St. John describes this spiritual danger in these words: "Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity. Fear is a loss of assurance . . . it is a lapse from faith that comes from anticipating the unexpected."
This spiritual phenomenon takes place in our lives more than we realize. For each person the fear is slightly different. Sometimes we fail to follow Christ because we are afraid of what it will cost us. There is a cost associated with each step of the spiritual journey; a further detachment from the things of this world, a new step of faith and trust, a great reliance upon Christ. When we face those moments of truth when the cost is made abundantly clear, we can feel very threatened and vulnerable. For so long we have lived in a certain way, for so long our security has been wrapped up in the things and ways that we are now being asked to put aside. The fears can grow very large. Other times we falter in our journey towards God because we are afraid of the reactions of others. As we grow towards God, we change. Very often these changes are not immediately accepted by those who have known us. When we move towards God in positive and challenging ways, we run the risk of misunderstanding, abuse and rejection. Once again, the fears loom large. Other times we are afraid of our own inability to do that which God has asked us to do. Perhaps we have failed so many times in the past that we are afraid of falling again. It seems easier to do nothing than to step out in obedience to the call of God.
These and many others represent the nature of our fears. But St. John pushes us to see the "why" behind the "what." He isolates two factors. First we are overwhelmed with fear because of our pride. "A proud soul is the slave of cowardice. Trusting only itself, it is frightened by a sound or shadow." Secondly, we often are overwhelmed by fear through demonic oppression. St. John describes it this way: "It is barrenness of soul, not the darkness or emptiness of places, which gives the demons power against us. And the providence of God sometimes allows this to happen so that we may learn from it."
How do we overcome such fears? The answer is clear: through sincere humility and heartfelt trust in God and through the rejection of all Satanic fantasies. We must not allow fear to keep us from pursuing God. We must look neither to the right nor to the left, but walk faithfully on that path which God has laid before us, looking to Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith.
1-6 St. John begins by defining cowardice and describes how it has its roots in a lack of faith and vainglory.
Cowardice is childish behavior within a soul advanced in years and vainglory. It is a lapse from faith that comes from anticipating the unexpected.
Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity. Fear is a loss of assurance.
A proud soul is the slave of cowardice. Trusting only itself, it is frightened by a sound or a shadow.
Those who mourn and those who are insensitive suffer no cowardice, but the fearful and the frightened often collapse and their minds are unhinged.
7 St. John then tells us why it is important to overcome this vice and what means are available to us.
The slightest concession to this weakness means that this childish and absurd malady will grow old with you. So as you go where fright will lay hold of you, put on the armor of prayer, and when you reach the spot, stretch out your hands and flog your enemies with the name of Jesus, since there is no stronger weapon in heaven or earth. And when you drive the fear away, give praise to the God Who has delivered you, and He will protect you for all eternity, provided you remain grateful. Just as one morsel will not fill your stomach, so you will not defeat fear in one move. It will fade in proportion to your mourning and the less we mourn the greater will be our cowardice.
8-9 Interestingly, St. John says that as we grow in the spiritual life, we will begin to detect the presence of spiritual beings through the presence and absence of fear. John then concludes by telling us that the greater our fear of God and His judgment, the less we will fear the things of this world.
"My hair and my flesh shuddered" (Job 4:15). These were the words of Eliphaz when he was talking about the cunning of this demon. Fear starts sometimes in the soul, sometimes in the body, and the one communicates the weakness to the other. But if your soul is unafraid even when the body is terrified, you are close to being healed. However, it is barrenness of soul, not the darkness or the emptiness of places, which gives the demons power against us. And the providence of God sometimes allows this to happen so that we may learn from it.
The servant of the Lord will be afraid only of his Master, while the man who does not yet fear Him is often scared by his own shadow. The body is terrified by the presence of an invisible spirit. Yet when an angel stands nearby, the soul of the humble is exultant. So if we detect an angel by the effect he is producing, let us hasten to pray since our heavenly guardian has come to join us.