Fear And Trembling

Work for your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God, for his own loving purpose, who puts both the will and the action into you. Do all that has to be done without complaining or arguing and then you will be innocent and genuine, you will be children of God. (Philippians 2:12-15)

by Sr Mary Magdalene Eitenmiller o.p. 

[The sisters of St. Catherine's Convent, Cambridge are giving a reflection each week at Vespers on Wednesdays in Lent.  This week Sr Magdalene reflects on the virtue of humility] 

Sr Magdalene preaching at Vespers in Blackfriars Cambridge

This short passage that we have just read from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2, verses 12-15, encourages the Christians, in what is perhaps a better English translation, to “work for your salvation with fear and trembling.” “Fear and trembling.” What does it mean to work for our salvation in fear and trembling? St. Thomas Aquinas understands this to refer to the need for humility. “For the proud one does not fear, but the humble person does,”[1] he says. And St. Paul warns, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he falls” (1 Cor 10:12). All that we do must be in keeping with the goal of our salvation, as well as the salvation of others. And we work for our salvation precisely by allowing God to work in us. But we must be humble in allowing God to transform us, for as Christ teaches, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). This is not to deny our free will, but rather, it is to show our absolute dependence on God’s grace and mercy. Humility involves a recognition of this need for God, as a little child needs the help of his loving father or mother.

And Humility helps us realize that God alone is the very goal of our

lives, since only God can make us ultimately happy forever in seeing Him face to face and enjoying His Presence in heaven. Humility also recognizes that in this life we all fall short of the holiness to which we are called. We have all sinned in either small or great ways. But Christ, as St. Paul says, came to save sinners. That means that when we acknowledge and repent of our sin, he wills to forgive us and fill us with his grace. This is what takes place in the sacrament of reconciliation, the sacrament of confession, in which we humbly admit our own sinfulness with a true desire to change our lives. Christ came for sinners. He came to suffer and die for us out of the great love that he has for us. And he desires not only to forgive us our sins, but also to further us in the good. That is, he calls us to be holy. He loves us so much that he wants to make us like himself, like himself in goodness, grace, wisdom, and charity or love.

So when we pray, St. Thomas teaches that there are two primary considerations that lead us to God. “The one is the consideration of God’s goodness and loving-kindness, according to Ps. 73:28, It is good for me to adhere to my God, to put my hope in the Lord God: and this consideration awakens love which is the proximate cause of devotion. [So by considering God’s goodness and love for me, I can grow in my love for him.] The other consideration is that of one’s own shortcomings, on account of which he needs to lean on God, according to Ps. 121:1-2, I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me: my help is from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth; [This consideration of our own lowliness, our own weakness, helps us to grow in humility, that is, it helps us to rely more on God, rather than on ourselves] and this consideration also shuts out presumption by which one is hindered from submitting to God, because he leans on his own strength.”[2] So it is helpful to meditate on these two things: 1) God’s goodness and love, in order to rouse me to love him more; and 2) my own weakness and failings, so rather than trust in myself, I trust in God, since, as Christ says in the Gospels, “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).

This is also why it is helpful to meditate on or think about Christ’s Passion. Aquinas explains that “in the consideration of Christ’s Passion there is something that causes sorrow, namely, the human defect [our own sin], the removal of which made it necessary for Christ to suffer [Christ suffered for my sin], and there is something that causes joy, namely, God’s loving-kindness to us in giving us such a deliverance.”[3] In other words, as Christ tells us in the Gospels, “No greater love is there than this, that one should lay down his life for a friend” (Jn 15:13.) And St. Paul declares, yet “while we were still enemies” (Rm 5:10) after original sin, “Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).

            This, then, is the Wisdom of the Cross: Christ has turned the evil that Satan intends on its head. When by God’s grace I repent and turn to him, God has the power to use the very things that would otherwise destroy me: my weakness, imperfection, even my sin, to instead, redeem me, to purify me, to humble me, to unite me more and more to Himself in Charity, supernatural Love. So then, there is no longer any need to be afraid to hear or see the truth about myself, for as St. Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10), if only I give myself completely to Christ, who told St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

            God became man to order to increase our hope in Him who assists us by his grace to live a life of true holiness even when and where it is most difficult. For this reason, there is no need for us to despair when we see our own sinfulness, because, for God, nothing is impossible (See Lk 1:37). We “can do all things” (Phil 4:13) by His grace. At the same time, we do not become presumptuous either, thinking that he will save us if we ourselves are unwilling to repent and so be saved.

But if we do repent, and do desire to truly turn back to him with all our hearts, Christ desires to unite us to himself in true love, the charity that comes to us through his gift of the Holy Spirit. The love that is greater and deeper than any love in this world or any love that we can possibly imagine, the love that transforms us, the love that divinizes us, making us more and more like God, until the day in which we shall see him face to face and enjoy the blessed life with him forever in heaven.



[1] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Philippians c. 2, l. 3, n. 76.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q. 82, a. 3, resp.

[3] ST II-II, q. 82, a. 3, ad 1.

Copyright ©2020 Stone Dominican Sisters