When Jesus tells us that we should be afraid, what is it that we should fear? “Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell,” he says. “Yes, I tell you, fear him!” He is pretty obviously talking about the devil, but what does the devil mean to us? It makes sense to be skeptical of horror fiction versions of the devil, and suspicious of historical attempts to label people as demonic. But there is evil in the world, and it stems from our furious need to control. There is a drive for domination that causes people to rape and beat those they claim to love, psychopaths to murder children, political leaders to advocate for and authorize genocide. This is why Jesus talks about God’s deep love for us immediately after inspiring us to fear the devil. You think you need to dominate and control, but you don’t. God can show you how to let go of this hellish control, because God has let go of control out of love for you. God will not dominate you, but will advocate for you. The Holy Spirit will visit you.
The thing to fear, then, is our egos, our false selves, the personas we wear, the identities we insist on. They are all forms of the same dominance that destroys innocence and corrupts nations. Thomas Merton puts it better than I ever could:
There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. We must remember that this superficial “I” is not our real self. It is our “Individuality” and our “empirical self” but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God. The “I” that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its own reactions and talks about itself is not the true “I” that has been united to God in Christ. It is at best the venture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown “self” whom most of us never discover until we are dead…”Hell” can be described as a perpetual alienation from our true being, our true self, which is in God.
And that’s where fear can enter into a healthy spirituality. I don’t fear God, but I fear my separation from God. I fear that I will be content within illusions of myself. I fear that I will convince myself that sin is somehow justified, that doing wrong is part of a process of conversion. It’s not. It is separation from God, and the conversion that Luke points us to is a union with God, an imitation of Christ that doesn’t show us our true selves, but is our true selves.
Thomas Merton quote from New Seeds of Contemplation, https://www.powells.com/book/-9780811200998.