And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled. But immediately He talked with them and said to them, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” (Mark 6;49-50)
St John Cassian (d. 435AD) tells us that the fear of God is a gift given to us so that we may properly cling to our Lord. For Cassian, like for many of the saints, the proper fear of God doesn’t drive us away from God or make us cringe in terror, rather it makes us want to be in His presence. St John bases this on what he reads in the prophets – God will replace our hard and stone-like heart with one of flesh so that we can truly feel what it means to be in God’s presence. God puts a new heart in us so that we can have a godly fear of Him and so that God will have an appropriate “heaven” in which to dwell. Godly fear is not human terror as one might have when thrown before a murderous tyrant, but the fear which emerges from total love and respect for one’s Savior. The fear is that we might be parted from Him, or might do that which offends our loving and merciful Lord. Cassian writes:
“The prophet Jeremiah, speaking in the place of God, tells us that from above there comes the very fear of God by which we may cling to Him. ‘I shall give them one heart and one way so that they may fear me during all their days, so that all will be well for them and for their sons after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them and I shall not cease to do good things for them and, as a gift, I shall put fear of me in their hearts so that they may never go away from me‘ (Jer 32:39-40). Ezekiel speaks in similar terms: ‘And I shall give them a single heart and I will put a new spirit in them and I will remove the strong heart from their bodies and I will give them a heart of flesh instead. And I shall do this so that they may walk as I command and respect my decisions and carry them out. Then they shall be my people and I shall be their God’ (Ez 11:19-20).” (CONFERENCES, p 97)
For St John Cassian, God’s salvation includes a heart transplant for us. Our hardened hearts (hearts of stone!) are replaced by one’s capable of both a godly fear and a divine love. God wants us to be His people and gives us the heart capable of faith in God. The new heart God places in us also makes us part of God’s own people. The healing happens in each of us personally, but having a healed heart makes us part of the Body of Christ, the people of God, the Church.
St Tikhon of Zadonsk (d. 1783) also reflects on the proper fear of God, challenging common assumptions about what fear is as well as what the proper fear of God is. The fear of God frees us from constantly agonizing over every problem we face in the world. The fear of God will replace in us the fear of demons and every problem. The fear of God turns out to be faith in a loving and merciful God.
If God will allow a misfortune to befall me, I shall not escape it; even though I fear it, it will nevertheless overtake me. But if God will not allow such a misfortune to occur, then even if all the devils and all evil men and the entire world should rise against me, they can do nothing to me, because He, the Only One, Who is more powerful than them all, will divert the evil of my enemies. Fire will not burn, nor the sword cut, nor water drown, nor will earth swallow up, without God’s permission, for that which is created can do nothing without the Creator.
Therefore why should I fear anything but God? For that which God ordains is inevitable. And why should one fear the inevitable? Let us fear, my beloved, the One God, in order that we may fear no one and naught else. For such a man as truly fears God has fear of no one and nothing. The man who fears God finds everything in God. For him God is honor, fame, riches, comfort, life and joy though men deprive him of these things. The God-fearing man enjoys God’s mercy, for he fears to anger and insult God. And what has one who enjoys God’s mercy to fear from the animosity and violence of his enemies? ( A TREASURY OF RUSSIAN SPIRITUALITY, p 231)
The fear of God, according to St Tikhon, gives us strength not just to endure every problem in the world, but to overcome them. “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33) If we remain in Christ, through any and every trial, we too will conquer in Him. We will even overcome death itself.