1 John 4:18
This week, in my sermon, I’m answering a question about God from our very own Craig Wood. Craig asks:
“We read in the Bible ‘trust God’ and ‘love God’ while also reading ‘fear God.’ I understand how trusting God and loving God work in our faith, but how does fear work in our faith? How does one trust God and love God while at the same time fearing God?” Craig, that’s a great question.
We’ve all experienced fear. When I think of my own life, I remember the experience of being separated from my mom in a department store when I was very young and not being able to find her and running through the aisles terrified.
And I remember (a little older, but still way too young to be watching an R-rated movie) seeing just a few minutes of the movie Aliens and having bad dreams for months that one of those alien sucker things was going to clamp onto my face and lay an alien egg in my stomach.
When I was 15-years-old I was lying on an operating table about to have major back surgery after a terrible injury and I was so, so scared that I wouldn’t wake up again or that if I did that I wouldn’t walk again.
I remember hiking through the woods one night without a flashlight and a bat hit me in the face and got stuck there fluttering it’s leathery bat wings all over my head and (I am not ashamed to say) I screamed louder than I’ve ever screamed in my life.
I remember my wife, Bonnie Mohan, being rushed to the emergency room after giving birth because her bleeding wouldn’t stop. And for one hour I was never more mortally afraid.
And I remember learning about my mom’s stage-four cancer diagnosis a little more than a year ago. And I remember the sort of low-grade fear that stuck with me in the background for these last thirteen months before she died.
We’ve all experienced fear. And we all have things that we’re afraid of. But is this the way we’re supposed to feel about God? Aren’t we supposed to love and trust God?
Our final reading this morning from 1 John makes it pretty clear that fear and love just don’t mix. John says that if you’re leading a good life out of fear that God is going to punish you in this life or send you off to hell in the next life, then you haven’t yet found perfection in love. Lead your best, most beautiful life because you love God and because God loves you. Leave the fear behind. Don’t be afraid!
And when we read our second piece of scripture this morning from Exodus, we see there that often repeated exhortation from scripture, “Do not be afraid.” But it’s a little strange because Moses says, “Do not be afraid because God has only come to put the fear of God upon you.” That seems a little contradictory. How can you simultaneously tell someone not to be afraid and to feel the fear of God?
So, we’re starting to get a picture here that maybe the fear that we’re most used to—bats, trips to the ER, ghost stories, pandemics—that fear is not the same kind of fear we’re supposed to feel about God. But what kind of fear isn’t fear? That doesn’t really make sense, does it?
Well, language is a complicated thing and translation from one language to another is extremely complicated and translation from an ancient language (like Hebrew) to a modern language (like English) is very extremely complicated. Just imagine a few thousand years from now someone who speaks a language that is a descendant of Mandarin Chinese tries to translate this phrase from English that we’re all probably writing down in our diaries lately: “I was hoping that 2020 was going to be an awesome year. Instead, it turned out to be really awful.” Now, if you’re translating that, what do you do with the fact that the words “awe-some” and “aw-ful” look like they should mean pretty much the same thing. They’re both adjectives derived from the word “awe,” but one means something that’s really great and one means something that’s really bad. And maybe that’s because an experience of awe can sometimes be magical and wonderful and revelatory and empowering. And it can sometimes be overwhelming, overpowering, earth-shattering, and even a little scary.
Ancient Hebrew didn’t really have a separate word for awe like we do in English. Instead, the words in Hebrew that we translate into English as fear and afraid had a broader definition and did more work than the word “fear” does in English. So, maybe instead of looking for a fear that isn’t fear we need to be looking for a fear that is more than just plain old fear. Remember, the ancient Hebrews didn’t leave behind dictionaries, right? So, we have to figure out the meanings of words from their context. So, what is this broader definition of fear like?
Well, let’s look at our other scripture selections from this morning. Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. And the poetry of the two lines together tells us that the fear of God is related to knowledge and to understanding.
Our reading from Isaiah makes a prophecy about a leader who will arise whose “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” So, this fear can feel delightful, which means we’re really going to have to stretch our imaginations on this one. What kind of fear could feel good?
And finally from our Psalm we hear that God is with those who fear God, God is with those who hope in God’s steadfast love. The way ancient Hebrew poetry worked, it didn’t have line breaks, or rhymes, or meter like we have. Instead, a typical feature of ancient Hebrew poetry is one line following another. The first line makes a statement and then the second line repeats that statement in different words or expands upon or comments upon it some way. So, the poetry from this Psalm is telling us that the fear of God and hope in God are not two different things. The part of God that makes us feel the fear of God and God’s unfailing love are not two separate things.
So, the fear of God is a “fear” that expands your mind, deepens your soul in wisdom, and raises your understanding. If you’re doing it right, the fear of God can be a positive—even a delightful—experience. And the fear of God and the love of God are not contradictory things the way that regular fear and God’s perfect love are contradictory.
So, I wonder: Have you ever had an experience similar to that—an experience that could have been mistaken for fear, that was maybe living across the street from fear as it arrived in your life, but was ultimately something much greater?
On March 31, 2004 I was hiking the Appalachian Trail near the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina when a late-season snowstorm hit. I was hiking by myself up and over a mountain called Max Patch which is known as a “bald mountain” because for reasons no one is really sure about there are no trees on the top of this mountain. For about a mile you hike through an open meadow at the summit of Max Patch. The snow was really heavy and wet, even under the cover of the trees, but when I reached the tree line near the top at over 4,500 feet of elevation the snowstorm became a blizzard.
But something was compelling me to keep going. But with knee-deep snow and fifteen feet of visibility at best and no trees to mark the trail, I got lost in the blizzard on the top of this mountain by myself miles and miles from civilization. As I looked around me and saw nothing but blowing snow and fading light, I felt a little afraid up there all by myself. But then I got a hold of myself and I reminded myself, I had plenty of warm, dry clothes with me, I had water, I had food, I had a flashlight, I had a gas stove, I had a tent, I had a dry sleeping bag, I wasn’t going to die or even be particularly chilly or uncomfortable no matter how momentarily lost I was.
So, what was I feeling standing out there lost in the snow? I was feeling my own smallness and vulnerability. I was feeling my place in the world. I was feeling gratitude that despite my vulnerability, I was going to be safe. I was feeling a sort of awe at the ability of nature to transform the world and overpower me. And I was feeling exhilarated that I had made my way to this place to witness it all.
Maybe all that I was feeling up on the mountain was something like the kind of “fear” we’re supposed to feel about God. When I have allowed myself to feel the presence of God like I felt that snowstorm on top of Max Patch, when I have blocked out the distractions and focused my attention on God’s presence as fully as I was focused on that isolating snowstorm, I have felt the “fear” of God. It hasn’t been a cringing, or a crying, or a shaking-with-horror kind of fear. It hasn’t been a fear that is afraid of danger or punishment. On the contrary, it is a fear that knows I am completely safe.
The fear of God is the feeling of coming into God’s Presence, into the Presence of Mystery, into the Presence of something so much greater than ourselves, into the Presence of the Creator of the Universe and the Creator of our own selves, into the Presence of pure and perfect love given to us freely no matter what failings or sins we carry with us.
Fearing God is about acknowledging and feeling God’s Presence with awe and reverence that might lead you to fall down on your knees, meeting in your own heart the perfection of love that fills you and surrounds you.
So, Beloved, don’t be afraid to fear God.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations