In contemporary public discourse we hear much about “fear,” often with a negative connotation. We hear about “fear based politics,” “fear-mongering,” and encouraging division based upon spreading “fear.” Fear is most definitely out, and anyone who spreads fear is labeled a social delinquent.
At the same time, we hear in Sacred Scripture: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).
Is fear entirely negative?
Fear is a passion we experience when we foresee that we might be afflicted by some evil. We then take measures to avoid this evil and thus fear provides a helpful benefit: it helps us avoid evils. Insofar as fear helps us avoid evils, we can consider it something positive.
Fear becomes a problem when we begin to fear what we should not fear or when we fear to an excessive degree. For example, sometimes we fear the loss of respect from evil men, which we lose for doing what is right and seeking justice. In this case, we fear something we should not fear. Alternatively, some people excessively fear the presence of refugees in their country and the impact they will have on society.
Growth in the spiritual life leads us to order our passions properly, including the passion of fear. Ultimately, fear follows from love, because we experience something as an evil to be avoided when it prevents us from attaining what we love. For this reason Saint Thomas Aquinas writes that evil is “shunned because it deprives one of the good that one pursues through love thereof. And in this sense Augustine says that there is no cause for fear, save loss of the good we love” (ST I-II, q. 42, a.1).
We can see elements of truth in the criticism of our contemporaries regarding the “climate of fear” that has influenced politics. When politicians and political movements predominantly stir up opposition to our fellow man based on fear, the centrality of love becomes eclipsed, and we forget that societal fears are founded upon a love for the common good and those sharing in it.
With respect to fear, the earthly city should resemble the heavenly city, the kingdom of God. Fear of God should not eclipse the primacy of love in Christian moral thinking. When we love God and our neighbor for God’s sake, we rightly fear the loss of God or the lack of good of our neighbor. The fear of losing God or our neighbor’s good helps us act wisely to shun anything that would hurt our spiritual life or the spiritual life of our neighbor. Yet such fear follows from a supernatural love of God, through which we love God beyond all things and our neighbor for His sake.
“And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
Br. Joseph Selinger, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE