The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has cast out your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Do not fear, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. (Zephaniah 3:15-18)
The Orthodox Church honors the memory of the Prophet Zephaniah each year on December 3. Zephaniah had prophesied that God would one day be in Israel’s midst and Israel would no longer have anything to fear. Interestingly, Zephaniah has it that God would rejoice at being in the midst of Israel (rather than Israel rejoicing in God’s presence). When God is present in Israel, God will renew His people with His love. There is no promise that there will no longer be enemies for God’s people, only that they will no longer fear these enemies. Being with God drives away fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).
“The one whose intellect is always ‘with the Lord,’ whose irascible part is full of meekness owing to the remembrance of God, and whose desire completely inclines to the Lord, is entitled not to be afraid of our enemies who surround our body on all sides (Evagrius).” (Gabriel Bunge, DRAGON’S WINE AND ANGEL’S BREAD, p 17)
We are taught to fear God, but even this is a special fear that is not opposed to love, but is related to it. St Theodoros the Ascetic says:
‘Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole man‘ (Ecclesiastes 12:13, LXX). Here the preacher says to us: I show you in summary form the best way to salvation: fear God and keep his commandments. By fear he means not the initial fear of punishments, but the perfect and perfecting fear, which we ought to have out of love for Him who has given the commandments.
For if we refrain from sin merely out of fear of punishment, it is quite clear that, unless punishment had awaited us, we should have done things deserving punishment, since our propensity is for sinning. But if we abstain from evil actions not through threat of punishment, but because we hate such actions, then it is from love of the master that we practice the virtues, fearful lest we should fall away from him. For when we fear that we may neglect something that has been enjoined, the fear is clean (cf. Psalm 19:9), arising for the sake of the good itself. This fear purifies our souls, being equal in power to perfect love. He who has this fear and keeps the commandments is the ‘whole man’, in other words, the perfect and complete man. (THE PHILOKALIA Vol 2, p 36)
For St Theodorus if we avoid sin only because we want to avoid punishment/hell, it becomes clear we are willing and even want to commit the sin and abstain from it not because we love the good but only because we fear punishment. What he calls us to is to love God and to let all we do be done in love – let all we do be what we freely and lovingly choose to please God. This of course means denying the self at times and recognizing the Lordship of God to determine what is good and what is evil. We become fully human when we fully and freely embrace the good and reject all that is evil. So, we pray to God: “deliver us from evil.”