For the past week I have been following a new blogger named Alex. She is an agnostic who is blogging about reading through the Bible in a year. I especially look forward to reading her posts. Here’s an excerpt from her post Church Marquees, Faith, and Fear, and our discussion that followed.
Alex: Last week, a church near my home posted a marquee that said, “Blessed are those who fear God.” I have often been told that I should follow God–because there are dire consequences in not following Him. I certainly realize that many Christians do not think this way, but, if I look at my opinions about religion honestly, it is this fear-based faith that was part of the reason I turned away from religion.
Me: I think that you are right, that if we are taking the whole council of scripture into account “Fearing the Lord” is an unavoidable theme, and one that God Himself seems to encourage. I guess that the question is, what do we mean by fear? Is it the narcissistic and punitive old deity in the sky who is waiting to whomp anyone who makes a slightly wrong move? Or is it like fear of the ocean? Something that is beautiful but that deserves respect because of its power? In that sense, fear is the natural result of seeing the ocean for what it really is.
Alex: Continuing with the beautiful metaphor you set up, I guess I worry about the fact that people used to fear mountains in much the same way as they feared/fear the ocean. They knew mountains were wild places with unpredictable weather where lives were often lost. And, this fear of the mountains altered people’s actions; it kept them from exploring and from living as they would like, limiting their freewill. (The environmentalist in me wants to assert that this might have been a good thing, but I’m going to quiet her for now!) I know that I’m approaching this from a secular standpoint, but I guess I just don’t like the idea of living in fear of the power that could be unleashed with the breaking of an arbitrary set of rules–rules that have only come to us through humans (perhaps divinely-inspired humans, but humans nonetheless). I’m sure it’s an argument that you hear as often as I do, but I’m going to go there anyway: How could God give us curiosity and rationality and love, but then not expect us to act on it?
Me: I am not a mountain climber, but I think the analogy works equally as well here. I can admire and appreciate Mt. Everest from the ground, even from pictures. But if I really want to understand the magnitude and power and beauty of that mountain, I’m gonna have to put my feet on that giant rock and climb. And from what I read, I would be a fool to approach that mountain casually. Curiosity would give me motivation initially, rationality would tell me that I need more than that. I would need to study the mountain, talk with others who have climbed and lived to tell about it, acquire appropriate gear, and train… hard. George Mallory says of Everest: “The highest of the world’s mountains, it seems, has to make but a single gesture of magnificence to be the lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy.”
So for the sake of argument, let’s say that the Old Testament really is time/space history. Let’s assume that God is who He says He is according to the Hebrew Scriptures- the unchallenged, powerful, holy and personal Creator. Therefore, He gets to determine the “conditions” of a relationship with Him. His conditions, to give a simple summary, is faith that is proven through obedience. And by no means is this an exclusively Old Testament idea. Jesus speaks of fearing God when He says “Do not fear those who kill the body but who are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” (Matt. 10:28)
After Genesis, there are accounts of priests and kings who approach God casually or outside of God’s prescribed method. That doesn’t go well. But in many ways, God is like Mt. Everest- majestic and powerful. He is also like the best Father, desiring to be known for who He is and offering protection, care and comfort to the children He loves. (Matt. 10:29-31) So “fearing” God ends up being an exceptionally accurate term if you take all aspects of God’s nature into account. “Fear” of the Lord is one part reverence, one part respect, and one part “WHOA!” It isn’t something that comes about through discipline. It is what automatically happens when I see God for who He really is.
Here’s a more literal picture of the “fear” of the Lord: I want my children to obey what I tell them to do out of love for me. I want them to trust me implicitly because I have proven myself trustworthy. I want them to desire to do the right thing because of all that I have done for them and because when they do right, it goes well for them. But… when those motivations aren’t enough, the kids will usually comply with our household rules because we have put some serious teeth into the consequences of disobedience. And we strive to be consistent in our application of those consequences. Our children love us and we have a fantastic relationship with them, partially due to the fact that loving involvement includes discipline and the recognition of our authority in their life.
If I were climbing Mt. Everest, I wouldn’t be able to live as I liked (in a tankini with coconut drink in hand, let’s be clear.) I would have to be living and climbing on-purpose. I would still have my freewill, but I would be making choices that would maximize success in this daunting endeavor. For the Christian, that endeavor is living a holy life. So I bend my appetites, will, and liberty for the sake of drawing near to God.
I’m sure that when battling the fierce wind and altitude, many a climber of Mt. Everest mused that it would have been easier to have stayed on the ground. But for some reason, they chose to climb. Something about that powerful mountain was irresistible. And getting to the top was worth all the sacrifice, training and difficulty. Because, perhaps, they felt that while on the mountain they were truly alive.