Saturday, October 9, 2010

Q&A on the fear of God

Question: Why does the Bible say we're supposed to fear God - and, at the same time, love Him?

Answer: See below.


When we think of things we fear we tend to imagine things like psychopaths, tsunamis, and dams (am I alone on this one?). . . spiders, high school bullies, terminal illness, or even bigger spiders.

And we love none of these things.

Go ahead. Try it. Think of a few things you fear and see if there are any you can honestly say you love.

And yet, the Bible is not crazy. Nor is it mistaken. These two apparently mutually exclusive commands work perfectly well together, once you understand them. Here are some reasons why.

1. It's not the kind of fear you're thinking of.

There are at least 11 different words used in the Old Testament (OT) that describe fear as it relates to God. There are at least 6 in the New Testament (NT).

These 17 words are usually translated into English as variations of fear, awe, dread, dismay, trembling, falling back before, and respect.

While these words describe what we all recognize as terror, they nevertheless stand for something clean and oddly wholesome. None of them contain any connotation of "fear that results in loathing". (You know, like the fear inspired by spiders and even bigger spiders.) There are other words for that kind of fear.

In the Bible the "fear of God" often indicates a healthy reverence, including a fear of offending God and a hatred of evil.

2. It's a reminder that we are not to get all chummy with God. Intimacy is part of our relationship with Him, but flippancy never is.

One of the most ridiculous parts of modern Christian thinking is the idea that when we get to Heaven we'll be all, "Yo, Big J, 'ssup?!"
(Note: This is my best flippant hipster imitation. If it's not good, I don't care.)
(How's that for flippant!)
(You caught the irony, right?)
(Sorry - getting back to the topic now. . . )

Chumminess is calling God "the man upstairs".
It's excusing disobedience with, "Me and God, we got an understanding."
It's the belief that we can do any silly or idiotic thing we want, and God will just laugh right along.

God is our Father, and He will be our eternal friend.
But when we start calling Him "Pal", we're on the wrong road.

People who rightly fear God will not fall into these traps.

I remember the first time our general lack of awe toward God became clear to me. I was talking to a Muslim man many years ago. He truly feared his god. I sensed such a reverence and gravity in his concept of the divine that I honestly felt embarrassed by my lack of it.

That experience made me think.
Today I am convinced that the modern American Church suffers terribly under a watered-down sense of who God is.
We do not take God seriously enough. Not even close.

3. Fear of God is the result of a correct understanding of who God is.

As portrayed in the Bible, the fear of God doesn't make us run & hide so much as fall down and worship.

Every manifestation of God to humans in the Bible describes those people trembling, falling down, even despairing of their lives. In that moment, they caught just a glimpse of who God really is, and it affected them tremendously.

There was a German theologian (Rudolf Otto - "The Idea of the Holy") who tried to describe what it's like to experience the presence of God. He found that he had to create some brand new words to do it because all the old ones were so tainted with insufficiency. One of his new words was mysterium tremendum. It describes a lightning bolt awareness of the mind-boggling awesomeness of the holy, coupled with a shivering sense of one's own smallness & fragility.

I actually experienced something like this on a much smaller scale a few months ago.

I was driving to work one morning and found myself looking directly into a massive, powerful thunderstorm. Over me was nothing but clear blue sky. But about 10 miles ahead was a straight horizon-to-horizon line of heavy, roiling black as far as I could see. It had a presence. It was chilling.

As I looked at it my jaw dropped, and my gut began to twist. I had that feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster hill when you know what's about to happen.

I have to say that I'm not normally afraid of storms. And when I am it's because I fear the tornadoes hiding inside it, not the storm itself.
But on that morning I was irrationally and viscerally terrified by what was in front of me - by the thing itself, and not its potential effects.

The fear I felt at that moment was my natural response to the presence of something infinitely more powerful than myself.
That's mysterium tremendum.

And that was just a storm.
Imagine standing in the presence of God!