Be Afraid... Be Very Afraid?!
What are you afraid of?
If you fear all eight-eyed creatures with venomous fangs that scuttle around on eight legs, you're an arachnophobe.
I’m arachnophobic and acrophobic, which means I’m also afraid of heights. Even when sitting in a movie theater. Recently I went to see the film Mission, Impossible: – Ghost Protocol. When Tom Cruise scuttled up the glass exterior of the Burj Khalifaq in Dubai – the tallest building in the world – all kinds of alarm bells went off in my brain, my heart pounded in my chest, and weird chemicals coursed through my veins. I was afraid. I was very afraid. (Ironically, I paid good money to experience this fear!)
Technically, a "phobia" is an irrational fear. But who’s to say which fears are reasonable, and which aren’t? A middle-aged man, fearing bad news, decides to leave the doctor’s office before hearing the results of his PSA blood test. An old woman, fearing tight places, requests a valium before being squeezed into a narrow MRI tube. A young soldier, on a mission in Kandahar, scans the road ahead, fearing an IED. A young girl on the streets of Damascus, demonstrating for freedom, fears the clubs wielded by Syrian security forces. Fear can protect us. Fear can paralyze us.
Dealing with even the most basic fears is a complex challenge. For example, we teach our young children to beware of strangers. "Never accept a ride from someone you don’t know!" we wisely caution. Generally, this is a good rule of thumb. But if this caution turns to chronic, irrational fear, we become xenophobic – afraid of all strangers or people who are different from us. This anxiety can lead to cliquishness or inhospitality, or morph into the evil of racism, even genocide.
So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that fear is an exceedingly common and complex matter in the Bible – perhaps especially when it comes to describing our relationship with God.
In Psalm 147, for example, the psalmist sings: "But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him..." (147:12a) Oh, really?! God is delighted when we suffer from the fear of God?! Is God this tyrannic? This sadistic? Well, we’ve all heard the proverb: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom..." (Proverbs 1:7)
On the other hand, how many times does God say, "Don’t be afraid?"
- When God calls Abraham and Sarah to get up and leave everything safe and familiar behind them to go to a strange place, the first thing God says is: "Don’t be afraid." (Genesis 15:1)
- To Israel, violently torn from land and Temple and marched off into Babylonian exile, God says, "Do not fear." (Isaiah 44:2)
- When an angel comes to Mary, unexpectedly pregnant with a divine child, God says, "Do not be afraid." (Luke 1:30)
- When Joseph hears of the problem pregnancy and knows the public shame Mary will face, God says, "Do not be afraid." (Matthew 1:20)
- When the disciples are caught in a storm at sea so deadly that not even the experienced fishermen among them could navigate it, Jesus appears out of nowhere and says, "Do not be afraid." (Mark 6:50)
- The night before St. Paul is to meet the emperor of the Roman Empire face to face, God says, "Do not be afraid." (Acts 27:24)
- Even the Book of Revelation, with its horrible demons and lake of fire, begins with a vision of the risen Jesus saying, "Do not be afraid." (Revelation 1:17)
So, the question remains: is "the fear of the Lord" an irrational phobia ("theophobia" – Greek: theos = god + phobos = fear), or a good and wise thing? Like most mysteries in life, it’s a little of both...
Whenever we struggle with a theological conundrum, it’s always a good idea to consult at least one German theologian! In this post I call upon Rudolph Otto. In the middle of the horror of WWI, Otto published a profoundly influential book entitled The Idea of the Holy. To put it in a nutshell, Otto suggests that when people have a true encounter with God, we encounter a "numinous" mystery. By numinous, Otto means something/somebody outside of ourselves. A true experience of God is not merely an "inner experience." Nor is it the result of our brain's psychological rationalization or projection or wishful thinking. Neither is it, to quote Ebeneezer Scrooge, a dream resulting from "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese!"
An authentic experience of God, Otto asserts, is an encounter with the Real. Yet any true experience of the holy is neither rational (we can't wrap our minds around it), nor comprehensible through our five senses (we can't wrap our fingers around it). In short, God is simply too awesomely Real for us creatures to behold!
This is precisely why a true encounter with God leaves human beings simultaneously fascinated and terrified! We want to draw closer, and we want to run away... at the same time!
The Bible is full of stories about people who encounter the living God in precisely this way. One of the most beloved is the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus is on a mountaintop praying with Peter, James, and John. Nothing unusual. Suddenly, they see Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, long dead! Then Jesus becomes luminous, intensely bright, brighter than anything they’ve ever seen in nature, including the sun! The disciples are terrified. They fall to the ground. They cover their eyes. Their encounter with the holy is so direct, intense, and unfathomable they can’t bear it.
And yet... they’re simultaneously fascinated! Why else would Peter suggest, "Hey, Jesus, this is awesome! Let’s build a few huts so we can all hang out together! Let’s don't let this holy moment end!"
Perhaps Rudolph Otto’s "idea of the holy" helps us understand Psalm 147. Yes, God delights in those who fear him. Why? Because that fear is a sign that we’re actually having an authentic encounter with the living God!
If we look at the full verse, we see that the Psalmist says that God delights in those who fear him, those who await his gracious favor. In this context we see that the fear of the Lord is intertwined with faith! No wonder it delights God! When we creatures dare take off our shoes and step onto holy ground, and – in spite of our trepidation – expect good things, we are saying to our Creator, "I trust you. I will come closer." And isn’t this why God made us? To know and to be known by God? To love and to be loved by God? God's inviting (if awesome) presence and our trusting response makes both God and the Psalmist sing out for joy!
Ah, but there are many more facets to human fear. There’s one I especially hate to admit: fear can be a great motivator.
Recently my wife and I were talking with a woman about banking matters, and the conversation drifted into the challenges of parenting. This mother confided that she and her husband had been having a lot of trouble with a teenage son who had become incorrigible. So they ordered a catalog from a famous military school. When it arrived, they just left it out on the counter for a few days. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t have to. Miraculously, within days, they began to see encouraging changes in their son’s attitude and behavior!
OK, sometimes fear "works!" In a similar way, the fear of cancer can lead a smoker to give up cigarettes.
But the fear of the Lord seems to be qualitatively different. Consider Exodus 20. God’s presence is so awesome that only Moses dares to enter the cloud and stand in the presence of the holy (yet even he has to shield his eyes from the intensity). God gives Moses the 10 commandments to pass on to the people. The people, not surprisingly, stand warily at a distance. And Moses says to them: "Do not be afraid. For God has come only to test you and to put the fear of God upon you so that you do not sin." Don’t be afraid – God’s just putting the fear of God into you!?
What Moses seems to be saying is that an encounter with the living God is likely to remind us how far we've strayed. In the light of God's loving goodness, the consequences of our sin become painfully clear. We awaken to how we've hurt ourselves and others. This isn't a pleasant experience. But this awakening is a gift as it becomes our first step in turning around and becoming the people God created us to be.
Humankind should beware: fear is crude tool. Any parent knows this. Instilling fear in a child is likely to lead to alienation, resentment, even rebellion. Ultimately, we want our children to love and respect us. We want them to grow into good people – not out of duty, certainly not out of dread, but because they want to. As parents who struggle to raise children, we hope to encourage, even shape positive behavior. But more than anything, we long for a change of heart. We can't make this happen, but we can help or hinder. This is the trick, of course. This is the mysterious dance that goes on in every household, everywhere, in every time.
If this is true for us, how much more true it is in our relationship with God! Yes, God commands. Hours before his own death, gathered with his closest friends in the world, Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another. This is why God:
- gives us the Law to set some helpful parameters about how to be fully human.
- sends us prophets, when we inevitably stray, to help us find our way back to the path of full humanity.
- ultimately sent us a human being who embodied love like no other. The holy in human form, not quite so scary, could draw us in...
But here’s the rub: God commands, but never coerces. For how can Love be coerced?!
God created us to be the real deal too, both inside and out. God wants us to share in Jesus' holiness. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. And to follow Jesus requires a change of heart (or, to use that unfairly-maligned biblical word, repentance).
Who changes hearts? It’s a little bit us. It’s a lot God. It’s a mysterious dance.
Sometimes this dance makes me afraid. Not because I fear that God will punish me. But because I know how unloving I can be, and how much damage I can do to myself, and to others. This is a rational fear based on experience.
But this is no basis for theophobia. There is no reason to be afraid of God when we remember that God – as revealed in Jesus – is more loving, more patient, more compassionate than any human being who has ever lived. This grace gives us hope that we can have a change of heart, draw a little closer, and even follow.