Monday, May 25, 2009

the fear of the LORD (3) fearing, but not afraid

Are we really supposed to be afraid of God? Doesn't God tell us not to be afraid?

It's not surprising that the Israelites were petrified after God's pyrotechnics display on Mount Sinai. They saw the mountain crowned with darkness, cloud, fire and smoke, they felt the ground shake underfoot, they heard God's voice speaking out of fire and deep darkness, and they knew that anyone who touched the mountain would die. No wonder they begged never to hear God's voice again!

At this point Moses says something odd: "Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin" (Ex 20:18-20 ESV).

Don't fear, but do fear! Huh?

There are two kinds of fear of God.

The first is terror of God's certain judgement. With nothing to expect except God's terrible anger, no wonder God's unrepentant enemies burrow into the ground (Isa 2:10)! This fear drives us away from God.

The second is a trusting, obeying fear. The people of God tremble at God's words and the display of his power, but he has made them his people and they respond with faith and repentance. As long as they trust and obey God, they have no reason to be afraid - but if they turn their backs on God, they have good reason to be afraid! This fear drives us towards God.

God's salvation and forgiveness make this second kind of fear possible - a fear free from terror and full of trembling joy, but which never takes God lightly, for it knows the judgement which awaits those who turn from God.

Read these verses from the Old Testament and see if you can relate:

  • "And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant" Exod 14:31. The Israelites cross the Red Sea and watch it close over the heads of Pharoah's army. The God who saves them is the same God who crushes their enemies. No wonder that this terrible salvation leads to trusting fear!
  • "Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling." (Ps 2:11) The nations are told to "Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him" (Ps 2:12). They "rejoice with trembling" because they've escaped the terrible anger of the Son by taking refuge in his service.
  • "But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared." (Ps 130:4) Why does God's forgiveness lead to fear? We tremble because the power of judgement and salvation rests in the hands of our mighty God, the one who freely chooses to save us. We act in faith and obedience because God has poured out his mercy on us.
  • "He [the Messiah] will delight in the fear of the LORD" (Isa 11:3 cf Heb 5:7). If it's appropriate for God's own Son to serve God with joyful awe it's certainly appropriate for us.
  • "The LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love."(Ps 147:11) Our hoping fear of God not only brings us joy, but gladdens the heart of God!

To escape from a tsunami - how amazing that would be! But what if you escape from the tsunami into the arms of the one who sent it? Now there are arms that can keep you safe! Here you rejoice - but you rejoice with trembling at the terrible power of the arms which hold you. You're not about to trifle with this Rescuer! Yet there's no-one who can keep you safe like Him.

Piper describes it as the kind of fear you might feel if you're hiding in a cleft in the ice during a storm on a glacier. Out in the storm, there is only terror! But inside the cleft, is a kind of wondering, fearful joy, as you watch the storm from a place of safety. Piper calls this "whatever is left of fear when we have a sure hope in the midst of it".*

On this side of the cross, this trusting, rejoicing, hoping, trembling fear is even more appropriate. We've seen God pour out his anger on his only Son so that we might be spared! How can we help but be filled with wonder, awe and joy?

It's important that our definition reflect not only God's "scary attributes", but also the wonder of his forgiveness and salvation. So let's sum it up this way:

To fear the LORD is to take seriously his awesome majesty, limitless power, absolute holiness, dreadful judgement, glorious salvation and gracious forgiveness, and so to submit to him as the one true God, with trust, love, worship, honour, service and obedience.

This fear is sometimes called "reverent awe". It's a little vague, but it's not a bad way of describing the complex attitudes and emotions which make up the fear of God. If you wanted to sum it up simply, you might say something like this:

The fear of God is the reverent awe which leads us to trust and obey him.

But for simplicity and clarity, I like Honoria's definition, which includes attitudes, feelings and actions:

The fear of God is not daring to refuse him.

Next time, I'd like to look at New Testament verses about the fear of God. Is fear still appropriate for Christians, who call God "Daddy"?

* John Piper The Pleasures of God 203-4

first image is an old Bible illustration (I think!); middle image is an illustration by John Martin; last image is from stock.xchng

No comments: