Fear of Holiness
Fear is a useful emotion. Under the control of reason, it is good to recoil in fear from a rattlesnake posed to strike. Other fears are more subtle. It’s easy to think of holiness as inaccessible and even indicting, and therefore intimidating when we encounter a person perceived to be “holy.” If you doubt this, think of those rowdy college days and contrast them with thoughts of a pious Christian grandmother. Close encounters with goodness and innocence can be scary for those of us who know we don’t measure up in matters of piety.
The Old Testament Israelites rightly feared the majesty and holiness of God. According to the Mosaic Law, it was dangerous—even deadly—for the unauthorized to enter the “Holy of Holies” sanctuary. Hence, we’re accustomed to thinking of the “holiness” of God as all-powerful, all-knowing and promising a big wallop for anyone who transgresses that holiness. Of course, these attributes apply to the God of Revelation. But as we equate absolute power to our notion of holiness we’re probably inclined to add a few attributes of our own such as “capricious” and “really mean.” We’ve seen those characteristics in tyrants. Or maybe we’re just projecting our own petty proclivities.
God is holy and “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” according to the Psalmist. But God’s holiness does not reflect our impoverished ideas of the holy. God is certainly “all powerful” and in some way punishes those who violate His holiness. So it is entirely reasonable to fear an omnipotent and omniscient God. He is, after all, bigger than us, and servile fear is arguably a reasonable and useful initial response.
But the God Who revealed Himself to Moses fine-tunes the nature of our fear of holiness. God connects His holiness to good morality: “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart… Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” That settles it. To be “holy” means not only to fear the majesty of God but to obey his commandments by respecting the dignity of others. This may sound simple and straightforward, but in soberly pondering his commandments we may find plenty to fear.
God sent his only-begotten Son into the world to provide even more instructions on holiness. Jesus teaches us the recipe to “be perfect as my heavenly father is perfect.” Again, God directs us to respect human dignity generously: No more revenge in the form of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Turn not your back on the needy. And most disturbing of all, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father…”
In view of our selfish inclinations, the call to such heroic generosity can be an annoying even fearful intrusion. As we get older most of us come to realize, as the old joke has it, that “friends indeed come and go, but enemies accumulate.” The trouble with Christianity, as one wag put it, is that we need to forgive too many enemies. Just so. The ability to forgive is so difficult and alien to our fallen human nature, it was necessary for God to become Man to so instruct us.
After the Resurrection, Saint Paul further refines the idea of holiness, adding that our sanctified bodies in Christ are holy, “temples of the Holy Spirit.” This brings our idea of the holy to a remarkably new and challenging level. Just as the gifts of bread and wine are made holy by the invocation of the Holy Spirit before the Consecration, we are made holy by the same Spirit in the sacraments. Without losing our identity, we become abodes of the living God! So when we disrespect God, we disrespect ourselves—our very bodies—and ruin the very holiness intended by God.
We do not become holy by avoiding or escaping the majesty of God, but by approaching Him in reverence and living his way of life. Yet we continue to fear Him, and even smear Him. How easy it is for us to reduce the commandments of God to weapons of intolerance and, in our day, even “hate.” Often this is because we are so attached to our self-destructive sinful lifestyles that we, like the Prodigal Son, fear any change until suffering—the consequences of our sins—catches up with us. Only with God’s grace is it possible to finally realize God’s commandments are not instruments of manipulation, but the means of personal holiness, happiness, and friendship with Him.
Not all fear is destructive. Here is the fear of the Lord we should have: fear of not becoming as holy as God has given us the grace to be. If we’re reasonable and wise, we’ll allow this fear to impel us to seek an ever-increasing sanctity. Resolve to live his Commandments with reverence to attain the perfection that He said can be ours.
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