Pohill begins with his proposition which he seeks to prove in the ensuring discourse:
If we would be in a fit posture for suffering, we must get an holy fear in our hearts.
He then cites to two texts of Solomon which commend fear as a means of wisdom:
The wise Solomon begins his Proverbs with this; “The fear of the Lord is the beginning (or head) of knowledge,” (Prov. 1:7); and ends his Ecclesiastes with this, “That to fear God, and keep his commandments, is the whole duty of man,” (Eccl. 12:13).
He then makes the observation that the capacity to fear the God is something which belongs uniquely to human beings. Not even devils, who have great intellectual capacity can perform this task of exhibiting a holy fear of God:
Other things appertain to the beast, or the devil; but holy fear is the all of man, it makes him a perfect man, not only to do God’s will, but to suffer under it.
He then notes three ways in which a fear of God creates a basis to withstand suffering. First, he contrasts the fear of God with the fear of man. He makes a series of observations respecting the fear of other human beings. To begin with, the fear of man is irrational (compared to the fear of God), because men are everywhere accounted as weak:
It is not the fear of man but of God, that doth it. It is not the fear of man that can do it. God gives us a charge against this, “Who art thou, that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die?” (Isa. 51:12). There is no cause to fear a weak piece of clay, a very breath, a fading leaf; he must die, and there is an end of him and all his thoughts perish with him.
Pohill could have cited to any number of like verses which warn us to not fear man, such as
Isaiah 2:22 (ESV)
22 Stop regarding man
in whose nostrils is breath,
for of what account is he?
Moreover, fear of man leads to sin:
The wise man tells us, “That the fear of man bringeth a snare,” (Prov. 29:25). It made Abraham dissemble as if he had no wife; David changed his behaviour, as if he had no reason; Peter curse and swear as if he knew not his master: this fear disposes to apostacy,
He takes the remedy from the remainder of Proverbs 29:25:
Proverbs 29:25 (ESV)
25 The fear of man lays a snare,
but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.
The fear of God and the fear of man seem to be mutually exclusive categories; we can only do one or other. And thus Pohill argues that the fear of man
must be cured by that fear of God, which disposes to suffering: when we are ready to drown in worldly sorrow, it is of singular use to spring another, a godly sorrow in our hearts; and when the fear of man puts us into trembling fits, it is an excellent remedy to raise up the fear of God in our souls above the other.
The fear of God does not create a generalized anxiety; rather it is a cure to anxiety. Rather than being basis for anxiety, a concern for the Lord alone creates freedom from a concern of what happens in this world:
Thus God directs his people not to fear the confederate enemies, but to “sanctify the Lord of Hosts himself, and to let him be their fear and their dread,” (Isa. 8:12, 13). He is Lord of Hosts, God over all, and the fear of him should be above all other fears; this is the way to have him to be a sanctuary to us, as it follows. If we fear him, he will be an inviolable place of retreat, where we may repose ourselves in a day of trouble.
Second, he distinguishes fear of the Lord from fearfulness. He uses the now unusal word “diffidence” which emphasis a lack of confidence, doubt, uncertainly. The fear of the Lord does not paralyze us in place:
It is not a diffidential fear, but a fiducial one that doth it: a diffidential fear makes the mind, as meteors in the air, to hang in suspense, and, in case affliction come, to fail under the burden. St. Peter walked upon the water to go to Jesus; but when he saw the wind boistrous, he was afraid, and began to sink, (Matth. 14:29, 30.) By faith he walked, and by diffidence he began to sink.
While sinful fear creates diffidence in our heart, the fear of the Lord is consistent with faith and confidence in God:
Our condition is the very same; in the waves of a troublesome world we stand by faith, but fall by diffidence; that fear, which prepares us for suffering, must be a fiducial one. “Ye that fear the Lord, trust in the Lord, he is their help and their shield,” (Psa. 115:11).
Fear of man entails an increasing sense of protection of myself-by-myself; it is the opposite of faith. Fear of the God causes us to flee and run toward God in faith:
Holy fear is and must be in conjunction with faith. Fear flies from the evils of sin and hell; faith closes in with the promises of grace and glory; both concur to make a man fit for suffering; and such a sufferer shall have God for his help and shield.
Thus, fear of God is not a fear which causes wavering or cowardice.
Third, fear is also associated with a position of dependence. But the fear of God is not the dependence of a slave but the dependence of a child: “It is not a servile fear, but a filial one that doth it”.
The difference in these two types of fear lie in the result of such fear with respect to sin. There is a difference between fearing the consequence of sin as opposed to hating the sin:
he that hath a mere servile fear of the wrath to come, may forbear an act of sin, but he hath the love of it in his heart; “adhuc vivit in eo peccandi voluntas” the love of sin lives in him still, as an ancient hath it.
He then applies this question of fear to matter of suffering. If one merely fears pain – such as the consequence for sin – then such a one will reject all suffering. One who suffers for God suffers because the love of God is greater than the sorrow of suffering:
Such an one is not in a fit case to suffer for the truth; he hath not a love to God to move him to it, nor a capacity to have heaven after it; and how can he suffer? It is very hard for a man to suffer for a God that he loves not; or part with the good things of this world, when he hath no hope of those in a better.
He then contrasts servile fear with filial fear (the fear of a child) on the ground that filial fear is fear of God mixed with the love of a child:
That fear, which prepares for suffering, is not servile, but filial; it stands not in conjunction with the love of sin, but with the love of God; the nature of it is such, that he that hath it will displease man rather than offend God; part with a world, rather then let go the truth and a pure worship; nay, and lay down his life rather then forfeit the divine presence and favour which are better than life. Thus much touching the nature of that fear, which prepares us for suffering.
In the second half of the essay, he lists out three ways in which holy fear acts to prepare us for and help us endure through suffering. First, holy fear looks upon sin as worse than suffering. Second, holy fear takes real the suffering of hell as opposed to temporal suffering. Third, holy fear looks upon eternal loses as greater than temporal loses.
What each of these elements has in common is that holy fear, fear of God, puts our life into a different context. The fear of a bare creature is the fear of loss of some immediate good in the present creation. But holy fear looks through the present and sees things in their eternal aspect.
First holy fear looks upon sin as worse than suffering. Sin is contrary to God:
Holy fear looks upon sin as an evil much greater than any suffering: suffering is opposite to the creature,
but sin is opposite to the infinite God;
it is a rebellion to his sovereignty,
a contradiction to his holiness,
a provocation to his justice;
an abuse to his grace;
a stain cast, as much as in us lies, upon his glory;
nay, as the schools speak, it is a kind of deicidium, it strikes in a sort at the very life and being of God;
it wishes that there were none at all;
and, if it could effect it, there should be none.
Suffering does not make a man worse; but sin does:
Suffering doth not make a man worse then he was before, but sin doth it. Those saints that were destitute, afflicted, tormented, wandering in deserts, and mountains, and dens, and caves of the earth, were yet such excellent ones, “That the world was not worthy of them,” (Heb. 11:37, 38). On the other hand, Antiochus Epiphanes, (who was, as his name imports, illustrious and glorious in the world) was yet but a vile person, and was made such by his wickedness.
Next, present suffering can only affect those things which must lose. Sin will cause the lost of those things that must not lose:
Suffering strikes at the estate or body of man, but sin strikes at his soul, a thing more precious than a world; nay, and at the divine image there, which is more worth than the soul itself:
Consider the degradation which sin perpetuates:
it doth, where it can prevail, turn men into beasts in its sensual lusts, or into devils in its spiritual wickednesses: suffering may have good, nay great good in it, but sin is evil, only evil; it is called by St. James, περισσεία κακίας, the superfluity or excrement of all evil, (James 1:21).
It contains all evils in it; and if all evils (saith a worthy divine) were to have a scum or excrement, sin is it, as being the abstracted quintessence of all evil, and having nothing at all of good in it. Sin, saith Bradwardine, is a thing not to be done, “pro quantiscunque bonis lucrandis, aut pro quantiscunque malis præcavendis,” for the gaining never so great a good, or for the avoiding never so great an evil.
He that hath this holy fear in his heart, will choose suffering as the lesser evil, rather than sin, which is much the greater….It was the saying of Anselm, That if sin were set before him on one hand, and hell on the other, he would rather choose hell than sin. … Holy fear will tell us, that sin must not be done to avoid suffering; that we were better bear all reproaches than dishonour God; lose our estates than leave our religion; nay, and lay down our lives than be separated from the Divine love.
O let us look upon sin as the maximum formidable; as that which hath in it the most proper cause of fear and flight, that no external miseries and dangers may be able to drive us into it.
Second, a holy fear causes the reality of hell to overshadow the losses of this world:
Holy fear looks at the sufferings which God inflicts in hell, as incomparably greater than those which man doth or can inflict upon earth.
Our Saviour directing our fear to its right object, takes notice of the vast difference between them, “Fear not them, which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him, which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28.)
Man’s killing is one thing, but God’s destroying another: man may kill the body, and it may be in a tormenting manner; but there is no death like the second; no torments on earth are comparable to those in hell; no finite arm can strike so hard as the infinite one; no culinary or elementary fire can burn so hot as the infernal doth.
….Man may kill the body, but after that he can do no more, his engines of cruelty cannot reach the soul, or touch the inward man, which is a sanctuary for God; but God kills the soul, his wrath is in a peculiar manner poured out there where the chief seat of sin was; the never-dying worm is ever growing upon conscience. … He that hath this holy fear in him will choose any sufferings on earth rather than those in hell. One of the sons of Solomona told the tyrant Antiochus, that his fire was cold, and indeed it was so, comparatively, to the fire of hell.
St. Austin [Augustine] putting the question whom we should obey, God commanding one thing, or the emperor commanding another, makes his answer: “Da veniam, Imperator, tu carcerem minaris, ille gehennam,” Give place, O emperor, thou threatenest a prison, he a hell.
When Polycarp was threatened with fire, his answer was, That the persecutor threatened only a momentary fire, but knew not the eternal one. He that ever heard that true thunder, which is the voice of God, would hardly be afraid of such artificial cracks as the emperor Caius Caligula used to make to shew himself a God. And he that carries upon his heart an awe of those sufferings which God inflicts in hell, will hardly fear those which men inflict on earth.
Holy fear looks upon spiritual and eternal losses, as incomparably greater than carnal and temporal ones. The loss of the world may be made up in the saving of the soul; but for the loss of a soul, nothing can make a recompense.
Moreover, the loss of this world will be more than satisfied by the gain of the world to come and the presence of our Savior:
The loss of man’s favour may be richly made up by the presence of God’s. Moses endured the king’s wrath, as seeing the invisible one; the presence of God was so with him, that he feared no human frowns. But if the divine favour be wanting, nothing can supply the defect of it.
Conversely, if we were to lose God, what good would the entire universe provide? All things in this world are temporal; the things to come are eternal.
Its riches are but poor moth-eaten things, which in a little time vanish away; its pleasures are but the titillations of sense, and perish in the using; its honours are but a blast, a little popular air which soon go away, and come to nothing. When once God, who is the fountain and spring of all good, departs, it is in vain to hope for any thing from the little rivulets and cisterns of the creature.
When we compare what will have and lose with respect to God; our concern is not to lose the creature but to lose the Creator:
The adulterous woman fears, lest her husband may come; the chaste woman fears lest her husband depart. In like manner servile fear makes us afraid that God will punish, and filial fear makes us afraid that God will depart. The loss of him is more than the loss of all things.
He finishes with this exhortation from a Martyr:
When the Martyr Menas, under the persecution of Dioclesian, was brought forth to suffer, he gave this reason for it: “Nihil est, quod meâ sententiâ conferri possit cum regno cœlorum; neque enim totus mundus potest, æquâ lance expensus uni comparari animæ;” There is nothing, in my judgment, like the kingdom of heaven; neither may the whole world, if weighed in an equal balance, be compared with one soul. He had rather lose anything in the world than a heaven and a soul. O let us labour to know where the great loss lies, that we may never for sake spiritual and eternal things for carnal and temporal.