Shedding the fear of God’s wrath
Fr. Michael Gillis · April 7, 2014
Fr. Michael discusses fear of, and love for, God.
Hello. This is Fr. Michael Gillis, and we’re Praying in the Rain. Well, if you have not seen Coffee with Sr. Vassa, which is a video podcast available on YouTube or on Ancient Faith Radio, you’re really missing something. She is [an] excellent communicator, very witty and funny, but powerful and insightful, simply presenting the Orthodox faith. So I encourage you to see those videos on Ancient Faith Radio video podcast, Coffee with Sr. Vassa.
On one of her posts a few weeks ago on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, she said something that really has stuck with me. She said, “The fear of God, when it is healthy, is manifest in us by the fear of disregarding our own conscience.” This ties in with something St. Isaac the Syrian says: “Our conscience is the voice of God within us.” Many people struggle, however, with a different understanding of the fear of God. For them, fear of God refers to a fear that God will punish them. This false understanding of the fear of God often comes with the assumption that God is angry, angry in the same way that we have experienced angry human beings, especially authority figures who, in our lives, have in anger punished us or withheld love or threatened to punish us and withhold love.
It is difficult to come to God when you’re afraid of being punished. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we feel an impulse to hide, to cover ourselves, and to blame others. We have listened to the lies of the serpent, and so we have forgotten the loving care of our Father. Of course, the anthropomorphisms of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, do not help much in this regard. The Bible is full of references to God’s anger and wrath, and for people who have been raised in a Bible-only theological tradition, it is distressing to conceptualize a divine Father-figure of whom it is said on the one hand, “He loves us,” and on the other hand, “His wrath burns hotly against us.”
What is particularly terrifying about this picture for many of us is that we have known earthly fathers or other authority figures who, due to alcoholism or other mental illnesses, have been loving towards us one day and inexplicably angry and wrathful towards us another day. Too many of us have learned from experience not to trust the love of an authority figure, because we have experienced also his or her wrath.
I’ve found it helpful, both in my own life and in trying to help others who struggle with this false understanding of God, to begin with the theological premise that God does not change. God does not get angry. There is with God, as it says in the book of Hebrews, “no shadow of turning.” God has no dark side. God is truth. God is light, and darkness, wherever it is found, is only a shadow that we have created for ourselves, a bit of unreality that we sustain by trying to hide from God. This is the darkness that the world is in. It is a darkness that many of us have gotten used to and perhaps even enjoy: a reality of our own creation, even if that reality isn’t real but exists only in our mind. Nonetheless it is our reality, and we’ve come to like it. And perhaps one of the reasons why we like our darkness is that we don’t have to see what we don’t want to see.
But God is light. God is the real reality. And just as light drives shadows out of a dark place, revealing what is hidden, so God himself delivers us from our false realities, a deliverance that we may find painful, but God comes as a friend, as a doctor, to heal our sickness. And we, like a child who has fallen, even if she has not been careful and it was her fault that she fell, we, like a child who has fallen, run to God as to our Father for comfort.
The Elder, now Saint, Porphyrios says the following in Wounded by Love:
We should regard Christ as our friend. He is our friend. He asserts this himself when he says, “You are my friends.” Let us stretch out to him and approach him as a friend. Do we fall? Do we sin? With familiarity, love, and trust, let us run to him, not with fear that he will punish us, but with the confidence that we derive from the sense of being with a friend. We can say to him, “I have fallen. Forgive me.” At the same time, however, let us have the sense that he loves us and that he receives us with tenderness and love and forgives us. Don’t let sin separate us from Christ. When we believe that he loves us and we love him, we don’t feel like strangers and distanced from him. Even when we sin, we have secured his love, and however we behave, we know that he loves us.
That’s the end of the quotation from St. Porphyrios.
I must admit that I have a little insecurity in me. Such a pure, parental love, I’m afraid, might be taken by some as a license to misbehavior, but really what am I afraid of? Is good behavior our goal, or is it relationship with God and transformation into his image? Perhaps misbehavior is what is needed in some cases. If love for God is genuinely lacking, if love for God is merely a pleasant delusion, perhaps sometimes one needs to fall, hard and far, in order to see what is truly in his or her heart. Perhaps a messy reality is better than a neat unreality, as Fr. Thomas Hopko says.
But of course, a heart guided by genuine love of God is best of all. If we were to continue reading St. Porphyrios, he goes on to talk about hell and the fear of hell. He says:
Certainly the Gospel tells us in a symbolic language that the unjust man will find himself in a place where there’s grinding and gnashing of teeth, because that is what it’s like to be far from God.
Notice that the saint calls this “symbolic language.” Hell is not a place as we understand place in the world of time and space as we know it. After all, how can we talk about place when we have no bodies? Just as Adam and Eve were tormenting themselves as they attempted to hide from God, although God was never far from them, so also the language of torment and of God being far from someone is not a reference to any physical reality, but a reference to a heart turned away from God, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth refers to the torment one goes through as one’s false world is confronted with reality, when light shines in places that we would rather remain dark.
But why does the Church use this language at all? Why do we talk about hell as a “place of torment” or “place of eternal torment” if what we actually believe is something much more nuanced? The answer is didactic, that is, at different stages of our moral development, some images work better than others to move us towards the light. After all, the reality of the age to come is such that it cannot be expressed at all in the language and concepts of the present age except by metaphor, parable, and allegory.
But what cannot be directly expressed in language and concepts of this age can, nonetheless, be experienced. We can experience a foretaste of the light, life, and love of God, the paradise of the age to come, or we can also experience the torment as a foretaste of the age to come, even now, while we are still citizens in this world. And because God loves us and wants all human beings to be saved, Christ has given us many parables and metaphors to help us draw near to him in our hearts, no matter where we are on our journey. To quote St. Porphyrios again—this time it’s a rather long quote—he says:
Everything has its meaning, its time, and its place. The concept of fear is good in the initial stages. It is for beginners, those in whom our ancestral fallen nature lives on. The beginner whose sensibility has not yet been refined is held back from evil by fear, and fear is essential since we are men of flesh and blood and earth-bound. But that is a stage, a low level of a relationship with the divine. We think in terms of a business deal in order to win paradise or escape hell.
But if we examine the matter more closely, we see that it is governed by self-interest. That’s not something that appeals to me. When someone progresses and enters into the love of God, what need does he have for fear? Whatever he does, he does out of love, and that is of infinitely greater value. For someone to become good out of fear of God and not out of love is not of such a value.
As we progress, the Gospel leads us to understand that Christ is joy and truth, that Christ is paradise. St. John the Evangelist says there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. The person who fears is not perfected in love. As we exert ourselves out of fear, we gradually enter into the love of God. Then the torment of hell, fear, and death all disappear. We are interested only in the love of God. We do everything for this love, as the Bridegroom does for the Bride.
That’s the end of the quote from St. Porphyrios.
So we are told that fear and hell are tools, tools to help moral beginners, tools that spur us in the right direction when our hearts are very dark and turned away from God. However, they are tools that lead us to love, tools that are laid aside when we turn away from our own darkness and towards God’s light as we repent. Perhaps those of us who have come to love God but are still tormented by a fear of punishment, perhaps what we need to do is just let go. What may have served a useful role in our spiritual life at one point is no longer useful. In fact, it’s getting in the way. It’s time to grow up in God, to love our heavenly Father just because he loves us.
Here is a story that I think might be helpful. When I was in high school and college, I hated writing. It’s kind of ironic, because I went on to make my living teaching writing, but nonetheless this is true. In my mind, I associated writing with red marks telling me everything I had done wrong and seeming to ignore what I was actually trying to say. Now, red marks correcting spelling and punctuation may indeed serve a useful purpose in helping someone learn to write well, but there comes a point when one has to overcome the fear of making a mistake by the desire to communicate. This overcoming did not happen to me until I was in graduate school. The best marks I ever got in my undergraduate writing courses were C-minuses. I hated writing. It was a mine-field to me. I wrote to avoid mistakes rather than to say something.
But then in graduate school, things changed. For one, I was allowed to use an editor, and I was allowed to hire a typist. Alas, personal computers were still a decade away. The professors were interested in what I had to say. Suddenly, I was writing A papers. I was writing to say something, not to avoid mistakes. I think a similar transition has to happen in our relationship with God. Sooner or later, we just have to shed the fear of making mistakes and just love God because he loves us.