Tag Archives: Christian perfection

Fear of God as the Pathway to the Love of God

love the harbor“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practice ithave a good understanding.
    His praise endures forever.” 

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;  for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1)

Are love and fear opposites?  In the popular sentimentality of the 21st century West, fear is on a spectrum “negative” emotions to be avoided at all costs (including sanity, truth, and virtue).  Christians often like to quote 1 John 4:18 as evidence that our faith should have nothing to do with fear. Others seem to base their whole faith on fear, reducing the gospel to fire insurance.  But a more nuanced, canonical approach reveals that the Bible is not as paranoid about fearing God as we modern Christians are.  Taking a more holistic view thus undercuts

  • Fundamentalist Christians, who use texts like Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10 to justify a fear-based approach that is both effective and damaging.  I can’t tell you how many times I “got saved” as a youth because a preacher scared the hell out of me (literally) and sent me careening toward the altar convinced that God hated me.  It’s important to remember that the only people Jesus scared were the uptight religious folks and authorities of empire; the fundamentalist wing of Christianity tends to do the opposite: apologize for empire and religious authority while putting fear into the common folks and ignoring the plight of the poor and marginalized.
  • Progressive Christians, who use texts like 1 John 4:18 as proofs against fear having any kind of role in the Christian life.  It’s common to hear progressives talk about their “conversion stories” (meaning their transition out of conservative Christianity) as a move from a “fear-and-law-based” faith to a “love-and-grace-based” faith.  While I am sympathetic to this journey because it is similar to my own, the truth is that too often Christianities that are solely focus on “love” have such a Westernized, emotive view of love that it tends towards cheap grace and even pantheism.  If God is love, and love costs nothing and elicits no response, then discipleship, worship, mission, evangelism matter little.
  • Cultural Christians, who have neither fear nor love for God.  One significant strand of this is described well by Kenda Creasy Dean from Princeton as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Cultural Christians are those who identify as Christians but have no active relationship with God and/or a faith community; they may pray when the chips are down and go to church at Christmas, but day-to-day their decisions and actions are governed by something other than the Triune God.  They have neither fear nor love for God, but might occasionally try to use God to get what they want.

But can we get to the love of God and wholly bypass fear? St. Isaac the Syrian suggests this is impossible:staniloae

Just as it isn’t possible…for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear. We can cross the tempestuous sea placed between us and the spiritual paradise only with the ship of repentance, borne by the oarsmen of fear. If these oarsmen of fear don’t handle the ship of repentance well, by which we cross the sea of this world toward God, we will be drowned in it.  Repentance is the ship, fear is the rudder, love is the divine harbor. So fear puts us in the ship of repentance and we cross the tempestuous sea and it guides us to the divine harbor, which is love where all those who labor and have been enlightened by repentance arrive. And when we have reached love, we have reached God. And our journey has ended and we have reached the island which is beyond this world.

In his classic work Orthodox SpiritualityDmitru Staniloae expands on this by noting that the fear at issue is chiefly fear of a lower love of God, or fear of remaining egotism which would keep us from reaching the harbor of pure love (Wesleyans would call this Christian Perfection, the East would call it theosis or union with God):

The will for a greater love will keep us on board and help us to steer a straight course. It will keep our heads above the giant waves of evil and the egotism which rises up within us. It will lead us straight ahead. Only in the vessel of repentance do we constantly pass over the sinful waves of egotism, which tend to rise up from deeply within us and beneath us. Only by it are we always above ourselves and moving onward from our present position, moving closer to full love, closer to the paradise where the tree of life is, in other words to Christ, the source of love which feeds our spirit. (2)

I love the vision of the life with God as a journey.  Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Eastern spirituality reminds us that there are “many danger, toils, and snares” on the way to the full love of God. (3)  A proper and holy fear of failing to reach “perfection in love” and thus the fullness of the life God intends to give us seems, as St. Isaac suggested, a part of our pilgrimage we cannot avoid if we would reach that harbor for which we were made.

What do you think? Does fear have a role to play in our journey towards a full love of God? Are repentance and fear necessarily linked? How would you preach or teach this journey? I’d love to have your feedback below.

Notes

  1. Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; 1 John 4:18.
  2. Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), 140-141.
  3. “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton.

Christian Perfection or Christian Perfections? John Cassian on Degrees and Kinds of Perfection

just forgiven
“Just” forgiven? Shockingly, good soteriology is hard to do in 5 words.

“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” says a popular evangelical bumper sticker.  My grandpappy in the faith, John Wesley, would disagree – as would many other Christians who think salvation is not less, but certainly more than, justification.  But is the perfection that is a gift of God’s grace one address, or a street with many different addresses?

Wesley famously defended his unique (among Protestants of the time) doctrine in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  He quotes one of his brother Charles’ hymns to show that they had believed and taught perfection from the beginning of their ministry:

Safe in the way of life, above
Death, earth, and hell we rise;
We find, when perfected in love,
Our long-sought paradise.

O that I now the rest might know,
Believe, and enter in!
Now, Saviour, now the power bestow,
And let me cease from sin!

If we back-pedal many centuries, though, we find that what Wesley rediscovered for Protestants was something present quite early in the Christian tradition.  John Cassian, a great influence on Benedict and his Rule, spends a chapter in his famous Conferences discussing perfection.  He records the following from a conversation with Chaeremon, an Egyptian anchorite:

“Scripture summons our free will to different degrees of perfection, and this in proportion to the condition and the measure of the individual soul. It was not at all possible to propose to all together the same crown of perfection, since everyone does not have the same virtue, the same disposition of will, or the same zeal. Hence the Word of God lays down the different degrees and the different measures of perfection.”

He quotes a variety of Scriptures to back up this claim, including Psalms ascribing blessedness for a host of different virtues, and 1 Cor. 15:41-42, “Star differs from star in brightness. And so it is with the resurrection of the dead.”  Chaeremon adds,

“So you see, then, that there are different grades of perfection and that from some high points the Lord summons us to go higher.  Someone blessed and perfect in the fear of God will walk, as is written, ‘from virtue to virtue’ (Ps. 83:8), from perfection to some other perfection.  That is, with eager spirit he will rise up from fear to hope, and then he will be invited to a holier state, that of love.  He who was ‘the faithful and prudent servant’ (Mt. 24:25) will pass to the relationship of a friend and the adopted condition of sons.” (Conferences, 11.12)

In a sense, this is where Cassian and Wesley finally meet on Christian Perfection: love.  Earlier in Conference 11,  Chaeremon notes that three things keep us from sin: fear of punishment, hope of the Kingdom, and love.  He then goes on to describe lesser and greater perfections in terms of this sequence: “We should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue.” (11.7)

For Wesley, the perfection that is possible for the Christian to attain, with God’s abiding presence and gracious gift, is always a perfection “in love.” It is not a complete freedom from temptation or fault, but a transformation of “tempers,” a habit of the soul which has been so marked by the Spirit that it is completely filled with love for God and neighbor.

Christian perfection, for John and the early Methodists, was only a possibility for a long-time saint, probably near death.  Later Wesleyans would distort what he took to be a long process into an instantaneous gift, of course.  But the early Fathers and Mothers would agree with Wesley that virtue and holiness are not quickly obtained.

So are there a variety of perfections open to the Christian, or just one?   Cassian opens up the possibility that perfection is not merely a single destination, but several along the way to that final glorification for which we long – when we at last can behold the blessedness of God, not in a mirror, darkly but in full and magnificent splendor.  Like John Climacus – and, much later, John Wesley – Cassian reminds us that complete salvation is not achieved in an instant, but given by the grace of God over a long, grace-imbued road.

None of this is to our credit (this is worth repeating at the end because we Wesleyans are often accused of Pelagianism), but rather as Charles Wesley reminds us again, our boast is in the goodness and mercy of God:

Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.