the brain. But when we are transcendent to our own feelings and hear the Gospel, we can hear a commandment of our Lord saying to us, “Me merimnate; me merimnisate—do not be anxious; I am with you; I am taking care of you; don’t plunge yourself into that world where you’re just tied up in knots and entangled, etc. It’s not going to get you anywhere.”
Now, of course, you could ask the question, “Well, why does God give this commandment?” Because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway, basically. That’s why it’s foolish to be anxious. First of all, if anxiety has no particular object—that is, if I don’t really know concretely what I’m anxious about: I can say that I’m anxious about whether I will have food tomorrow, but, in fact, I have food in my cupboard right now; or I might say I’m anxious about what might happen next year, but I don’t even know what it is—then the reason for the command is that there is no reality to this. You’re putting yourself into a state for no good reason.
The other obvious, clear reason for the commandment “not to be anxious” is because God is going to be there and he will take care of it. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway. The things that we’re anxious about—there’s very little that we can do about them, if anything at all. If calamity is going to strike, it’s going to strike. I can be anxious—maybe I’ll get sick, maybe I’ll get cancer six months from now. Well, it’s not there yet, so there’s one reason not to be anxious about it.
Secondly, if it’s going to come, it’s going to come. It is what it is. Thirdly, God’s hand is in it all, and we trust him that he will take care of us. Here, you have the teachings in the Gospel and the writings of St. Paul and the writing of St. Peter exactly about those things. I should mention also that these very same teachings that you find in the Sermon on the Mountain and in Matthew you will find in St. Luke.
I would suggest to a person, if he is struck with anxieties and fears, one of the best chapters in the New Testament we could read is the twelfth chapter of St. Luke. It says that so many thousands of the multitudes gathered together, they trod upon one another, and Jesus began to teach his disciples first, and then he teaches the whole crowd not to be afraid or anxious. Here, in Luke, I think it’s worthwhile for us as we are thinking about anxiety to read the part in the twelfth chapter where he actually speaks about anxiety according to Luke’s Gospel. This is what it says:
He said to his disciples, “Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life—what you shall eat, nor about your body—what you shall put on, for life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap. They have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. O, how much more value are you than the birds. Which of you, by being anxious, can add a cubit to his span of life (or “stature” as a variant reading)? If you are not able to do such a small thing as that, why are you anxious about everything else? Why are you anxious about the rest?
Consider the lilies, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin. Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith? Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink. Do not be of anxious mind, for all the nations of the world seek these things. Your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”
It’s a plea for faith. It’s a plea for trust. It’s a plea to be seen and not get all bent out of shape over stuff that you can’t do anything about anyway and is not even here yet. That is the teaching against anxiety.
It’s interesting, in the Epistles, you have the Apostle Paul and even the epistles attributed to St. Peter saying exactly the same things. I always remember that you have this teaching on Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church. On this particular day, the epistle reading for the Festival of the Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem is the Philippians letter. This letter very specifically says, “Have no anxiety about anything.”
Someone once asked me, by the way—he was a Protestant guy, a Southern Baptist; now he is a Buddhist, by the way, this same fellow. He was an Episcopalian priest and then he left Christianity. When I met him, he was interested in Orthodoxy at the time and even spent some time at St. Vladimir’s Seminary—and he asked me, “Fr. Tom, what’s your favorite Bible verse?” Orthodox are not used to hearing that question. I remember answering him—I was draining spaghetti to feed this guy who showed up at our house:
I think my favorite epistle is the one for Palm Sunday, the one where it says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, meta eucharistia, with eucharist, let your request be made known to God and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And my favorite part is next: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, you do it, and the God of peace will be with you.”
It’s interesting that the antonym of an anxious spirit is a peaceful spirit. The opposite of anxiety is peace. That’s why in the Middle East and the biblical time the greeting was “peace be to you” and “peace be to this house.” Don’t be anxious. God is here. Be at peace. St. Seraphim of Sarov said that the whole point of the Christian life is to acquire the spirit of peace, and if you have the spirit of peace then thousands around you will be healed and saved.
The opposite of the spirit of peace is an upset, anxious, annoyed, irritated, and fearful spirit, tied up in knots. Well, here he says very clearly, and it is a commandment again: “Have no anxiety about anything.” Do not be anxious about anything. “Meden merimnate” it says in Greek—“for nothing be anxious.” Now, in the letter of Peter in the New Testament, you have exactly this very same teaching. You have the very same teaching in the First Letter of Peter where the Apostle writes this:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful—your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of affliction, suffering, is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. But after you have suffered for a while, the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal life in Christ Jesus will restore, establish and strengthen you. To him be dominion, forever and ever. Amen.
So what’s the commandment here? The commandment here is very, very clear: “Humble yourself and cast all your merimna, all your anxieties on him, because he cares about you.” So we have this commandment not to be anxious.
But what about fear? Fear is different from anxiety. And here I would say that the scriptural teaching, if you summed it up in one sentence, would be this: fear God, and then you will never fear anything or anyone else. St. Basil the Great said this, actually, in his ascetical teachings. When a person has the fear of God, then that person doesn’t fear anything or anyone or any eventuality, including death itself. There’s nothing to fear. And, of course, St. Basil would have referred to Jesus who said, “They will cast you out of the synagogues, they will beat you, they will kill you. But don’t be afraid. Not a hair of your head will perish.” So it’s funny, Christ says, “They’ll kill you” and then he says not to be afraid, because, if they kill you, they can’t kill you, because you’re not going to perish, because I’m taking care of you, and I’m going to raise you from the dead, and you have everlasting life.
The double teaching about fear is that you have to fear God. If you just took a Biblical concordance and looked up the term “fear,” you would see how much there is about fear—especially in the Old Testament—in the Psalms, for example. In Proverbs, the beginning of all wisdom and of all spiritual life is the fear of God. In fact, in the Old Testament God is even called “our fear”—the fear of Israel, the fear of Jacob, God is our fear. Sometimes people like to minimize the fear part of it by translating it, “awe,” to “hold God in awe” or to “see the awesomeness of God.”
Well, that’s true. God is awesome, and God is even “awe full”—“full of awe” as in the old English language. But I think that we shouldn’t hedge on this. We should really keep the term “fear” there. And I believe that’s even true in Orthodox Liturgy. We use that expression in the Liturgy a lot: “Let us stand aright; let us stand with fear.” Or when we have Holy Communion, we say, “Let us draw near in faith, in the fear of God, with faith and love,” and, “In the fear of God, draw near.” We pray for those who enter into the household of God with “fear”; for those who enter into this holy household but with “fear of God.”
So fear of God is foundational. You can’t read Holy Scriptures—what we Christians call Old Testament, Hebrew scriptures—without having fear all over the place. However, it is also the clear, scriptural teaching not to be afraid. If you fear God, then God tells you “don’t be afraid”—”Me phobou, me phobiste, me phobitheite.” It’s almost parallel to “don’t be anxious”—”Me merimnate, me phobitheite.” Don’t be anxious and don’t be afraid.
Now, it’s interesting and some people have said that the most frequently repeated command in Holy Scripture is “not to be afraid”—“fear not”: “fear not, Mary,” “fear not, Moses.” How many times the Lord God, the Lord, or an Angel of the Lord is saying to some creature in Scripture, “Don’t be afraid”? That’s very, very important if the main command of a faithful person is “not to be afraid.” That’s really important. Fear not.
The same St. Basil, by the way, said that when you have the fear of God you don’t fear anyone or anything else at all, even death itself. St. Gregory the Theologian, when he gave the funeral homily for St. Basil, who was his best friend, said about St. Basil that he walked the earth as if he owned it. He was afraid of nothing. There’s the famous story about the persecutor, the Arian government official, who threatened Basil with death, pulled out his sword and said, “I can kill you.” Basil said, “Well, if I was afraid of death, I wouldn’t be preaching the crucified Christ. And anyway, my liver is aching, so maybe it’s time for you to take it out.” He kind of joked with the guy. Then the guy bashed him one and said, “No one ever spoke to the Emperor’s delegate in this manner!” And Basil gave that very famous answer, “Perhaps the Imperial Guard has never met a Christian bishop.”
That’s how he answered. I love that answer. I wish our bishops could say that nowadays—they were fearless, courageous, but humble and gentle. In fact, in that same homily, St. Gregory the Theologian said about St. Basil, “Although his name suited him—”Basilios, Basileus” means “king”—he was royal, he was fearless, he was courageous, yet, he was more gentle and meek and kind and merciful and tender than any woman you would ever meet.” He had all those wonderful qualities of humanity that we stereotypically put: courage to men and tenderness to women. That’s not right. Women are to be courageous and fearless, and men are to be gentle and tender. That’s the Christian view.
But, in any case, fear of God—I won’t even begin to try and read texts to you—they’re just everywhere and in every possible contexts: “the friendship of the Lord is to those who fear him,” “his mercy is on those who fear him,” “God is protecting those who fear him,” “those who fear him have no want,” “those who fear him have no fear.” This is the paradox, and just read it for yourself. I would even suggest to you, when you’re reading the Psalms—you should be reading the Psalms every day, by the way, a little bit every day; read the Psalms—pay attention to how many times that word fear appears—the fear of God as a noun, and not to fear, and not to be afraid as a verb. It’s there all over the place.
But what we want to see now is what St. Basil was telling us. We want to reflect on that a little more deeply, because fear of God is absolutely essential. But God says, “If you fear me, don’t be afraid.” In fact, God would even say, “Don’t be afraid of me. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to harm you. Yes, I’m the Holy of Holies, Awesome God and Consuming Fire, but I’m not going to hurt you. If you oppose me, you’ll get hurt. If you fight against me, you’ll get hurt. If you don’t fear me, you’re going to be destroyed. But if you fear me, then you have nothing to fear—your soul will live.”
And by the way, in the Matthew and Luke version of not being anxious, it’s interesting where it says “do not be anxious about your life.” The word “life” there is “psyche” which is “soul.” You could translate it “do not be anxious about your soul.” Some people say, “Oh, we should care about our soul and be anxious about our soul.” But we shouldn’t be anxious about our soul. God will take care of our soul. God will save our souls. “Life” and “soul” are synonyms in the Bible. In fact, in the Old Testament—nefesh—there is only one word. It’s in Greek that we have two different words. But don’t be anxious about your soul. Isn’t life more than your soul? Isn’t it more than your body?
This anxiety before God is really commanded to be opposed—“do not be anxious.” But also God says, “Do not be afraid. I’m with you. Do not be afraid. If you fear me, then you don’t need to be afraid of me. You should be afraid of me if you don’t fear me. Then, don’t fear anything else.” Interestingly enough, you’ve got to fear God first for him to say to you, “Don’t fear. Don’t be afraid.” It would be completely senseless for God to say to a person, “Don’t be afraid,” if the person wasn’t afraid. Of course the Lord says, “Do not be anxious,” to people who are anxious, but he also says, “Do not be afraid,” to people who are afraid. So there is a kind of a fear.
Unlike anxiety, it seems to me—and I think some of the modern psychological writings make this point, and I think that they’re right—that, unlike anxiety, fear has real things to be afraid of. I mentioned that already. Fears are about real objects. If someone is chasing you with a knife, you’d better be afraid. If a tornado is coming, you’d better be afraid. If the enemy’s army is marching down the road toward your front door, you’d better be afraid. If someone’s dropping bombs on you, you’d better be afraid. That’s not anxiety, man. That’s something evil and destructive that’s actually happening. If somebody wants to kill you, you’d better be afraid.
But then, that legitimate fear is overcome by the Word of God that says, “Don’t be afraid.” So, we have to be afraid first. It’s normal to be afraid. It is not normal to be anxious. Anxiety is a sickness, but fear could be very healthy. A good, healthy fear is necessary.
What the teaching would be is “fear God and then you won’t fear anything else.” It’s interesting that, in that twelfth chapter of Luke where you have all the teachings about anxiety that parallel the Matthew 6—and here I would suggest that you read Matthew 6 and Luke 12: do a little exercise, do a little work, and learn something—before the Lord launches into his teachings about anxiety, he speaks about fear very, very directly. This is what he says in Luke, the fourth verse of Luke 12:
I tell you, my friends, (In the Old Testament, it is written “the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,” in the Psalms. You cannot have God as your friend, and you cannot be a friend of God, unless you fear him.) do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear. Fear him who, after he has killed, has the power to cast into Gehenna (hell). Yes, I tell you, fear him (and of course Jesus means God Almighty, his Father himself). Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid. Fear not. You are of more value than many sparrows.
He says, “Do not be afraid,” and in the other passages he says, “Do not be afraid even if they kill you.” If they kill you, they can’t kill you. So you have here a commandment against fear. Then, after speaking about anxiety and not being anxious, the Lord Jesus, in Luke, returns to fear again. In the 32nd verse, he says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, give alms, provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old with the treasure in heaven that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys; for where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also.”
So, hear it again: “Fear not, little flock. It is your Father’s good will, his eudokia, to give you the kingdom.” By the way, it’s interesting that the doxology of the angels when Christ was born says, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace; God’s eudokia among men.” So the peace and the good will among men is because God is with us, and therefore we have nothing to fear, so we can be at peace.
Sometimes people like to say, and I’ve heard this said, “No, no, no. Once you’re Christian, you should stop fearing God. You don’t need to fear God if you’re a Christian. You just love God. If you love God, you shouldn’t fear God.” And sometimes they will quote the First Letter of John where you have that very famous passage where it says, “And this is love perfected with us that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world”—meaning God and Christ—“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he loved us first.” These are the words: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment.”
Now, reflecting on that sentence, I think that we have got to be careful. Because it is certainly true that if we’re just shaking and trembling before God, and we’re supposed to work out our salvation in fear and trembling according to St. Paul in the Letter to the Philippians, fear and trembling before the holiness of God. I mean, that’s throughout the Bible also: the awesome mysteries, the fearful mysteries. But once we realize that that fiery God is a God of love, then we no longer are thinking that he is going to punish us. We believe that he is going to be merciful. We believe that he is going to be gracious. But even that causes a certain fear within us.
There’s a Western saint—St. Teresa of Ávila—who said, “When I think of the judgments of God, I shake with fear. But when I think of the love and mercy and the kindness and the compassion of God, then I really shake with fear, because I know that I am judged by his mercy and by his love, and that love is awesome.”
I think that experience can be proved in just human relations. When we really hold a person in awe and love them, and when we love a person that we really respect, we are very afraid of offending that person. We are very afraid of being unworthy of that person’s love. If a man loves a woman or a woman loves a man, and it is real love, there will be a sense of godly fear between them. Neither one will want to offend the other. Neither one will want to disappoint the other. Neither one will want to betray the other. Neither one will want to defile their relationship and their communion of love.
So there is a kind of fearfulness built into love, but it is not a fearfulness that has to do with punishment. And here, I think, is what John is saying in this letter. If you’re still worried about punishment, don’t [be]! God loves you. He loved you first, so love him in return. That love will cast out that kind of fear. So there is a sense in which perfect love does cast out fear: the fear of punishment.
But it doesn’t cast out the godly fear which is the beginning of the wisdom and the fear that you have to have in the presence of God at all times. The more you love him, in that sense, you will fear him. The more we love God in the sense of punishment, we will not fear. The more that we love God in the sense of love and mercy and communion, there’s a sense in which the more we will fear in the proper way. But even then God will say to us, “Fear not, don’t be afraid, come to me, I am gentle, kind and meek. Yes, I’m the terrible, awesome, holy, consuming fire God, but you don’t need to be afraid of me.”
I think probably in Church tradition, at least to my mind, what I have read and remembered, this is probably put the best way by St. Anthony the Great. I love the 38 sayings of St. Anthony the Great. I go around telling people that if you want 38 short sayings in just four or five pages of text in a normal-sized book that will reveal and give you everything you need to know to live as a Christian and to interpret the Bible properly, I would say take those sayings of Anthony. They are in the alphabetical list of sayings of the Desert Fathers. They’re published and available in English. Find them. Read them.
I want to read what St. Anthony says here about this topic. Saying number 32 of Anthony in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is this: Abba Anthony said, “I no longer fear God, but I love him; for perfect love casts out fear.” [cf. I John 4:18.]
Now, I believe that what Anthony is saying there is, “I used to be afraid of punishment. I used to be afraid of being cast into hell. I used to be afraid that God would just destroy me in my sins. Well, now I know his mercy and his love and I know the Gospel, so I no longer have that servile fear. I have love for God, because he loved me first and he commands me to love him with all my mind, soul, heart and strength. And when he loves me and I love him, there is no fear of punishment; for perfect love casts out fear, and that is perfect love.”
So you could say, “Aha, see you don’t fear anymore—you just love.” But then there’s saying 33 of Anthony: “Always have the fear of God before your eyes.” Well, he just got through saying, “I no longer fear God.” One sentence later he says, “Always have the fear of God before your eyes.”
So the point is that there are two different meanings of fear here: fear of punishment and servile fear, we’re commanded by God not to have. But to have the godly fear should always be before our eyes. Anthony also says, “Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember him who gives death and life. Hate the world and all that is in it. Hate all the peace that comes from the flesh.”
Now you’ve got peace coming in again. Every time you have anxiety and fear, you have the word “peace.” Because when anxiety is cast out, and we’re no longer are anxious, and we’re no longer fearful in the sense of worrying about being punished, then a peace comes to us—a peace that passes all human understanding, the Lord Jesus said. So the peace that comes from the flesh: hate that. “Renounce life in this world that you may be alive to God. Remember what you have promised God, for it will be required of you on the Day of Judgment.”
Some people think he refers to the monastic vow, but there weren’t even any monastic vows in those days. I’m sure he’s referring to baptism—remember what you have promised God when you were baptized. “It will be required of you on the Day of Judgment. Suffer hunger, thirst, nakedness, be vigilant and sorrowful; weep, and groan in your heart.” So there will be affliction. There will be suffering. But no fear, no anxiety. “Test yourselves”—That’s from 2 Corinthians, the last chapter, where St. Paul says five or six times: test yourself, try yourself, prove yourself—“to see if you are worthy of God; despise all that comes from the flesh, so that you may preserve your lives, your souls.”
So, St. Anthony says, “I no longer fear God, but I love him, for love casts our fear.” And he also says, “Always have the fear of God before your eyes.” That’s the Christian teaching. That’s how it works.
But the commandments, we must remember here to conclude our reflection. We are commanded, “Me merimnate, me merimneisthate, meden merimnate”: do not be anxious; do not be anxious for anything; be anxious about nothing. Those are commandments. But he also says, “Me phobou, me phobiste, me phobitheite”: don’t be afraid; fear not; fear not anything; even if they can kill you, don’t be afraid, because not a hair of your head will be lost. And it’s interesting how the hairs of the head get into both teachings. It says, “Don’t be anxious, because you can’t add a hair to your head.” You can’t add a cubit to your stature, you can’t add one second to the time of your life. But don’t be afraid either if people chop your head off, because they can’t kill you. They will kill you, but fear not, because they cannot destroy you. Fear, rather, God, as the Lord says, who, when your body dies, also has the authority to cast your life into Gehenna. If you do not fear God, you will end up in Gehenna ultimately.
We could put that even more secularly. We should fear all that is good and true and beautiful. We should hold it all in awe. We should be very afraid of defiling it. Then, we will have the humility and the power not to defile it, and to be at peace and to treat everything properly.
Don’t be anxious. Don’t be afraid. These are the teachings of Christ to us, from God himself, and they are commandments. Be not anxious. Be not afraid. Have fear for nothing, and be anxious about nothing, because God is with you. He cares about you. He takes care of you. He is with you. He’s afflicted and he suffers with you. He clothes you with himself. He feeds you with his own body and blood. His life is your life. Our life is his life. Everything that he has, he gives to us. But we have to go through the Cross and suffer with him, but without anxiety and without fear. “Be not anxious. Be not afraid. I am with you,” says the Lord.