Friday, March 1, 2013

Fear and Trembling pt 1

She's afraid, but not of God...
     If you read the Bible for any length of time and explore the history and development of theology, it's hard not to work up some "pet doctrines": you know, verses, passages and teachings that impact us greatly and that we feel are vitally important and that we and those around us get right, both intellectually and practically. I bet if we were to ask John the Baptist, he'd zero right in on repentance (Matt. 3:7-11). John the Apostle might zoom in on love (1 Jn 4:7-21). A conversation with Paul would be dominated by justification by faith (Rom 1-8). So one of mine is the concept of the fear of the Lord: I think many those of who profess Christ have heard this idea and healthy (and necessary) response to God grossly neutered and distorted. I just finished an email to a friend who has been concerned about 1 John 4:18 and the connection/distinction between perfect love (God's and ours for Him) and fear. The book I mentioned last time ("Future Grace" by John Piper) includes a great concise definition of the fear of the Lord we all are commanded to, which is a great place to start: "In other words, 'fear the Lord' means 'fear the terrible insult it would be to God if you do not trust His gracious promises of power and wisdom on your behalf.'" I've been greatly taught by a series by Al Martin on this doctrine, and I used one of my rare opportunities to teach at church to draw my brothers and sisters into a truer and deeper grasp of just what the Bible means by this fear.  According to Pastor Martin, there are between 150-175 explicit uses of the term "fear of God/the Lord" and dozens of texts where it is implicitly referenced, so this is not a topic we are permitted to brush off or treat lightly.  Martin uses 2 broad categories to dip our toes into understanding godly fear and uses analogies we are all familiar with...
God's got us right where He wants us...
1.  The Fear of Terror and/or Dread:  This is the most obvious and common meaning:  when a 9 year old boy turns the last corner between school and his house and is confronted with the neighborhood bully, a 14 year old giant weighing in at 5'10" and 170 lbs, the boy is gripped with an intense fear of the damage the bully is capable (and more than willing!) of doing and the pain associated with that damage.  We all have felt this, and when applied to God in Scripture, it is usually linked with the force of His wrath against evil and evildoers, often along with appropriate examples from prior revelation.  One great example is every reference to Sodom and Gomorrah:  implicit in the use of Gen 19 is the horrific consequences of God's righteousness against all who defy Him.
2.  The Fear of Reverence and Awe:  The lesser known fear, this concept is seen in the honor, submission, and respect that we are to have for those superior to us.  Pastor Martin uses that same boy, but tells of him on a school field trip to the White House in Washington D.C.:  while his class is listening (or pretending to listen) to the tour guide drone about the West Wing or the Lincoln bedroom, a Secret Service agent comes in and calls out this boy's name.  He is shaken from his education and stares at the agent with wide eyes.  The G-man focuses on the little boy and says "Are you So-and-so?  The president wants to speak to you."    Now the trembling really starts, and the boy has to be pulled by the scruff of his neck along with the agent.  Now he's not dreading a physical beating by the president... he rightly fears the prestige and power of the highest executive in the land.
     We'll develop this a bit more next time, but there's two common problems that I've encountered with the fear all men are commanded to offer to God, one for unbelievers and one for believers:  
  • Unbelievers, especially in America, are trained by our political system and increasingly by a broad cultural disdain for authority to regard all fear as coercive and tyrannical.  Any resort to or mention of the dignity and submission due authority (and the consequences of disobedience) is seen as something only a Neanderthal would stoop to.  We shouldn't fear anything, especially our leaders.  Obviously, every person will be held accountable by God one day... Martin paints out the picture of a man on a train track with a locomotive 100 feet behind him going 60 mph.  For the man to be there, only seconds away from a squishy death, he is either unaware of the danger (unaware that "after this comes the judgment"; Heb 9:27), or he is insane:  he is incapable of linking the sight of the train with the potential it has for destroying anything in front of it.
If this guy was tickling your neck, would you "honor" him?
  • Believers, on the other hand, are aware of the judgment of God and rightly grasp its consequences... but many, consciously or unconsciously, operate under the idea that if a person is washed in the blood of Jesus, they have no reason to be afraid of God.  Respect yes, but these folks are still brainwashed by the aforementioned cultural bias (only a despotic Neanderthal would want people to fear him) and drastically downgrade the majesty of God.  This flies in the face of texts we'll explore at length next time (Isa 6:5, Rev 1:17, Matt 10:28).  I remember talking with a man on the bus:  he saw me reading the Bible and started a conversation.  I found out he attends a local "prosperity gospel" Christian center (not "church", thankfully!) and the last question I asked him was on this topic:  he automatically replaced "fear" with "respect/reverence" in any text he ran across.  He had used some Greek earlier, so I told him the Greek word for fear:  "phobos", used in English as "phobia".  So as he stepped off at his stop, I asked him "Does a person with arachnophobia respect spiders?"  This is where we'll pick up next time.
"The fear of God is the soul of godliness." John Murray

Photos courtesy of alvaro tapia hidalgo, allie, John from Canberra

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