Fear of God, Faith, and Encounter

May and June of 2017 will be hard to forget. Frightful killings, suicide bombings occurred in Manchester (May 22), Egypt (May 26), and Afghanistan (May 31), where numerous innocent lives were snuffed out. June began with more terrorist attacks in London again (June 3) and Melbourne (June 6). And these are just the major ones; many smaller incidents occurred during the same period all over the world.

How are people coping with pain and loss? Poet Tony Walsh read from his poem This Is The Place to a Manchester audience: “In the face of a challenge we always stand tall.” His Grace Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, grieved over the Coptic martyrs, but forgave the perpetrators with the following statement:

You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.

These public expressions of determination and Christian forgiveness are welcome in a culture that seems to have lost both. But the bombs and carnage have left many people across the world more fearful than ever about crowded events, flights, airports, city centers.

Some are showing signs of what psychologists call compassion fatigue, helplessness or shutting down at horrors that are simply too large and too frequent. Fear of terrorist attacks comes up often in my class discussions with students. How can one cope with fear? Is it still even possible to overcome fear? Or to use Pope Francis’s words: what will it take to stem the spiral of fear?

Contrary to what many might think, courage is not the opposite of fear. Aristotle taught that it is right and human to be fearful about certain things, but to have the right measure of fear because “the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash.” (Nicomachean Ethics II) It’s simply human to feel fear when you’re facing danger, but you should not let fear paralyze you or stunt your life.

The Christian answer to this question is something of a paradox – overcome fear with a different kind of fear – fear of God. Scripture and the Early Church Fathers are quite straightforward on this: if you fear God, you will never be afraid again in quite the same way since there’s nothing to fear, ultimately. “Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.’” (Revelation 1:17)

St. John of the Ladder (579-649) wrote: “Whoever has become a servant of the Lord fears only his Master. But whoever is without the fear of God is often afraid of his own shadow. Fearfulness is the daughter of unbelief.” (Step 21)

Jesus Stilling the Tempest by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

St. Ephraim the Syrian (306-373), known as teacher of repentance, makes the same argument about the fear of God, “Whoever fears God stands above all manner of fear. He has become a stranger to all the fear of this world and placed it far from himself, and no manner of trembling comes near him.”

The fear described in these examples is a healthy or reverential fear of God, which is intimately connected with faith. The Christian fear of God cannot be separated from faith. It is a kind of healthful fear that makes one’s faith in God bold. For Christians, it is faith that leads beyond ordinary fear, death, and intimidation. It’s a faith that turns impossible circumstances into hope. And it is faith that makes believers strong in the face of evil, terrorism included.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous Lutheran pastor martyred by the Nazis, knew where to turn in time of fear and uncertainty. He preached about overcoming fear in 1933 (the very year Hitler came to power): “Look to Christ when you are afraid, think of Christ, keep him before your eyes, call upon Christ and pray to him, believe that he is with you now, helping you. Then fear will grow pale and fade away, and you will be free, through your faith in our strong and living Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Strong faith allows trust in God. Witness the Coptic martyrs who were massacred by terrorists on May 26, 2017: they were killed because they refused to deny Christ. These courageous martyrs accepted horrific deaths – because of faith.

Still, the question doesn’t entirely go away: Is fear of God and faith in God enough to overcome fear of terrorist attacks? The answer isn’t simple. The terrorists do not just kill innocent people. They kill to bend the will, to intimidate, to exhaust, to discourage, to make people unsure of themselves. Terrorists want to destroy souls – and fundamental values and hopes.

And it’s worth drawing a distinction. A person who fears Allah, a person of faith who prays sincerely, fasts, and respects the Islamic tradition, is a Muslim. A person who considers his religious tradition as a political enterprise whose end is to purify other traditions – which he believes are corrupt and corrupting – is an Islamist and has no problem even killing other Muslims.

I know how difficult the dialogue we need is going to be. It’s hard even to be sure when we are talking with a Muslim and when we are dealing with an Islamist. We should have a healthy suspicion – perhaps even a certain fear – when we see so much naïve talk about “dialogue.”

But here, too, fear must be overcome. Taking a risk and encountering the Muslim, the God-fearing Muslim faithful, who is suffering and is himself often the victims of terrorism, is a necessary part of both self-defense and an effort “to stem the spiral of fear.” And conquering that fear may, in the process, also help combat terrorism.

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. She edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs. Her latest book is Mother Teresa: Saint of the Peripheries.