Are you feeling joyful as we enter the season of Lent leading up to Easter? If so, try reading Leviticus 20, 24, and 26 where God tells his people the penalty for sexual deviance, blasphemy, disrespect, and disobedience is death. From such a reading of the Scriptures one’s ebullience can quickly turn to depression. One could also develop a distorted perception of the nature of God. You see, the Bible contains an abundance of verses that describe God as a hard person to get along with. Have you ever encountered a harsh person? Maybe it was a parent, teacher, or boss. You know the type: a real . . . jerk (yes I was tempted to use a special word from my vast secular vocabulary, but the penalty could be death). For some people the only God they ever knew growing up was the strict hard-handed God. Unfortunately many strains of the Christian church promoted this one-sided image of God, and still do today. This incomplete picture of God is the reason why many people, when they were younger, walked away from God and the church. The only God they knew was the all-powerful God who would smack them if they screwed up.
Certainly it is possible to make God angry, though I do not recommend you try. And certainly he has been known to allow his people to experience unpleasant consequences to help them learn and grow out of toxic and/or sinful ways of living. And just because we now live under the umbrella of New Testament grace through Jesus, I seriously doubt that God is entirely out of the smiting business. (Clearly a just God smote the haughty Carolina Panthers in last week’s Super Bowl.) Yet we who are fortunate to have been churched where we learned about the complete God know that he is much more than a smiter. But what about the people who walked away before they had an introduction to the God of love and grace? I believe there are millions of people in the world who have an incomplete comprehension of God. Perhaps the crushing cares of this life have made them ripe for an introduction to the complete God, the God who longs to shower love and grace on everyone who seeks his heart in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Maybe you or I could be the person who makes that introduction to one of those who ran away from the scary God before they really got to know him. Of course that would require that we not be scary ourselves.
Reflective reading: Psalms 103:8-12
8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
The Bible repeatedly mentions the fear of the Lord as a good thing for us to feel. For example, Proverbs 9:10 says: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
We often think of fear, especially irrational fear, as bad or unhealthy. So why does the Bible tell us to fear the Lord when we know the Lord is pure love? Why should we fear someone we love and who loves us back? After all, I don’t fear my wife (unless I slip up and criticize her driving).
The word fear in the verse above is translated from the original language as: terror, awesome or terrifying thing, respect, reverence. Except for the word awesome, these are not words you hear much in Christendom these days. But if we explore God in the Bible, the world around us, and observe his hand in the human race and in our personal life, a picture begins to form in our mind that reveals the otherness of God. He is not like us. The raw power of nature is minuscule compared to the power God wields. He doesn’t think like us. He doesn’t exist like us. Sure there are some similarities between us and God, but there are more differences.
I don’t believe that God likes to see us cowering before him as if he were some cruel tyrant or oppressor. Christ makes God approachable for us. Christ is an awesome (couldn’t help myself) advocate, but our problem is a dangerous proclivity to forget our place. A crucial step on the path to wisdom comes when we realize there is a moral God who cares how we live. That epiphany should rightly cause some anxiety. Of course we shouldn’t go through life expecting God to smite us any moment. On the other hand, we shouldn’t go through life feeling immune from God’s loving efforts to purge sin from our lives, even in unpleasant ways.
Here’s the point: The otherness of God is so foreign to us that a natural and appropriate reaction is a wholesome unsettling fear; a reverence for the sacred. It’s the awareness that I can’t draw another breath unless he is OK with it. He knit me together in the everlasting womb and he can take me apart as if I never was. My plans will never supersede his plans. He is amused by some of my plans that I think so important. His eyes pierce darkness and see all the thoughts of his people. He is a refining fire that makes us better people. If I commit to serve him, there is no telling where it will lead. He tests us to build our endurance. Any good that flows into my life spills from his cup . . . and he spills a lot of good into our lives. His purity unsettles us because we don’t have a paradigm in our mind that can hold it. What is perfect purity? It is something we today have never experienced in nature.
Don’t get me wrong, I embrace the God-of-love we celebrate in the modern church. Experiencing God’s love is transformational and healing. It feels good and is unlike any love we experience in nature . . . with the possible exception of the love a parent feels for his or her child. And yet experiencing God in ways that can elicit fear is uncomfortable, but ultimately just as transformational and positive. The fear of the Lord comes with seeking as much of God’s characteristics as possible. The fear of the Lord is fulfilling and also keeps us out of trouble. Even if we just explore the depths of God’s love, the deeper we go the more our unworthiness is evident; and yet his love is always more than enough to demolish our feelings of inadequacy. We think God sees our darkest and most secret stains—the shame we tell no one—and he will withhold his love. But he does not withhold his love. He pours it on even more. Who can understand that without a feeling of sobering reverence? The fear of the Lord and love of the Lord do not cancel each other out.