To love God or to fear God? That is the question.
As I was driving down an interstate road late one breezy spring night, I read a billboard signed by God. But I felt no tranquility, no joy. My lips grew so heavy I could not smile. I was gripped by a strange, suffocating unease.
“DON’T MAKE ME COME DOWN THERE,” it angrily warned.
The warmth of the moonlight, which felt like God’s smiling, protective eye gazing directly at me as it hit my skin and illuminated the darkness, suddenly became an intrusive beast that was lighting the darkness ahead of me only to see me crash in it. In that moment, the earth became a lost city.
Is God not already present in the soul of every living being, and reflected in every non-living thing? And more strikingly, why (on earth) would God “coming down” in His personal form ever be a thing to fear? Indeed, mankind has no greater dream: it is a prospect that every life of every civilization in human history has lived and died for, and will continue to live and die for - whether at its occurrence skeptics will look and say, with matter-of-factness, “proof,” or followers will say, with tears in their eyes, “at last.”
But that was the billboard’s intention exactly: instilling fear. Fear, the most dangerous of all human emotions, the catalyst of inaction. And when it comes to authentic spirituality, there is no greater demon than inaction, because it not only prevents progress itself, but also eliminates the will to progress. Our very lives are expressions of our past spiritual progress, and because of the inaction that fear can enable, there will be nothing left to express, no higher lives to live for. How can we confidently and faithfully climb higher if the very mountaintop we are climbing towards is telling us to be afraid of heights? We cannot.
When once asked by a devotee what he felt when he chanted the holy names of the Lord (which of course is non-different than experiencing God Himself) Srila Prabhupada replied with that characteristic lack of hesitancy only attainable by someone who has seen the face of Truth:
“I feel no fear.”
My heart began to vibrate as I read those words. It was my soul, shaking with ecstasy. Srila Prabhupada was saying to live without fear is to be with God. Of course, there is no way to escape fear in this world except through taking shelter in God Himself, through His transcendental names, so that they are embedded into our very heartbeat, our very lifeline, so that even when we are not actively saying them they sustain our existence, at which point our hearts are no longer even beating but rather dancing. And to embrace God in this way is the most courageous thing one can do in this universe.
But to portray God not only as an angry punisher, but as the source of all fear as the billboard implies, was one who would rather intimidate us with His absence and threaten us with His presence, rather than act as a loving protector, who, by contrast, yearns to deliver us from that very absence and longs to be with us, seems criminally counterproductive. Because it brings our sincerity into question: are we acting out of love or self-interest?
Some may say the answer to this question does not matter in spirituality, as long as we believe; on the contrary, it could not matter more, because the answer breeds an even more fundamental question: is it actually God we seek, or simply the security of the place where He lives? Or, expressed in biblical language, God may have created the heavens and the earth- but did He not exist before that?
I believe the mentality, so prevalent in materialistic culture, that appeals to our lower selves (through fear) rather than our higher selves (through love) repels people from religion, and infinitely worse, from God. Especially young people, who are already disillusioned by fear-mongering, whether by political leaders, parents, or organized religion itself. One example of this repulsive mentality is the group of so-called religious preachers who stand outside the public events and shopping centers of America condemning individuals who, because God “hates” them, are doomed to suffer eternally in hell. Homosexuals. Liberals. Non-fundamentalist Christians. Their list is endless. It is manifested in senseless religious wars. It is manifested in the dangerous notion that the road to enlightenment is paved only with guilt. And it is manifested in the billboards that fail to guide us and have nothing worthwhile to say. People see these atrocities and turn the other cheek. Unconditional love of God cannot exist in a culture that calls hope rage.
This is a reason that the Lord triumphantly declares in the Bhagavad-Gita, “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” (18.66)
Thus to embrace and surrender to God is to be fearless. But fear is hardly real; it is an illusory construction of the mind. As verse 15.7 from the Gita states, “the conditioned soul is bound up, as though shackled by iron chains. He is bound up by the false ego, and the mind is the chief agent which is driving him in this material existence.” Therefore, rather than pander to the basest emotion of the disturbed, ephemeral mind, perpetually agitated by temporary material conditions and pulled by chains like a dog, why not appeal directly to the Soul, eternal and brimming with God’s present love, and change the angry, spiteful message that induces aversion from God (as reflected in the billboard) to the achingly beautiful and comforting one that attracts us to God (Krishna, after all, means all-attractive) and is reflected in the Lord’s blissful words in the passage quoted above?
“The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: Fearlessness; purification of one's existence; cultivation of spiritual knowledge; charity; self-control; performance of sacrifice; study of the Vedas; austerity; simplicity; nonviolence; truthfulness; freedom from anger; renunciation; tranquility; aversion to faultfinding; compassion for all living entities; freedom from covetousness; gentleness; modesty; steady determination; vigor; forgiveness; fortitude; cleanliness; and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor — these transcendental qualities, O son of Bharata, belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.” (BG 16.1)
It is no coincidence that the very first quality the Lord lists as transcendental and divine is fearlessness. Hence Srila Prabhupada’s response: “I feel no fear.”
After all, it is our own karma that ultimately punishes us, not God. But of course, in this material world, making God a scapegoat for our own fears is so much easier than meaningful self-examination.