Much of Polhill’s instruction on how to prepare for suffering makes sense upon first consideration: For instance, a lively hope of eternal life necessarily orients one to look to beyond the suffering, and thus limit the pain which suffering can inflict (for suffering afflicts one most painfully by extending endlessly into the future — but the certain hope that it will end, that suffering can only be a “little while” (1 Peter 5:10) does much to defang the monster).
Yet, when he comes to the seventh direction, one may begin to question his wisdom:
The seventh direction is this, if we would be in a fit posture for suffering, we must get an holy fear in our hearts.
Edward Polhill, A Preparation for Suffering in an Evil Day, 347. Polhill knows the apparent difficulty with the concept, therefore he begins by defining the scope of this holy fear by means of three characteristics: It is fear of the Lord — human beings; it is a fear which springs from faith; and it is a fear mixed with love.
Fear must have its end in God: Human beings are contingent creatures — we have no life or being in ourselves; we cannot cause our life to continue; we cannot cause our body to persist. All our existence hangs from something else, and that something else rightly becomes the object of fear.
When fear does not find its object in the Creator, the human being becomes even more wretched — for the fear does not disappear by banishing God. Rather, the fear flits about for an appropriate object making the man ridiculous:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
OnlyThere is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, “The Burial of the Dead”. But what of one who claims to have no fear of any-thing? Look at his life? Why the absurd concern for basketball teams or politics? How could the movement of a ball across a court or field be of such moment? If no Creator or Judge concerns himself with us, then why the least concern for life or death? To concern oneself with life or death, with politics or police in the absence of any God is like anxiety for soapbubbles – in fact, bubbles existing in a meaningful universe matter more, for they can convey beauty: but what beauty can exist in absurdity?
To live without a rightly angled fear must by necessity be a persistent affliction. Thus, we seek to remedy this by landing our fear upon the image not the original. We concern ourselves with humanity which Scripture calls “fear of adam [human beings, “man”]” which is a trap:
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.
To fear man is to fear too little — fear must be set upon its rightful object:
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows
Here is a curious fear: It is an existential fear — it is a fear of that which reaches to one’s existence beyond the grave. Yet, this fear becomes the basis of comfort. Having fixed our fear on its rightful and sole object — God who created us and can exercise absolute dominion over us — the fear transforms to solace, “Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” When we finally fix our fear on Creator, than nothing of the creation can instill fear:
12 “I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, 13 and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets himself to destroy? And where is the wrath of the oppressor? 14 He who is bowed down shall speedily be released; he shall not die and go down to the pit, neither shall his bread be lacking. 15 I am the LORD your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar- the LORD of hosts is his name. 16 And I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.'”
When our heart fills with fear of The Lord, then we will not fear man — for man is merely something made by God. Indeed, the entire creation lies within God’s control, God “who stirs up the sea ….”
The second aspect of godly fear is faith. It makes sense to set one’s faith upon the ultimate matter of concern — God who has consumed all one’s fear:
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.
Polhill, 348. As we rightly fear God, the fear closes with faith and drives us to God. Godly fear does this by causing us to fear offending God — which drives us from sin. And, having been driven from sin, we have no choice but to run toward God.
Thus, fear of God reduces the creature to its true measure and drives us on to God.
Finally, a fear which prepare for suffering is mixed with love. Here is a peculiar fear that draws one to the one feared, for the one whom we fear is the one who draws us in love:
I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them.
Hosea 11:4. The Creator looks upon the creature and has compassion upon out fraility:
13 As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. 14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. 15 As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. 17 But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, 18 to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. 19 The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Psalm 103:13-19. As we rightly fear the King and Creator of all, our fear mixes with love and instills love. Our confessed weakness stirs our Lord’s love and protection; as when David calls out to God for protection, and God answers with rest and sleep for David:
1 O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; 2 many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God. Selah 3 But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. 4 I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah 5 I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. 6 I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around
Psalm 3:1-6. We will be bound to sin to the extent that we do not fear God. One who cannot and does not fear God will be bound to the world of sin — how then can he suffer for this God or suffer to lose this world (seeing it is his all):
the love of sin lives in him still, as an ancient hath it. 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. 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.
Edward Polhill, 348.