The Fear of God

I grew up thinking of God as being all-loving and benevolent, constantly working everything for everyone’s good. The idea was that God is the perfect picture of love; void of anger, malice, or any of the other traits I disliked. In more recent years, however, I’ve come to see him in a different light.

My earlier picture of who he is didn’t develop in a vacuum, however; most of the Christians I’ve known seemed to describe him this way, too. Good things came from God, the rest did not. When bad things happened it was said to be our own doing, or the doing of bad people, or perhaps even the devil, but certainly not God. Some of us might have ventured as far as saying God “allowed” certain things to happen, but this phrasing was used to absolve him of having a direct or even purposeful hand in such things. In all this we were careful not to implicate God as a cause.

If one wishes to ensure God is held securely and exclusively in an all-loving light, then it becomes necessary to disconnect him from the disagreeable stuff of life.

But then when discussing or reading the Bible together we’d stumble from time to time upon passages that spoke about the fear of God. This posed a real problem for me personally. What did that even mean? How could I fear a God that never works anything but blessings? This concept would often be rationalized away by others as a healthy respect for him, or maybe a respect for the unpleasant things he could bring about if he wanted to, but of course that was only theoretical; he was too wonderful to actually work in such a manner.

Such explanations were like saying we should fear the fire that’s tucked away in a fireplace behind an enclosure because it could burn you… but of course nobody is afraid of a fireplace. We know better than to touch it, and so long as we don’t mess with it we know it’s safely going to sit there and without harming us. Such fires are under our control and pose no real danger. Sure, we know the fire is hot and potentially capable of doing terrible things, but we are confident that it won’t. We control it. It’s contained. It’s tame. For the sake of argument one could entertain a fictional scenario where the fire suddenly bursts out of it’s borders, acting of it’s own will and consuming the entire structure that once contained it…

But such a scenario still evokes no fear because we know it will never happen.

So was this how I was supposed to “fear” God? As only hypothetically dangerous but without posing any real danger, or perhaps worse as one contained and under my control? As one capable of doing frightening things, but never ever inclined to do so? What if, instead, this fire actually had a will of it’s own? What if it had been known from time to time to incinerate those who angered it? What if the same fire that was warm, comforting, and useful were NOT in our control? What if it could not be contained and moved however it saw fit to do so? What if it owed me no explanations and didn’t really care what my opinions were?

I’d try and push it out of my head as one of those things I guess I just couldn’t understand about God… but then I also knew the Bible was pretty clear on the importance of fearing God:

The Bible says the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (Psalm 110:10, Prov 1:7, 9:10), and that it actually turns us from evil (Prov 16:6). Fear of the lord brings life (Prov 14:27, 19:23). God’s friendship and covenant is reserved for those that fear him (Psalm 25:14). When Israel crossed the Jordan into the promised land they were told it was “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever” (Josh 4:24). Even Jesus told us to “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 1:28).

My God vs. the Bible’s God

Several years ago I started reading my Bible with the intent of reading the whole thing, something I’d never done before. I began realizing how worn out certain comforting patches of scripture were, and also that those patches only constituted a fraction of what was actually in the pages. As I went along I was forced to read various parts that I never would have selected for myself, and definitely wouldn’t have heard preached in a sermon. Time after time I’d bump into something unsettling or even frightening, but I’d just shake it off and keep going. If something really rattled me I’d just console myself with the knowledge that I probably just didn’t grasp things well enough yet. I just needed to give it time.

The hits kept coming, though. I kept colliding with passages that didn’t play nicely with my view of God; endless accounts of God becoming angry and full of wrath. He exacted vengeance on people and decreed entire cities be demolished along with their citizens. He’d hide himself and harden hearts. Not to say he wasn’t also shown to be full of amazing love, grace, and patience, but there was a lot more than that. I had come to view God as though he had somehow misplaced his ability to commit fear-inducing acts.

There are land mines hidden in the Bible. These are the parts that kind of get skipped over with shrugged shoulders. They are the stories that will either force us to reconsider our comfortable philosophies, or otherwise to move along and bury what we just read. It was these land mines that eventually lead me to a startling thought:

What if these land mines were only difficult to reconcile because they weren’t compatible with a set of false presumptions I was unknowingly clinging to? What if I was approaching the Bible with a preexisting idea of who God is rather than coming to it in order to LEARN who he is?

But at some point I quit fighting it. I made a deliberate decision to stop looking away from the uncomfortable parts. I attempted to just read those difficult passages and take them at face value. Slowly I began to realize that when I compared my picture of God to the one illustrated in scripture, there was a gaping difference. This time, however, I chose to allow those parts to redefine how I saw him instead of running away from them. I decided that if the Bible described God in a way I didn’t like, I was going to believe it anyway and let my preconceptions go. I began to see how much I had come to fashion God in an image that, while comfortable, was not the same God defined by the Bible.

No wonder I couldn’t fear him.

Biblical Reactions to God

I used to speak of being in God’s presence as a wonderfully enjoyable, almost sensual experience. I’d refer to the presence of the Holy Spirit as a warm, cozy feeling… much like that fireplace. I know that not everyone has felt this way, but my Charismatic upbringing taught me that the real presence of God is a nearly euphoric encounter. I, along with the “really spiritual” people around me, would speak about how “anointed” an event, sermon, or song was based mostly on how good we felt about it. I didn’t see this at the time of course.

But then I began to wonder: where does the Bible describe the more euphoric encounters with God that I was pretty sure I’d always experienced? Where do we read of people coming away from God’s presence saying “Oh, man! That was incredible! That felt so good! I’m just dying to do that again

Isaiah 6 records the prophet’s encounter with the Living God as a terrifying one, with even the seraphim using their wings to shield themselves from his overpowering holiness and glory. When God spoke at Mt. Sinai to his people their response was one of sheer terror, begging Moses to go in their place and let them stay behind. Every single time I read of someone having an encounter with the almighty, there is fear. In fact, people have the same reaction when even seeing an angel, sometimes even being tempted to bow down and worship them. I don’t see them having a watered down “respect” of a theoretical god, I see them having a sudden realization of the intensity of the real deal.

Was it possible that my own encounters weren’t quite what I thought they were?

Domesticating God

God describes himself as an all consuming fire (Deut 4:24, Deut 9:3, Isaiah 33:14, Lamentations 2:3, Hebrews 12:29). While the fires built by humans are warm and safe, God is very different. He is fierce. He will not be contained or directed. I had made the mistake of drawing my picture of God based on the descriptions of other people and the verses they had selected to support their view. When I decided to start redefining him based on what I read in the Bible, a very different picture came into focus.

My apologies for being so blunt, but I had castrated God. I defanged and declawed him, then tied him up and sat him in the corner. I put a box around him and was happy to go warm up next to him when I was cold, but didn’t fear him at all. This was all an illusion, of course. God may have permitted me to proceed with the delusion that he was happy to sit there safely under my control, but it was only for a time and only for the purpose of slowly and lovingly drawing me to a deeper understanding of who he REALLY is. He chose to sit there and speak softly to me, keeping his true power concealed.

If God is real at all, then he has certain character traits that define him. These traits are immutable; they do not change, least of all for me. I don’t get the luxury of removing all the dangerous features of who he is and keeping the rest. I have to take it all in, in it’s entirety, or I’m not actually seeing the real thing; I am looking at a false God. An idol. A creation of my own.

I don’t mean to say that God is not loving, any more than I’d say a fire is not warm and inviting. He is still all the things I’ve always known him to be; my redeemer and friend, my shield and shelter in the storm, and my only firm foundation. It’s just that he’s so much MORE than that. I must attempt to reconcile all that is revealed about him in his word, both Old Testament and New. It’s not as though he’s repented of his Old Testament ways and finally come to see things my way.

When God says “vengeance is mine”, he’s saying two things at once. He is partly stating that vengeance is wrong for me, but it always escaped me that he’s also saying that he is vengeful. He is not a man. His ways are not my ways, nor his thoughts like my thoughts. There are things that are wrong for me and are simultaneously right for him. We are not to be jealous, but he describes himself as jealous. See, he’s not bound by the same restraints that I am. He is a roaring lion, jealous and vengeful, fierce and untamed.

And Still, God is Love

And yet he is also Love. He is my friend. He is my heavenly father. He comforts me when I’m broken, holds me when I’m weak, and visits me when I am alone. He sustains me with the words from his mouth and goes before me when my way is uncertain. He is my light in the dark. He is the singular source of anything good that may be present in my life, despite my attempts to hold him back.

I suspect this will seem an impossible dichotomy to some, nevertheless it is how he is described by the Bible. He is both the wonderful and the fearsome, and I no longer wish him to be any other way. He is irresistibly compelling exactly as he is. He is mysterious and beyond my reasoning. I’m drawn to him like a moth to a flame; and perhaps that is a wonderful analogy… I am nothing more than a moth and I know he may choose to end my life for his purposes at any time, yet I welcome it. He is worth it, and I trust him implicitly.

There is nothing I could possibly state with any number of words either written or spoken to describe this new picture of who God is. I both fear him and can’t stay away from him. He is a raging fire inside me that drives me to things that seem like madness to those around me, and I can’t help it. My life is his alone, regardless of how others may measure it.

So here’s my point: I hope only to direct you to a fuller understanding of him. If you have limited him to only the things that make you comfortable, you are truly missing out. Pray that he would reveal himself to you more fully. Don’t listen to half-formed, man made ideas of who he is and dare to take it all in. When you stumble into those Bible texts that describe him in a way that unsettles you, I dare you to take it all in as part of who he is. It’s frightening, but it’s also crucial; because your view of God will determine everything about how you seek and serve him.

Regarding the “Done With Church” Buzz

In case you haven’t heard, there is a growing concern in Christendom these days over the droves of people leaving the church. For years now I’ve noticed articles popping up from time to time that have discussed this trend, but lately they are coming at much greater frequency and intensity. The language used to describe the change is increasingly impassioned, too. Just yesterday I read a blog that said our churches are “in many ways hemorrhaging to death”. Strong words, indeed.

The noise of chatter around the issue is deafening, and opinions are of course as hot as they are varied. This is true not only of those faithful church-goers concerned about the shift, but also among those that embrace it as a move of God. Regardless of where your own leanings are, it is increasingly obvious that a shift is most definitely occurring, and that it’s picking up speed. It’s beginning to turn some heads, and NOBODY really knows where this shift is taking us… least of all me.

I myself have been “church-free” for nearly a year now. My feelings, therefore, are as passionate as anyone’s. While I, like many others, have a great deal to say on the matter, it is not my intent to do so as a part of this post. Instead I hope to point out two particular trends I’m seeing in most of the articles being written, specifically in those posts written by people that are faithful church attenders and supporters.

The Switcheroo: A “Church” and THE “Church”

The first trend I want to draw attention to is a problem with definitions, particularly with the word “church”. Most Christians know and would agree that the word church is not used in the Bible to describe buildings or the events held in them. The Bible refers to the people of God as the church. I personally have a real problem with using the word “church” to refer to a building or program (though I’ll resign to doing so in this article), but certainly can respect that most people do in fact use it in this way.

The problem, however, is when someone takes the definition and justification of one idea to reenforce a completely different one. Let me explain. One article I read the other day spent time reminding it’s readers that the church is the bride of Christ, citing Ephesians 5:25-32, just before making the following statement: “…that’s why you go to church. Because Jesus says the Church matters. He loves the Church, and you love Him.”

So here you have verses talking about the Bride of Christ being used to justify the necessity of attending a program; a program you won’t find anywhere in your Bible, I might add. The author manages to get away with this bait-and-switch because the word “church” is used by many to describe both concepts, but this does not mean the concepts are interchangeable.

In a way, the words “church” and “church” are homonyms; two words that are spelled and pronounced the same that mean two completely different things. One refers to the people of God, and the other refers to the institutions we’ve created to systemize those people. Consider two homonyms for the word “bow”; something used to fire arrows and something used to play a violin. These words are spelled and pronounced the same, but I can’t use them interchangeably because their meanings are different. This means I can’t use the story of Robin Hood and his skill with a bow to try and convince you he was an expert violinist.

Yet that is precisely what is done in many articles being written about those “leaving the church”. Such articles go on and on about how Christ loves the church, established the church, and how important the church is all throughout the New Testament, but then they use that to convince you that somehow God himself has instituted the thing we call church today. This is utter nonsense. When someone uses phrases like “go to church”, “start a church”, “dress for church”, etc. they are speaking of an institution unknown to the Bible. I’d advise you to beware of articles that use this tactic to justify human traditions.

The Presumption: They’re Obviously Wrong

The other trend I see is a simple lack of understanding. This is to be expected of course. If the author of an article is a faithful church supporter they obviously don’t share or understand the opinions of those that no longer are. They are left to make their best guesses at what people with differing ideas are thinking.

But my issue with this isn’t that they don’t understand. Of course they don’t understand. It does bother me, however, that there is very little (if any) room left for even the remote possibility that the move away from our long held traditions could be a positive one. It is presumed that 1,700 years of tradition must be right, and there is no way these people could legitimately see something they don’t. I realize this may be too much to expect, but is it really so far fetched to consider that MAYBE the people that are leaving are being drawn out by God himself?

The prevailing attitude I’ve personally encountered is a total unwillingness to entertain questions about the value of our traditions. The Bible says little (and often nothing at all) of buildings, programs, offering plates, or hierarchy among believers, yet these things are too often treated as untouchable sacraments given to us by God himself.

Those that have stopped attending a church are seen as people that either need to be prayed for or guarded against. Some authors talk about them as though they are a disease in need of earlier diagnoses before it’s too late to stop them from leaving. “Solutions” to fix them are offered left and right, but it seems impossible to find an author willing to grant enough respect to entertain that perhaps those who leave are actually seeing something they can’t.

On a personal note, this trend for dismissal strikes home. There was a time not so long ago I was respected as a teacher and one who passionately loved the Lord and his word. People would line up to say how much they enjoyed what I had to say, and go on and on about how God was clearly moving in my life and was speaking through me to them. This changed of course once the questions I was asking made them uncomfortable. I’ll admit I was completely unprepared for how quickly people can turn on you. It breaks my heart that so many have so quickly forgotten who I am, assuming me to be completely deceived and no longer capable of seeing the most obvious truths of God. NOTHING about my walk with him has dwindled at all; it has only intensified since my departure from the church walls.

And yet it’s so clear to me now how little room there is in modern Christianity for the idea that someone could truly love the Lord and simultaneously want nothing to do with church traditions. Many that have left these traditions wish so badly they were able to share freely with other believers the amazing freedom they’ve found in Christ outside of the structures, but all too often they find they’ve already been dismissed by the ones they’d like to talk to. Most people love these traditions and are afraid to entertain anyone or anything that might call them into question.

If I Could Make a Single Request

Most of the articles grappling with this topic attempt to close with some sort of recommendation. The suggestions are diverse: let them go and move on, be more relevant, be less relevant, watch for and remove them sooner, create more opportunity for their gifts… the list goes on. Nobody agrees on WHY people are leaving, but the suggestions on what to do about it all follow a common theme; they are attempts to make it stop.

But if I could throw my hat in the ring and make a suggestion of my own, I’d call for more openness to the possibility that the “done with church” folks may not be entirely crazy and deceived. Is it really so impossible to believe that perhaps God is legitimately doing something in and through them? Is it really a good move to just dismiss them and look for ways of plugging the leak?

Like it or not, this shift is happening. It can’t be ignored. I’m reminded of a story in Acts where the religious leaders of the day were facing a frightening shift of their own. They, too, were scrambling to find a way of controlling it. In their search to stop the rebellion, one of their own, a Pharisee on the council named Gamaliel, reminded them of past changes that had come to nothing and gave them this advice:

“So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39)

Wise words. There is so much fear being expressed about what’s happening, but fear shows only a lack of faith. Isn’t God in control? Hasn’t he said of his bride that the gates of hell would not prevail against her? I would remind those looking for solutions that if they are truly executing the plans of God then there is absolutely no need to fear. The present matter will be a memory before long and things can get back to business as usual.

Nobody knows how this is going to play out in the end, but if it’s the Lord will then there really is no solution and all these attempts to plug the leak are at best a waste of time. If it’s not then it’ll blow over and come to nothing. Either way, my suggestion would be not to dismiss your brothers and sisters that have left by assuming they simply have a problem, or worse that you can solve it. My main request would be that you hear us out and consider what we feel the Lord is genuinely doing in our lives.