I have a totally irrational fear of mice; alive or dead. We lived in a country home for seventeen years, so had to take preventative measures against these unwelcome house-guests. If a trap was set in the garage, the kids checked to see if it was empty before I headed to the car. One time my four year old son happily told me, “I’m not sure, Mommy. But the trap is upside down and a tail is sticking out!” Our family has an arsenal of Mama vs. mouse stories. While they chuckle, the memories still give me the creeps. I have not outgrown the fear. And I hate being afraid.
Of course, this is a minor fear compared to life-threatening situations for ourselves or our loved ones. And we know that some fear is good. I had a fearless daughter who would leap into the deep end of a pool before she could swim. We needed to teach her a healthy respect for the water. As parents, we wanted our children to be careful without being overly fearful.
As parents, we did not want to teach our children to be afraid of God.
‘Holy fear’ is different from normal fear, but it is a difficult concept to understand and even harder to teach. When I was growing up, God was too often presented as an awful arbiter of punishment. God kept tabs on everything we said, everything we did, and even everything we thought. Homilies and catechism classes reminded us about the mortal nature of sins like missing Mass on a Sunday. There was much to fear about God in those days. It had little to do with love and lots to do with keeping out of the flames of hell.
Ron Rolheiser, OMI, has written a wonderful essay for his In Exile column titled ‘Bad’ authority has caused us to misinterpret concept of ‘holy fear’ . He writes,
Holy fear is love’s fear, namely, the kind of fear that is inspired by love. It’s a fear based upon reverence and respect for a person or a thing we love. When we genuinely love another person we will live inside of a healthy anxiety, a worry that our actions should never grossly disappoint, disrespect or violate the other person. We live in holy fear when we are anxious not to betray a trust or disrespect someone. But this is very different from being afraid of somebody or being afraid of being punished.
Bad power and bad authority intimidate and make others afraid of them. God is never that kind of power or authority…
When King David asked for the temple bread for himself and his men, he discerned that God is not so much a law to be obeyed as a gracious presence under which we are asked to creatively live. He feared God, but as one fears someone in love, with a “holy fear,” not a blind, legalistic one.
Holy fear is love’s fear! A beautifully simple explanation for an often confusing concept.