do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Isaiah 43:1-2
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight. Proverbs 9:10
Perhaps, like me, you have found comfort these last few weeks in Philip Stopford’s moving “Do Not Be Afraid.”
“I have called you by name, you are mine. Do not be afraid.”
Taken at face value, this is nonsense, isn’t it? You and I should be afraid of the coronavirus that threatens so many of us and our neighbors. We wear masks when we are out. We keep our distance from others. We shelter in place, rightly fearful not only for our own lives and well-being but for our loved ones, for our neighbors, and for the medical personnel who must care for the ill. This is good fear, wise fear.
Courage is a moral excellence and, as Plato and Aristotle suggested, a wise person is afraid of some things. A person is courageous not if she fears nothing, not if she is never afraid. A courageous person fears what should be feared, and doesn’t fear things that should not frighten us. She knows what things are genuinely worthy of fear, things like the loss of a good reputation, and sudden death. The courageous person acts boldly, despite her appropriate fears, at the right time, in a fitting way, and for good reasons. Foolhardy people do not act boldly; they act rashly, failing to recognize what should be feared. Cowardly people fear too much, and to greatly fear things that cannot do real harm.
Scripture, too suggests that there can be good fear. Jesus counsels us not to be anxious about the wrong things, about money, about clothing. “Consider the lilies and how they grow.” (Matt 6:25-34) God, on the other hand, is rightly feared with a fear that should result in repentance and seeking first God’s kingdom, and not the kingdom offered by our own Caesar.
Scripture seems to suggest that a good education is an education in fearing well. And there is much to fear: the fear that Leo Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych discovered only on his deathbed–that he had lived his own life mistaken about what was worth loving, what was worth pursuing; that we may have deceived ourselves about whether this job we are pursuing is really about serving others rather than about serving our egos; that we may have failed to notice and be grateful for the beauty of the amazing spring day; that we may have failed to pay attention to the child before us or to our neighbor; that we are complicit in social arrangements that are leaving the weakest among us to die alone; that we are making our world uninhabitable for distant neighbors; that we may have lived again today, like yesterday and the day before and the day before that, not loving God with our whole heart, and not loving our neighbor as ourselves. Be afraid, rightly!
“Scripture seems to suggest that a good education is an education in fearing well.”
To be rightly afraid, of course, is to remember that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39) To be afraid well is to hear, every morning and every night God’s song to us, “Do not be afraid…I have called you by your name. You are mine.”
Tom Kennedy, PhD is a professor of Philosophy at Berry College. He joined Berry in 2007 after years at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Kennedy has also taught at Calvin College, Hope College, and Austin Peay State University. At Berry, he is responsible for the oversight of the Evans School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and for courses in philosophical and Christian ethics.