My dear friends,
I wake up to a radio station that cycles through rock hits from the 1970’s and ’80’s. I guess that’s what manages to get me up best in the morning. A couple days ago, I heard a song frequently played on this radio station, John Mellencamp’s “Small Town.” As I lay there in bed, talking myself into getting up, one line of that song hit me more notably than it had before. The singer describes himself as, “Educated in a small town / Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town / Used to daydream in that small town / Another boring romantic, that’s me.”
“Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town.”
I had never really considered the implications of a line like that, but it hit me forcefully then. The way the singer sees Jesus—and thus, presumably, the entire idea of faith of religion—is one of “fear.” To such a mindset, it seems, God is nothing other than someone who watches your every move to ensure you don’t do something “wrong.” God is a sort of boogeyman in the clouds who serves no real purpose besides stopping you from doing the things you want, and who has petty ideas of right vs. wrong. One bad move and you’re done for.
Now, admittedly, it is one line of one song written thirty years ago, and I can’t say how John Mellencamp views religion based on it alone. For all I know, that may not have been meant as the swipe at religion that it sounds like.
But I think it’s not unfair to say that many people today, numerous Catholics among them, do view the religion they’re taught in their formative years as being based ultimately on a fear of God, lest He find some fault with them. (Notate bene: fear of the Lord, in proper measure, is a good to be fostered; more on that in a minute). And then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, which is arguably more prevalent within today’s world, which says that, if God exists, and if people want to “be religious,” then as long as they’re not murderers, rapists, or psychopaths, they have nothing to fear from God. Both of these views are unhealthy. The first, meant to make the believer careful to avoid anything “bad” based on the mean God in the clouds who’s out to get him, misses an essential ingredient of religion and will probably lead to resentment and, ultimately, abandonment of God. The second misses that same essential ingredient, but, not wanting to leave the believer cowering in fear, says simply that there’s nothing to fear except in a few extreme cases.
What essential ingredient is missing in these two approaches to religion? The idea of following God due to love of Him. I don’t mean love in the sense of nice, uplifting, warm-fuzzy “fluff.” I mean love like the kind we find when we really love another person: a valuing of the other person based on a genuine belief in his or her inherent merit, goodness, and worth. In the end, the primary driving force for any religious activity on our part should arise from a desire to please God because we recognize the goodness of God, the worth of God, and the love with which He acts upon mankind. “We love [God],” says John in his first letter, “because He has loved us first” (1 John 4:19). To be loved deeply by another person will very often make us love that person in return, and in the case of God, it’s no different. The individual who has a correct approach to religion, a correct understanding of God, loves Him if for no other reason than that God loves the individual so greatly in return, and that God is so perfect and benignant as to be entirely worth loving.
Genuine love of God balances out our spiritual lives, so that we are neither preoccupied with His impending wrath, nor lax enough to think that, as long as we’re not criminals, we’ve nothing to worry about. “He who loves Me will keep My commandments,” says Christ in John 14:23. This verse alone can serve as a course correction toward both views of religion given above. To the believer who approaches the Lord in terms of “fear,” it must be pointed out that the avoidance of sin is based on the principle that sin is a rejection of the love God offers, and that, by avoiding sin, the believer is avoiding offense to a loved one. This, and not fear of anger, should be his primary motivation for not sinning. To the believer who approaches the Lord with a grand laxity of conscience, it must be pointed out it does not take public atrocities to render oneself guilty of sin. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,'” Our Lord tells His listeners in the Gospel of Matthew, “but I say to you, that whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And earlier on, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother shall be subject to judgement” (Mt. 5:27; 21).
Fear of the Lord is a genuine gift, and is required for a healthy relationship with God, for it keeps present before us the essential realization that God is God and we are not. God is holy, and very often, we are not. God has ultimate power over life, death, and the created world; we do not, and any power we do have is merely because He has given it to us. Fear of the Lord, as is obvious, does hinder us from sinning, so that we avoid the punishment we willfully incur on ourselves by sinning (it would be a mistake to think God “sends us to Hell,” since He does not; we send ourselves to Hell by our voluntary rejection of the one who “is Love,” the ultimate reason for and sustainer of all that exists—1 John 4:8). Despite its necessity, however, fear of the Lord should always be a secondary motivation for following God as we ought, and love ought to take the primary place. “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear; fear arises from punishment, and he who has fear has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).
I guess the point of all this musing is the following: if fear is your primary motivation in following God, something’s off. If want to follow God without any fear, something’s equally off. Fostering a love of God, which will balance your perspective of God, is the key to following Him properly.