God gives us the gifts we need, not the gifts we necessarily want. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye famously complains, “If wealth is a curse, O Lord, then smite me!” But his old friend, in his love for Tevye, leaves him poor — and Tevye.
On the other hand, in confirmation, God does give gifts, first among them a gift our culture despises. Sirach 1:12 sums it up: “To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; she is created with the faithful in the womb.”
We don’t much care for the fear of God these days. We prefer to hear about self-empowerment, self-esteem, self-affirmation and just plain self. We have whole magazines devoted to the notion that the first shall be first, that you must find your life in order to find it, and that the way to happiness is to seek first the things of this world. Fear of God doesn’t fit into programs like that. It’s “disempowering,” don’t cha know, an affront to our dignity and a relic of that nasty Old Testament God who wants everybody to cower before him like the Great and Terrible Oz. We’ve outgrown all that.
But, of course, there’s fear and there’s fear. And the funny thing is, as our civilization is discovering, when you get rid of the fear of the Lord, you don’t get fearlessness. You get servile fear: fear of What People Will Think, fear of environmental disaster, plague, terrorism, political incorrectness, death, STDs, war, divorce, economic meltdown, the future, headlines and things that go bump in the night.
It is often only belatedly that we realize that the Gospel comes, in part, to cast out such cringing, crawling servile fear. When we do finally take a hard look at the fear of the Lord, we discover that Jesus feared God, but he never cowered before his Father. On the contrary, his courage has been the model of the courage of all the saints.
There is a confidence, a free and easy step, in the stride of the saints that is in sharp contrast to the craven cowardice of the bureaucrats of atheistic totalitarian regimes who began with bold promises to liberate us from the fear of God and ended in lickspittle prostration before the terrors of Mao, Hitler and Stalin. For the fear of God is the awe and reverence due what is truly good, not a mere cowering in the face of Power. If you want to get a glimmer of it, look not to the Cowardly Lion, trembling before the terrors of Oz, but to the sense of awe any sane person should feel under the immensity of a summer night — and before its Maker.
That feeling of delighted humility, of knowing just how small you are in the face of the immeasurably good and beautiful Power. That’s the first gift God gives us, and it is meant to turn us not into dogs, but into children who forget ourselves and the burden of pride in our joy at the sight of God.
This strange combination of fear and delight is, in fact, one of the special graces of childhood. The gift of fear graces us to carry it with us into our adult lives. It’s the mystery Kenneth Grahame hints at when Rat and Mole have their own encounter with the Ineffable in The Wind in the Willows:
“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”
“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love.
“Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet — and yet — O, Mole, I am afraid!”
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
We likewise discover the strange truth that we become taller when we bow. We fear God in order to become small enough to receive his humility and his life. Never was God more to be feared than in the hour he hung helpless and powerless on a cross.
Mark Shea is content editor