“Taught the Fear of Jesus in a Small Town” — Thinking About Two Wrong, But Prevalent, Views of Religion

J.M.J.

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.”

JCM_-_Small_Town
“Small Town,” Riva Records

“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.

Great is Your Faith: Pray Confidently and Constantly.

J.M.J.

My good people,

I’m just going to say it: We need to trust God more. You, I, all of us: whether we pray constantly or never, most of us don’t trust in God enough.

How do you go into prayer if you want something?  Does it run along these lines, like mine often does? “…I ask for this, and I really want it, but it probably won’t be answered…I mean, I’ll ask anyway, but it’s probably not going to happen.”

Or when you think of dying, do you think that you’re pretty certainly going to wind up in Purgatory, and that God doesn’t really expect or want you to go straight to Heaven with no delay? Or when you pray for the conversion of a soul (say, a notorious politician…) do you retain that judgement in the back of your mind, no matter how ardent your prayer, that it “probably won’t happen”?

Let’s turn to Matthew 15, shall we?

Our Lord is stopped by a Canaanite woman, who begs Him to heal her daughter possessed by a demon (Mt. 15:22). Our Lord says no. The disciples even tell Him to make the woman leave. And yet, she continues, kneeling down and pleading. Still, He says no. And still she asks, and finally, commending her faith, Our Divine Lord heals her daughter, who is well from then on.

There’s a good deal we can take from this. First, there’s no lack of humility if you “bother” the Lord for something. If you want something, pray, and pray ardently for it. Should worse come to worst, your prayer simply isn’t answered. But there’s nothing wrong with asking repeatedly—or even incessantly—for the same thing, and you shouldn’t take a lack of answering on God’s part as an indication that your prayer is opposed to His will. Indeed, St. Paul urges us to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). If your prayer is not answered quickly, keep praying for it, even if you end up praying for ten years.

Of course, there is a caveat: you want to be sure that, in all circumstances, you’re open to the Divine Will. Weighed down by His agony in Gethsemane, Our Lord prays repeatedly that He might not suffer His Passion, and yet, despite His ardent prayer, He ends on the note of resolution to the Father: “Not My will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). This must be the conclusion of all our prayers as well.

Now, there’s other things we can learn from the episode with the Canaanite woman as well. Primarily, we must be humble in the true sense of the word, which is to say, we need to have a healthy recognition of our place before the Supreme Being (basically, we need some sizable doses of piety and fear of the Lord).  God and we are incomparable. God doesn’t need us, despite His infinite love for us, and He doesn’t need to answer our prayers. He will, if we are in accord with His will, because He loves us, but we don’t even have the semblance of a right to answered prayers. Not only that, we’re especially undeserving of having our prayers answered because we constantly sin. We constantly turn away from God who loves us, and it would be entirely reasonable of Him not to answer any of our prayers. So be sure to bear in mind when you pray that it is entirely within God’s right not to answer you, whether you’re wondrously holy or horrendously sinful. The good Lord only answers prayers because of the greatness of His love, not because we somehow deserve what we’re asking for. Thus, the woman kneels down before Our Lord and pleads: a position of humility, piety, and reverence; an acknowledgement of lowliness before Him who wills, despite our constant failings, to hear and grant our prayers.

CanaaniteWoman_Drouais
“O woman, great is thy faith…”

When Our Lord finally grants her request, notice what He tells her: “O woman, great is thy faith…” (Mt. 17:28). Anything truly worth having will be worth pursuing, even in the face of adversity. I am convinced that part of the reason He let her beg and plead was so that she would demonstrate the extent of her faith; so that she would be tested. It was Our Lord’s way of saying, “How much do you really want this? How important is it, really? Will you give up on Me if I don’t give it to you now?” And as we know, the woman didn’t give up. She repeated her prayer, with confidence not only in the ability of Our Lord to answer her prayer, but in His will and desire to grant her request as well. But she had to play her part first, which included a great deal of prayer.

Our Lord says in John 14:14, “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it”; in John 16:23-24, He strengthens this assurance still more: “Amen I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father in My name, He will give it to you . . . ask and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.” Our Blessed Lord says anything asked in His name will be done. Not “might be done”, but will be done. Certainly, sometimes prayers aren’t answered, either because God has other plans or because the prayer is against the Divine Will, but it must be pointed out that Our Lord wouldn’t say something without there being a founded belief in its reliability.

“…it will be given to you…” 

How much do we believe this to be the case? Do you trust that God will give you what you ask, even if it takes years of asking for it? Or do you pray with the repeated idea in the back of your mind that it’s really a futile enterprise?

Don’t pray like that. Follow St. Paul and the Canaanite woman, praying constantly. And if you’re resigned to God’s will, whatever it might be, it’s wholly probably that Our Lord will say to you what He did to that distressed mother: Great is your faith. And all will be well from that hour.