Picture you’re in a 7-11, and the clerk steps out of the store (unlikely, but just humor me). There you are, with all that candy in front of you and nobody watching. Do you pocket any? I can imagine you saying, “No”. Ok, let’s say I’m asking you to do it anyway. Would you still say no? Where is the limit, when would you would finally do it? Would you never do it?
This agency, whatever it is that prevents you from taking what is not yours, is the fear of God. It stays your hand from violating His Will. It’s deeper even than conscience, which most people feel only after they’ve committed a crime.
This kind of fear is a protector, a guardian, against one’s own insufficiency of understanding. Take the Fast for example. Many people don’t comprehend the wisdom of the Fast, but they observe it anyway. Why? What about when no one is around, why do they still not eat? Some shrink back from shame, or fear of being punished. But most are simply averse to breaking their Covenant with God. It’s not emotional terror that strikes them, but a fear much deeper, and much stabler. It’s like being afraid of violating your own integrity. Emotional terror can be countered by sufficient will, but the fear of God is a true fortress for the spirit:
The fear of God is the shield that defendeth His Cause, the buckler that enableth His people to attain to victory. It is a standard that no man can abase, a force that no power can rival. By its aid, and by the leave of Him Who is the Lord of Hosts, they that have drawn nigh unto God have been able to subdue and conquer the citadels of the hearts of men.1
When one comes to appreciate the Fast, they can observe it for love of God and admiration of His beauty. But until then – and this is true of any of the Laws – the believer is stuck between mystery and enlightenment, and the fear of God is their only refuge. Since obedience itself is one of the means by which we grow spiritually, it is paramount that we understand this concept.
In formulating the principles and laws a part hath been devoted to penalties which form an effective instrument for the security and protection of men. However, dread of the penalties maketh people desist only outwardly from committing vile and contemptible deeds, while that which guardeth and restraineth man both outwardly and inwardly hath been and still is the fear of God. It is man’s true protector and his spiritual guardian. It behoveth him to cleave tenaciously unto that which will lead to the appearance of this supreme bounty. Well is it with him who giveth ear unto whatsoever My Pen of Glory hath proclaimed and observeth that whereunto he is bidden by the Ordainer, the Ancient of Days.2
There are many times in my past when I saw myself as a “Bahá’í for lack of opportunity”. I used to bemoan this, wondering how I could be true to my Lord when circumstances determined my faithfulness. The answer is the fear of God. If I wed myself to that ideal, and properly fear God, I will learn true faithfulness, despite my frailty and lack of comprehending the wisdom of all of His laws. By working on this one area, I give myself the freedom and time to develop my understanding, without worrying that I will fail due to lack of knowledge. I no longer have to depend on agreement with the Law to abide by that Law!
Does this mean I crush my mind under a weight of obedience? Think of it this way: If one believes in the truth, they would never want to betray that truth. Some believe in truth, but lie under pressure. How can one be true to the truth, in defiance of their own emotional frailty? The fastest way is to identify one’s self, psychologically, with the ideal of truthfulness, making dishonesty appear as a destruction of their self. This is what the medieval knights did, when they accepted the code of righteous conduct: death before dishonor. Did they have to fully grasp the meaning of honor, in all its implications? No, they merely recognized that without honor, they were comprising their existence as men.
This is the fear of God, to realize that obedience to the Covenant is the foundation of our soul’s well-being, and that to violate it is no less tragic than for a knight of the Round Table to accept dishonor. The foundation of our spiritual life is our recognition of God and our obedience to the Covenant. When a transgression is as fearful as plunging a knife into our own heart, I think we’ve begun to fear God properly.
But do we cower in fear at the thought of stabbing ourselves, all day every day? No, we never think of it at all. In fact, the healthy fear of authority we all possess – which causes us to obey traffic lights and not shop-lift – never occurs to us as an emotional fear. I don’t think the fear of God should either. So it remains true that “Love never dwelleth in a heart possessed by fear” – the kind of fear that worries or terrorizes, not the kind that protects one from willful self-destruction.