The most ubiquitous instruction in the Bible, we are told, is this: Do not be afraid.
And yet, its counterpart is not unfamiliar, either: Fear the Lord your God.
Ash Wednesday marks the first of forty days of Lent. It also marks the end of the first forty days of a new presidency that has engaged the emotions and spiritual lives of people within and without this country like perhaps no other.
During these past forty days in this country, we have tended to stoke our own fears and one another’s. The President has told us to fear bad guys, bad actors, bad hombres; to fear liberal activists, public bathrooms, so-called judges; to trust (almost) no one. On the other side of the political divide, we are advised to fear the President, his cabinet, climate change, corporate greed, and our own tendencies to division over diversity. Many caught in the middle already know all too well whom to fear: Jewish Community Centers are learning to dread the new Monday ritual of bomb threats called in around the country; those who have long fought for equal dignity under the law and in their local establishments wearily take up a defensive stance once more – they know the drill.
Where, in fact, does the instruction not to be afraid fall short in the face of terror attacks on our news feeds, and the uncertainty of our future together? Then again, where does the commandment to fear God, and keep God’s commandments to love our neighbours galvanize resistance to our scapegoating of one another, and a determination to persist in love in the face of any such fears?
I am dedicating my Lenten practice this year to Forty Days of Fear, not because I need extra excuses for fear in my life, but because I have a hunch that properly discerned fear might the corollary, not the opposite of that ubiquitous instruction, Do not be afraid: Fear not/fear God.
Fear the Lord and keep God’s commandments; to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. For perfect love drives out fear, and so the fear of God, properly and paradoxically practised, might be the end of fear itself.
“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom;” sagacity sprinkled like salt throughout scripture.
Do not be afraid.