It is easy to mistake piety for the genuine response that God wants of us, that is, to enter into a relationship of intimacy with Him and then try to help others have that same experience.
We see this everywhere in Scripture. For example, in Luke’s Gospel, after witnessing a miraculous catch of fish, Peter responds by falling at Jesus’ knees and saying: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” At first glance that would seem the appropriate response, a wonderfully-pious one, an acknowledgement of his littleness and unworthiness in the face of God’s abundance and goodness. But, as John Shea points out in his commentary on this text, Jesus names Peter’s response differently and invites him to something else. What? Peter’s response manifests a sincere piety, but it is, in Shea’s words, “fearfully wrong”: “The awareness of God makes him [Peter] tremble and crushes him down. If he clings to the knees of Jesus, he must be on his own knees. Peter does not embrace the fullness; he wants to go away. This is hardly the response Jesus wants. So he instructs Peter not to be afraid. Instead, he is to use what he experienced to bring others to the same experience. As Jesus has caught him, he is to catch others.” Jesus is inviting Peter to move out of fear and into deeper waters of intimacy and God’s abundance.
We see a similar thing in the First Book of Samuel (21, 1-6). King David arrives at the temple one morning, hungry, without food. He asks the priest for five loaves of bread. The priest replies that he hasn’t any ordinary bread, only consecrated bread that can be eaten only after the appropriate fasting and rituals. David, nonetheless, knowing that, as God’s king on earth he is expected to act resourcefully rather than fearfully, asks for the loaves and he eats the bread that, in other circumstances, he would have been forbidden to eat.
What makes this story important is the Jesus, when confronted by the fear and piety of the Scribes and Pharisees, highlights it and tells us that David’s response was the right one. He tells those who were scandalized by his disciples’ lack of fear that David’s response was the right one because David recognized that, in our response to God, intimacy and a certain boldness in acting resourcefully, are meant to trump fear. “The Sabbath,” Jesus asserts, “was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. That axiom might be rendered this way: God is not a law to be blindly obeyed. Rather God is a loving, creative presence that invites us into intimacy and then gives us energy to be more-creative in the light of that relationship.
Some years ago, a young mother shared this story with me. Her son, six years-old and now in school, had been trained from his earliest years to kneel down by his bed each night and pray aloud a number of ritual prayers (the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, a prayer to his guardian angel, and blessings and protection for his parents and siblings). One evening, shortly after starting school, when his mother took him to his room, he crawled into bed without first kneeling to say his prayers. His mother asked him: “What’s wrong? Don’t you pray anymore?” “No,” he replied, “I don’t pray anymore. My teacher at school (a nun) told us not to pray but to talk to God … and tonight I’m tired and have nothing to say!” In essence, this is the response of King David, asking the priest for the consecrated loaves. This young boy had an intuitive grasp that God is not a law to be obeyed but an intimate presence that resources us.
A number of the great Christian mystics have taught that, as we grow more deeply in our relationship with God, we gradually become more bold with God, that is, fear gives way more and more to intimacy, legalism gives way more and more to resourcefulness, judgment gives way more and more to empathy, and the kind of piety that would have us clinging to the knees of Jesus paralyzed by our own sinfulness gives way more and more to a joyous energy for mission.
Of course, there’s an important place for piety. Healthy piety and healthy humility are gifts from the Holy Spirit, but they do not paralyze us with an unhealthy fear that blocks a deeper, more-joyous, and more-intimate relationship with God. David had a healthy piety, but that didn’t stop him from acting boldly and creatively inside the intimacy of his relationship to God. Jesus too had a healthy piety, even as he was constantly scandalizing the pious around him.
We too easily mistake unhealthy fear for genuine piety. We do it all the time, naively seeing fear as virtue; however the mark of genuine intimacy is never fearfulness, but bold, joyous energy. The healthiest religious person you know exhibits this boldness and joy rather than a dead, overly-fearful piety.