What the person with fear of God fears, how Christianity changed our concept of God, and why a thief was the first to enter paradise—Professor Alexei Ilyich Osipov discusses these questions.
On the path to Beauty
We continue our meeting within the rubric of the “Philokalia” project [presented on Pravoslavie.ru], and I would like to say a few words about the name of this cycle of discourses, the “Philokalia”. This is the Greek word for an enormous collection of teachings and instructions on the spiritual life and asceticism. In Slavonic, Philokalia is translated as “Dobrotoliubie”—the word “dobrota” having the meaning of “beauty”, and the word Philokalia could be translated as “Love of Beauty”.
There has always been a strong intuition in man that there is something original that can be called beauty, and everything else—everything we see, come into contact with, and what often astounds our imagination is only a shadow, reflection, or a glimpse. It is Christianity that has called this original beauty, God. And we see how a whole enormous spectrum of rays emanate from this original Beauty, manifesting themselves in different ways; and they all speak of differing beauty, but essentially about one and the same.
The collection that is the subject of our cycle, the “Philokalia”, became known in Russia comparatively recently. Certain ascetic fathers, its “authors”, had been translated long ago in Rus’, but the anthology itself first appeared in Russian, or it would be better to say, in Sloveno-Russian at the end of the eighteenth century thanks to St. Paisius Velichkovsky, who labored ascetically on Mt. Athos and was the disciple of the famous St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite. They zealously studied the manuscripts that were preserved on Mt. Athos and in other monasteries, by the way—not only in Athonite monasteries—but Paisius, and first of all, Nicodemos, found especially many of them in Vatopedi Monastery on Mt. Athos. The first publication of the “Dobrotoliubie” in Russia, in the Sloveno-Russian language, appeared in 1793.
On the path of what? What is this path? This path is the search for God; that is, the original Beauty. I want to note right away that when we talk about the “search for God,” we are not talking about what people have not found, what they are searching for, whether there is a God or not. Absolutely not, this is not what we are talking about. These are deeply believing people. But God in His essence, in His, we’ll put it, knowability, is truly limitless. Therefore the path to knowing Him is likewise limitless. It is in this sense that the holy fathers sought the original Beauty—God.
What is the “fear of God”?
Now let’s go directly on to the subject of today’s discussion—the question of the fear of God. Yes, this is one of the very important elements of spiritual life. Many fathers even call it the original state, without which man cannot understand anything in spiritual life nor attain to anything in it.
An analysis of this concept is extraordinarily important, because many people, who have not come into contact with the works of the holy fathers and are in general far from spiritual matters, perceive the fear of God namely as fear—that is, that we need to be afraid of God. How should we be afraid? Well, like for example the way we fear that a wolf will jump out at us, or a tiger will leap at us, or a bear will run after us. This is the fear of, “What will happen?” This idea is a complete misunderstanding of what is called in asceticism the fear of God. And this false understanding sits deep in people’s consciousness, in people’s souls, for the simple reason that we understand neither God, nor it would follow, what it means “to fear God.”
We have to assimilate the following: When we talk about the “fear of God”, we do not at all mean the fear of falling under God’s sword for those deeds and sins that, as we know, we do have and which hang on us. This is not what we’re talking about! This concept proceeds from the Old Testament, from Judaism, even from paganism, wherein God was understood as justice, the supreme Judge—a Judge Who will reward each person exactly according to their deserts—a reward for virtue, and a punishment for iniquity. How many times have we had to say that Christianity literally overturned the concept of God; it revealed what the ancient world simply did not know. There were some separate intuitions, but they were met only rarely, like little sparks. For example, in the prophet David’s amazing psalms, and in certain other prophets. But mainly the understanding of God in the pre-Christian world was precisely like this: God is the supreme and most just Judge over every person and the whole world. Christianity said: No, that’s not right!!!!!—with a million exclamation points. And the proof of this lies not even in the Savior’s parables and teachings (although these are included), but in the fact—the astounding fact—that Christ suddenly says to the bandit who was crucified to the right of Him, Today thou shalt be will Me in paradise. We have grown so accustomed to this fact, and it is very unfortunate that we have grown accustomed to it! The wise thief. And why was he wise? A bandit, a criminal, with blood up to his elbows, and suddenly: “Today you will be in paradise!”
If you were to try to ask representatives of all world religions: “What is needed in order to really be in in paradise?” everyone would say, “You have to fulfill God’s commandments. Only Christ said, “No!” What did He say? Here an astounding truth was revealed, for which people should be I don’t know how grateful. Now and ever, that is, always, and unto the ages of ages, God is not justice, but Love! Only out of Love could such a thing be possible, that a criminal should be the first to enter paradise. Not the high priest (in translation, the patriarch), nor the hierarchs, nor the theologians, that is, the scribes, nor the Pharisees, that is, the monastics—none of them were the first, but a criminal! This fact reveals to us a great mystery of the human soul and the great mystery of understanding who God is; also, particularly, of our current subject—the fear of God.
So what then is the fear of God in the face of this astounding revelation? That the thief from fear did not know what to do? He saw in Christ next to him the crucified God and Savior and quaked—“Oh, what will happen to me now?! Have mercy on me, don’t punish me in eternity”? Yes? No, no, and no! He said something completely different! And he received a completely different answer. It turns out that the fear of God is fear before what a person sees himself as in the face of holiness; he sees his filth, his indecency, his sins, his innumerable crimes. Only when he sees this clearly, then does he understand who he is. He is ready to dissolve himself from shame before this love, pure love, in which there is not one iota of condemnation against him. There He is—Love, and how have I responded to it? How?! Christ says, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28). And what have I done? Did I come to Him? No! I will ask Him to go away from me! I don’t need you, Lord! This, it turns out, is what any person encounters when he feels even a tiny bit of divine love for himself.
Fear of God is fear not of horror; it is fear of love! I remember one episode that, it seems, Bishop Alexander (Semonov-Tian-Shansky) related. One day, no longer a boy but not yet a youth, he was leafing through a book and a page opened with a picture of two horses mating. “I sort of stopped on that page, and at that moment my mother walked into the room,” he writes. “I was ready to sink into the ground, I was so unbelievably ashamed. She didn’t say anything to me but to this day, when something like that even flickers by, I have sworn never to look at it.” Do you understand? Only his mother became a witness of this scene, and not God, not the absolute holiness and purity of God Himself. And he swore never to do it again…
This is a very good definition: the fear of God is the fear of love. I fear not because they torture me, but so as not to offend, cause harm, or displease—whom? The One who relates to me with complete love.
If we only remember what Christ did, how he was crucified—voluntarily, and not because He was seized and so forth… He voluntarily came and was crucified for us. He even prayed the night before! This was the only reason He came—knowing what torments, what suffering He would have to bear! So, before the face of this Love, how will a person feel who is doing absolutely what he should not be doing?
Fear of God is fear of love, and not fear of some beast who is going to rip me to shreds for what I’ve done; not fear before an executioner who is going to execute me. This is very important to know and understand. But what must we understand first of all? That God is not a Judge, a just Judge Who rewards one but punishes another. O, if that were so, as the holy fathers Isaac the Syrian and John Chrysostom write, we would not be able to exist longer than one moment, because we do not live in a godly way for even one moment, but live only according to our own passions. And therefore every person, when he sins, should remember one great truth: God never ceases to be Love, for He is immutable. We are mutable! We now love and an hour later hate. God is unchanging, He is always Love; and no matter what we do, He remains Love. It is we who often close ourselves off from God’s love with an impenetrable curtain as from the sun’s rays. It depends upon us alone whether we return God’s love to ourselves or shut ourselves off from it.
And what does Christianity say? It says, Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me (Rev. 3:20). God knocks with His love. And how can we open this door? With repentance, of course! So, no matter what a person has done, he must understand that God does not relate to him any worse; only you, O man, need to repent. And mark that if you repent the Lord will forgive you, the Lord will have mercy on you, He will heal your terrible wound that you inflicted on your own self. Don’t fret, but this requires repentance and forcing yourself, because true repentance means changing your life—change, and not idle talk, like, “I repent”, and especially not a dry account of sins committed, which is what our confessions so often turn into.
Thus, the fear of God is the fear of Love.