Love Casts Out Fear

Love Casts Out Fear June 23, 2016

St. Anthony the Great. Saint Antoine le Grand, icône à l'huile sur toile marouflée sur panneau, de style copte, fin XIXe/début See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
St. Anthony the Great. Saint Antoine le Grand, icône à l’huile sur toile marouflée sur panneau, de style copte, fin XIXe/début
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Abba Anthony said, “I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.’ ([1]John 4:18).[1]

We do not know when St. Anthony the Great said this, but by the way it is referenced, it would seem to be something he learned after years of struggle by which he was to come to spiritual maturity. Perhaps it was soon after his mastery over temptation that he discerned the presence of God was with him, helping him overcome the provocations of the devil, and from that discernment, he was to realize that God’s love was with him and the proper response to such love is not fear but love.[2] This is not to say he abandoned his ascetic pursuit for perfection, that he was to have no other temptations, that he was to have no other struggles in his walk with God. It does mean that there was a transformation which took place within himm which allowed him to see all such activity is to be done within the domain of love. He was to see himself as a friend of God who followed Jesus not out of servitude but out love. Anthony was to find that Jesus’s words to his Apostles when Jesus called them his friends also applied to him and all Christians who properly follow Christ:

You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another (John 15:14- 17 RSV).

Anthony did not say he would abandon the work God had for him. But he realized the power of love and how it was in and through his love for God he found it possible to accomplish God’s expectations for him. To be sure, he knew that it was because God loves us, because God is love, that our love for God is able to be so effective that it could free us from the burden of servitude. He no longer looked to God’s commands in the spirit of legalism where he feared retribution. Instead, he came to know God’s bountiful love for him and how such love truly covered his sins (cf. 1 Ptr. 4:8). And so he ended up freed from the fear of displeasing God’s justice, becoming entirely enthralled with the love of God.

Anthony’s words were written down and transmitted so that we, too, can come to see what God desires for us. We must realize that he desires us not to come to him out of fear, as mere servants who flatter him hoping for some reward due to our petty accomplishments in life, but rather, as friends who love him, who follow him out of that love and not in pursuit of some mercenary reward. What Anthony lived out and experienced is something we should all experience. In our walk with God, there should be that transformation which moves us away from such mercenary thinking so that we can become mature spiritual persons who find ourselves in a loving friendship with God

What, then, are we to make of the book of Proverbs when it says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10 RSV)?   First, we can read it as indicative of the process which we go through for spiritual maturity; early on in our walk with God we do fear God for his justice, similar to the way we, as children, fear breaking the rules our parents make for us as we grow up. Through discipline we learn right from wrong, and so, through such a legalistic foundation we begin the path of wisdom which seeks after the good. The law and rules which we were given as children helped point us toward the good, and the simple corrections we received help train us so that we receive good habits before we continue our spiritual pursuit.The beginning our journey is not to be seen as the attainment of the good; such insight which leads to the good, as Proverbs indicated, comes from intimate knowledge of God, the knowledge which is the result of coming to know him as he is, as the God who is love. So the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, not its end. As we grow in our walk with God, we are to know ourselves as priests and kings of the God most high (cf. Rev. 1:6 and Rev. 5:10).

Secondly, we can look at the kind of fear implied by Anthony via the Apostle John. We are to cast away fear, as John indicated, the fear which comes over us due to legalism. As a result, we find a new, different kind of fear, a holy fear, the fear of a lover who does not want to offend the bond of love they have formed with their beloved. We love God, and so we fear displeasing God, not out of any mercenary fear as if we will not get some desired reward from God, but because we dislike the very notion of disappointing our beloved. It was in this manner Dorortheos of Gaza indicated there are two kinds of fear, and we should not equivocate the two:

What does the holy man signify to us by this? What sort of love and what sort of fear is he talking about? The psalmist says, ‘Fear the Lord all you who love him,” and we find thousands of similar sayings in Holy Scripture. If, therefore, the saints who so loved him feared him, how can he say, ‘Love casteth out fear?’ St John wishes to show us that there are two kinds of fear, one preliminary, the other perfect; the one found in beginners – as someone called it ‘of the devout’; the other in those perfected in holiness, of those having arrived at true love. One forms a desire of God through fear of condemnation; this is, as we said, the starting point. His starting point is not ‘what is good’ but the fear of torments. Another forms a desire for God because he loves God himself, loves him and knows what is acceptable to God. Such a man is goodness itself, knowing what it is to be with God.[3]

Spiritual maturity found in love therefore does not end our spiritual journey, but transforms it. We should attain a stage where we no longer seek petty rewards for our good works even as we are to no longer fear petty punishments for our bad works. We are to see God as our friend, whose bond of friendship is so great we know he will do all he can for us – even die for us – and we, likewise, will act the same in return. We will not fear God with a slavish fear, afraid of offending him as if we offended some petty Lord or Master, but we will continue to do what he desires with the vigor which comes from the bond of friendship. What St. Anthony experienced is truly not his alone, but open to us all, if we but follow the path of wisdom and truly realize the love of God in our lives.


 

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 8.

[2] St. Athanasius described Anthony’s victory happening around the age of thirty-five:

 

Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, ‘Where were thou? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?’ And a voice came to him, ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; wherefore since you have endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to you, and will make your name known everywhere.’ Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly. And he was then about thirty-five years old.

 

St. Athanasius, “Life of Antony” in NPNF2(4):199.

[3] Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses & Sayings. trans. Eric P. Wheeler (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 109.

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