By Fr. John Cox
Tiger tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
what immortal hand or eye
could frame thy fearful symmetry?
You are on a mission. You are deep in the mountainous forests of the Annapurna Conservation Area in northern Nepal. You are here to photograph the elusive and majestic Bengal Tiger. For hours you have been working your way, slowly and quietly, through a narrow, misty, crevasse with little light and little visibility. You push through a gnarl of conifers at the end of the crevasse just as a breeze carries the mist away. The full light of the sun dazzles your eyes and you gasp. You are standing on top of the world; tower upon mighty, Himalayan tower scraping the clouds around you. The ground falls away into a clean valley beneath your feet, and there, the hunt is on! He is stretched out, full speed, every muscle taught, 11 feet and 900 pounds of elegant power, gliding with silent, lethal grace over the valley floor. You stand enthralled, camera forgotten, in reverent awe of the mountains and the tiger. This is fear.
We commonly use the word fear to mean psychological terror; the kind of gasping, clutching feeling you have when a strange noise awakens you in the night. This kind of fear is a bad thing. But scripturally the word fear has more to do with reverence, respect, and awe than with sweat-inducing night terrors. This is important to know because fear is all over our scripture; in a good way.
In Proverbs we learn that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; (9:10) and that The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. (19:9) The prophet Jeremiah, speaking with the words of God, says, I shall give them one heart and one way so that they may fear me during all their days, so that all will be well for them and for their sons after them… so that they may never go away from Me. (32:39-40) Lest we think this is just an Old Testament thing, St. Paul says that, Since we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others…, (II Cor. 5:11) and St. John the Theologian, in his Revelation, asks in wonder, Who will not fear you, O Lord? (15:4) Clearly fear is an important part of our relationship with God. In fact, it is essential. If you do not fear God you cannot love him.
Why? Because you meet God through the scripture and the services of the Church, especially in holy communion, and the One you encounter there is the Holy One who kills and makes alive; (Duet. 32:39) He is the source of all being; (Anaphora of St. Basil) He is beauty, truth, and love embodied; He is the One who hung on a cross, enduring the shame and pain – death itself – to give us eternal life and make us whole again. To meet this One and, in that encounter, refuse your reverence, your respect, and your awe is to behold the tiger and the mountains and yawn in boredom. The door to the heart of such a person is locked from the inside. Either they refuse to see God as He is, or, seeing Him that way, choose to pretend He’s no big deal. This is the opposite of love. This is a profound self-centeredness that makes love impossible. Love contains the capacity to be astounded, transformed, and humbled by another. You cannot love what you will not adore and refuse to be awed by.
Our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:29) When we approach Him in the fear of God, as the priest says when he calls us to communion, that holy fire, ensconced in bread and wine, consumes our sins and fills us with the Holy Spirit – eternal life. The primary quality of this life is love; love for God, love for others, and love for the whole world. St. John tells us that this perfect love casts out fear of judgment or condemnation. So, the healthy kind of fear drives out the bad kind and makes us capable of bearing a love so strong it cannot die This is why St. Anthony the Great says The one who fears God will live forever.
Priest John Cox is Priest-in-Charge at Dormition of the Theotokos Orthodox Church (OCA) in Norfolk, VA. He is originally from Knoxville, TN where he was brought into Orthodoxy at St. George Greek Orthodox Church. Fr John is a 2011 graduate of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, a husband, and father of four.