The French bishop Jean-Pierre Camus (1584-1652) was a disciple of St. Francis de Sales and the author of “The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales.” In that work, he recorded these words of the great bishop, confessor and Doctor: “Meditation on the four last things will be useful to you provided that you always end with an act of confidence in God. Never represent to yourself death or hell on the one side unless the cross is on the other; so that when your fears have been excited by the one you may with confidence turn for help to the other.”
Bishop Camus then recorded this striking observation of St. Francis de Sales: “The one point on which he chiefly insisted was that we must fear God from love, not love God from fear.”
References to the “fear of God” occur many times in Scripture. It is a phrase easily misunderstood, for to fear something or someone brings to mind the impulse to flee or to avoid whatever or whoever causes our fear. Yet this fear of the Lord is closely connected in the Bible with a true and abiding love of the Lord. A foundational text is Deuteronomy 6, in which the Hebrews are told three times to “fear the Lord your God” (Dt 6:2,13,24), but are also commanded to love the one true God: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:5).
This loving fear of God is also closely intertwined with wisdom — “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prv 1:7) and with true life — “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life” (Prv 14:27; see Prv 19:23). Examples abound, but this is enough to provide background to the first reading, in which the worthy wife is praised for many things, all of which are rooted in her fear of the Lord (Prv 31:30). As the notes to the New American Bible explain, this fear is “primarily a disposition rather than the emotion of fear; reverential awe and respect toward God combined with obedience to God’s will.”
This is why the prophet Isaiah listed the fear of the Lord as one of the seven gifts of the Spirit of God (Is 11:2-3; Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1831). This fear is, paradoxically, a vibrant awareness of who we are in the eyes of a loving God; it is also a recognition of the duties that come with being gifted with God’s mercy and grace. It means that those who have a proper fear of God are spiritually awake and aware, prepared for the day of the Lord that St. Paul wrote about to the Christians in Thessalonica. Those who are filled with the Holy Spirit are “children of the light” and “children of the day” who do not sleep as others do — that is, who are spiritually vigilant.
Today’s Gospel makes mention of a different fear. The parable of the talents is about three servants entrusted by their master with different amounts of money. Each sum is quite large; it’s likely that a “talent” was equal to up to 20 years of wages. The first two used their talents to produce a profit. But the third went and buried his talent in the ground. Why? When asked by his master, he explained he acted “out of fear.”
The master’s angry, damning response is shocking. But here we see the difference between a holy, righteous fear and a doubtful, faithless fear. The former acts out of love for God; the latter is paralyzed and without faith, lacking love. We must, as a great saint taught, fear God from love.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.