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The church used to dwell too much on fearing God. Have we gone too far in the opposite direction?

A Reflection for Friday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time

“It is I who deal death and give life.” (Deuteronomy 32:39)

Yikes. No mincing words here. In today’s Psalm, God is in charge. Clearly. (Charles Bronson, watch out.) The first reading is similarly blunt about God’s plans for the people of Nineveh: “I will cast filth upon you, disgrace you and put you to shame.”

What to make of this? This is not the God I grew up with. I know it was different for those who grew up before Vatican II, when a healthy (and sometimes not so healthy) fear of God was instilled in the young. Growing up in the 1980s, I was not too far removed from the Jesus of “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I received a button saying “God doesn’t make junk.” If I had been asked, “Do you fear God?” my reply would have been a half-hearted, “I guess?”

But as I have gotten older, and I have begun to try to pass the faith on to my own children, I see the importance of two facts. God loves us. That cannot be denied. But God also expects something of us. As we tell the students in our seventh grade confirmation class, “fear of the Lord” (or “right reverence”) is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

If it is God who is in charge of life or death, then as long as we respect that fact, we can let go and truly follow him.

It is, however, not one we tend to dwell on a whole lot. It’s understandable; for too long, the church dwelled on it too much. And it’s not always easy to convince young people in particular that they are both loved and that they are sinners who must answer to God. This is a tricky balancing act.

But balance we must, especially as we mature in the faith. And today’s responsorial Psalm (which gains even more power with repetition) is the bracing reminder we need. It is God who “deals death and gives life.” He wants our love and our right respect.

And come to think of it, perhaps these words (again, with repetition) can have a calming effect. If it is God who is in charge of life or death, then as long as we respect that fact, we can let go and truly follow him.

We are not in charge. God is. Sometimes we need these facts to be stated plainly.

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