How we cultivate an appropriate fear within the Christian life continues to be an ongoing interest of mine. “Perfect love casts out fear,” 1 John tells us. And so it does. But “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Proverbs counters. The coexistence of these apparently contradictory exhortations in the same moral outlook distills much about how Christianity understands the moral life. There is a fear that charity precludes—but there is also a fear that charity demands. And so for many other attitudes or dispositions. We might say that there is an anger that charity excludes, and one it demands—or a doubt, or a jealousy. In each case, the right version is a matter of enormous subtletly—and of importance.
In his narration of Psalm 128(127 in some), Augustine develops the theme of “chaste fear” in response to Psalm 128:4: “Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.” What sort of fear is excluded by charity, Augustine asks? Primarily the fear of suffering earthly misfortune if we do not love God. Augustine has no time or tolerance for any versions of the prosperity Gospel: a fear that our lives will not go well on this earth if we don’t love God has no overlap with the fear of the Lord.
But that’s not entirely true of a fear of hell. Augustine also suggests that such a fear “does not make [us] love righteous conduct.” Yet unlike the fear of temporal misfortunes, the fear of hell seems to be potent enough to prompt us to develop good habits of piety, bringing us to “begin to love what at first was hard and to find sweetness in God.” The fear of hell isn’t precisely the ‘chaste fear’—but because hell is directly a dimension of God’s judgment on sin, fearing it locates us more directly beneath God than does fearing bad things happening to us on earth.
But then Augustine recounts ‘chaste fear’ through appealing to an analogy of marriage. Both a chaste woman and an adulteress, Augustine writes, fear they husbands. “The chaste woman fears that her husband may go away; the adulteress fears that hers may return.” And if the husband is gone, the chaste woman fears that he will be delayed in coming home—and the adulterer fears his return.
Academic aside: It is worth noting that this analogy fits Augustine’s broader emphatic use of nuptial imagery to describe our relationship in the Church to Christ. If memory serves, Aquinas develops the theme of fear in charity around fatherhood and sonship, rather than marriage. While the substance of their views on this score are similar, I suspect the different relational imagery they appeal to textures our understandings in different ways. If nothing else, the desire for the chaste spouse for the return of their beloved is distinct from that of a son for his father—and that gives ‘fear’ a slightly different significance.
The rest of Augustine’s argument falls out neatly: the bridegroom is absent from us, and the question is whether we fear his return or his delay. It is a harder question to answer, I think, than it might seem—especially within the nuptial imagery that Augustine has employed. Much of our longing for the Lord’s return has, I think, to do with the temporal pains and injustice we experience: we grow weary of this world and the constant harassment of sin and suffering. But the longing to be quit of such a realm is clearly distinct from that of the wife who looks forward to her husband’s return from a long trip abroad (or, at least, we hope it is). It is less easy than it might seem to cultivate a longing for the Lord’s return because He is our Lord, and because we love Him for His own sake.
This question about the nature and content of our own fears, though, can only be answered from within the privacy of our own consciences. Augustine has knocked on their door; but “[God] alone hears the reply from within.”