Ask a Franciscan

Fearing God the Father

Q: As a lifelong Catholic, I find the infant Jesus and the adult Jesus very approachable. When I think of God the Father, however, I am very afraid. I know that fear of the Lord is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but I feel terror when I think about facing God at the end of my life. How can I arrive at some peace with God the Father? This fear has been eating away at me since I arrived at middle age.

A: Thanks for asking. Perhaps the first thing to remember is that we have been created in God’s image and likeness. The Book of Genesis tells us that God created us freely and desires to share life with us. In general, learning more about Scripture is the best way that you can face your fears about God the Father.

Unfortunately, a second-century heresy continues to leave its mark on many Christians. Marcion maintained that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God of the New Testament. Marcion taught that the Old Testament God was one of laws and punishment while the New Testament God was full of love and mercy.

Although the mystery of the Trinity was not fully revealed in the Old Testament, the Christian Church has condemned as heresy Marcion’s contention that the New Testament God is fundamentally different. The same God has inspired both Testaments and has pledged his enduring covenantal love. Although some Christians may feel that God in the Old Testament is overly strict, consider that polytheism (belief in many gods) was the most common approach in the ancient world. Adding one more god is quite easy; giving up all the ones previously worshipped and accepting the unique God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was quite a challenge. There can be no compromise between polytheism and monotheism. Thus, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah had to relearn everything. Though the Hebrews were tempted to imitate their pagan neighbors in food, clothing, how they built their houses, and many other aspects of life, the Hebrews could not borrow any religious language or custom that presupposed the existence of many gods.

Even so, God in the Old Testament is not all thunder and lightning, commands and punishments. In Hosea 1:1—3:3, God compares the eighth-century BC Hebrews to a faithless wife, but affirms his steadfast love for her. Switching to the parent/child
metaphor, God says later that he was the one who taught Ephraim (the northern kingdom) to walk and who fed Ephraim (11:3-4). God is not blind to Ephraim’s sins, but they cannot destroy God’s love for the people.

The psalmists frequently proclaim that God’s love endures forever (100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1-4, 29; 136:1-26). Numbers 14:18 affirms that the Lord “is slow to anger and rich in kindness, forgiving wickedness and crime. . . .”

In the Gospel of John, Philip asks Jesus to show the apostles the Father. Jesus replies: “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works” (14:9-10).

Many other examples could be cited. In the New Testament, Jesus is quick to forgive those who repent, but he points out that sometimes it is too late. That is the case in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19-31) and the people who were condemned at the Last Judgment for failing to recognize Jesus in the poor, the hungry, and others in extreme need (Mt 25:41-45).

Jesus reveals God the Father and God the Holy Spirit in unique ways, but these are a single God, united in love and mercy. “Fear of the Lord” is not a paralyzing fear but, rather, the respect that flows from recognizing that we have been created in God’s image and likeness. God made us to live in freedom, but often we get confused and mistake sin for freedom. When that happens, our best response is to confess our sins and live in the graced life that God has always intended us to enjoy.

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