If we have ever wondered to ourselves if we have been perfected in love, that we truly love God and neighbor with perfection, then we can look to the first letter of St. John for guidance. St. John puts it very simply, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” He goes on to say, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love” (1 John 4:16-18). This should be very easy for all of us to understand. If we find ourselves often caving into fear or if we’re more concerned with avoiding eternal punishment or even temporal punishment rather than with truly loving and serving the Lord and neighbor, then we are not yet perfected in love. The fact that we are not yet perfected in love should not be a cause of shame, but a motivation for us to continue to grow in love. It shows that we are still in need of perfection in the love of God and that we need to be purified of inordinate worldly attachments to wealth, property, power, and pleasures. We need to open ourselves up more to the grace of God and soften our hearts towards Him so that He might more fully convince us of His undying love for us, that we have no reason to fear.
If we find that we are still giving into fear, especially fear of punishment, and are not motivated primarily by the love of God, then we are in good company. We should not be ashamed to humbly acknowledge our imperfections. All of us have them. In fact, the disciples in Mark’s Gospel reading for Mass from the Wednesday after Epiphany also show by their actions and reactions that they have not been perfected in love, even after witnessing Jesus perform the miracle of the loaves and fish. They saw a literal miracle with their own eyes and still feared the winds, the waves, and the ghost of Jesus walking towards them on the sea.
The fact that we are not yet perfected in love should not be a cause of shame, but a motivation for us to continue to grow in love.
The Evangelist Mark says at the end of today’s account that the disciples had not understood the incident of the loaves and that their hearts were hardened. These are astounding words from Mark! They seem to suggest that the disciples were not much different at this point from the scribes and the Pharisees who had likewise hardened their hearts to the Lord. The difference though is that the disciples continue to follow the Lord in faith and listen to his teachings despite not fully understanding them. Their faith in Jesus continues to guide them in spite of their fear and it is their undying faith that so perfects them in love that they eventually proclaim the Gospel boldly under the threat of persecution and death at the hands of the Jewish authorities. Perfect love will eventually cast out fear in these disciples. We are like the disciples in the sense that we are all a work in progress. But this work can only continue to progress by the grace and action of the Holy Spirit in our lives and to the degree that we persevere in faith, hope, and charity as we willingly cooperate with the Spirit’s action. If we find that we have hardened our hearts towards Jesus, his Holy Gospel, and his wonderful works, then we should ask for the grace to soften our hearts and to listen to Jesus once again. Our hearts are hardened the more they respond to fear rather than love.
At this point, it’s necessary to make an important distinction between servile fear and filial fear. When we hear that perfect love casts out all fear, some might become confused especially when they recall that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is fear of the Lord. How can perfect love cast out fear and yet we receive the gift of fear from the Holy Spirit. It’s important to note that fear of the Lord is not the same as fear of punishment. Traditional Catholic theology distinguishes between servile fear, a fear of punishment, from filial fear, a fear that is rooted in love and reverence for God. Servile fear is the type of fear that typically exists between a master and a servant. The servant seeks to serve the master, not out of a primary motivation of love for the master but out of a fear of suffering punishment for failing to serve. On the contrary, filial fear is based more on a familial relationship such as the relationship of a parent to their child. Filial fear is not motivated by fear of punishment at all; rather, one’s motivation to love and to serve God and neighbor primarily comes from one’s love for God. Hence filial fear is a positive motivation whereas servile fear is a negative motivation. The problem with servile fear is that it can often be an activator of our faults and sins. We often make poor moral choices when we’re motivated primarily by fear.
Our love is perfected when we are moved to love God and neighbor entirely by filial fear and not servile fear. In reality, the majority of us are motivated by a mixture of these two types of fear. If we wish to be perfected in love, we should strive to cultivate a filial fear by cooperating with God’s grace in our lives through prayer, meditation upon Scripture, reading the writings of the saints and imitating their virtues, availing ourselves of the sacraments and of God’s love and mercy communicated through them, and finally through performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy for our neighbor.
– Fr. Matthew Mary