Monday, November 4, 2013

Narrative Reflection

The following is a paper I wrote for my Self-Awareness in Leadership class about what I've learned on what it means to fear God.

For most of my life, the phrase "the fear of the Lord" (2 Chr 19:9, Psa 19:9, Pro 1:7, Isa 11:2, Act 9:31, 2 Cor 5:11, etc.) never made sense to me. I thought it represented a caricature of God as a petty, capricious tyrant who wouldn't think twice about snuffing us out like a candle if we so much as thought about Him the wrong way, or else as a chaotic, uncontrollable cosmic force of nature that could just as easily harm us as help us. I did my best to avoid thinking about passages of scripture that seemed to represent God in either of these ways or that talked about people in the Bible fearing God.

I thought we had moved beyond all that fear-mongering, primitive superstition with the fullest revelation of God through Jesus Christ (see Col 1:15-20). In Christ we see God depicted not as insecure and vindictive but humble and loving even to sinners; not violent and dangerous but gentle and a servant to all. It was a much more beautiful and compelling picture of the Godhead—a God to love, not fear. Fear may have been part of faith in God in the past, but no longer: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." (1 Jhn 4:18, ESV) But though I felt secure in this understanding of who God was, He knew something was missing, and one dark and stormy night He showed it to me.

On a summer night in 2012 I had ridden my bike to church, as I usually did. I hadn't checked the forecast ahead of time and when I was ready to go home, a thunderstorm was pouring rain on downtown Minneapolis. Though I was able to keep my belongings dry, I was quickly drenched as I carefully biked home on sidewalks and back streets. Then, once I was almost home, a blinding stroke of lightning flashed around me, followed with no delay by a boom of thunder. It was the loudest sound I had ever heard, and I screamed in terror. Somehow, though, I managed to stay on my bike despite the shock and soon made it home to dry off.

I couldn't help but think about what had just happened to me. Though the lightning hadn't hurt me, I was still afraid of it. I quickly connected this to what I used to think about fearing God. Now I understood: I feared the lightning and thunder not because it was dangerous, but because it was just so palpably colossal and yet so immediately close to me. It felt so unimaginably immense that I almost felt like I could dissolve into it or be swept away, even though I knew this was false.

So it is, I think, with God—only infinitely more so. As humans, we like to feel safe, comfortable, and in control. Nothing is wrong with these desires, only with where we sinfully seek them—in our own self-sufficiency. A friend of mine told me something about human nature that has stuck with me: "most people desperately strive to avoid feeling small." But an encounter with the God of the Universe shatters all our delusions of sufficiency and makes us painfully, fearfully aware of how small and vulnerable we really are. "And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account." (Heb 4:13)

But the fear of the Lord is not like other fears, because at the same time that we are unimaginably small and helpless before our majestic God, we are not insignificant but unimaginably loved. The God who created the lightning and thunder that so terrified me knows me individually and tenderly, designed me in my inmost being (Psa 139:13), rejoices over me with gladness and singing (Zep 3:17), and has promised that He is for me and not to let anything come between us (Rom 8:31-39). "The fear of the Lord" is the concept of awe, reverence, or respect, only taken to a degree far beyond what these words convey, so that "fear" becomes more appropriate. Though I am learning to fear God, I continue to move towards Him instead of away because I trust Him even more. The kind of fear we're to have for our God is indivisible from our love and trust for Him, not in tension with them.

This has many ramifications for my life as a Christian. The biggest among these is that the fear of God is the antidote to any lingering delusions of self-sufficiency that I may have brought into my faith. Proverbs 1:7 says that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge". In God's economy, the first step to knowing anything of real importance is admitting that I don't know. Paul's doxology in Romans 11:33-36 goes,
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
And just a bit later in 12:3 he says, "for by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." To learn the knowledge and wisdom of God, intellectual humility is needed, and we acquire this by fearing the Lord and realizing "the depth of [his] riches and wisdom and knowledge", and "how unsearchable are his judgments and inscrutable his ways"—not meaning they are absurd or illogical, but that they are simply above our capacity to comprehend, and we become fools if we think otherwise, that we can wrap our minds around God's. I take this as a stern warning in my own intellectual life to always keep it under God, learning from Him the limits of my own knowledge and reasoning even as I seek to expand them. This is just one application of the fear of the Lord.

I've also been led to conclusions about fear in general. Another verse I've really grabbed onto is 1 John 4:18 (which I previously misused to deny that we should fear God), where in the middle of his discourse about love, John writes, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." This represents a possibly-shocking truth I've come to believe: we do well to fear God in the way described above, but we should not fear anything other than God. This has implications that you don't get until you realize how many other things besides God most Christians are trained to fear.

Some Christians fear demons or the supernatural and, in the name of "spiritual warfare" see them everywhere and take an unhealthy level of interest in their movements. Some Christians fear bad doctrine and become unhealthily obsessed with theological correctness until their Christlike love is replaced with bitterness and exacting intolerance. Some Christians fear moral imperfection and live as legalists, refusing to believe the gospel of grace. Some Christians fear sexual impurity and consequently develop a harmful view of sexuality at odds with God's design. Some Christians fear the sinfulness of the world and wall themselves off from it in an effort to keep themselves pure, or else fight a "culture war" to try to forcibly reform it. Some Christians (and I tend more towards this last category) fear misrepresenting Christ or driving people away from Him by being "intolerant", and so water down the gospel to avoid offending anyone and in doing so make it meaningless or invisible.

But "perfect love casts out fear". If our almighty, awesome God is for us and He is bigger than any of these things, then we should fear Him and nothing else. Just as a child doesn't have to fear anything while under the loving protection of his father, so we no longer have any reason to fear anything outside the loving embrace of our Father. It's a common misconception that idols necessarily have to be attractive to us. An object of fear can steal our hearts from God and control us just as well as (maybe even better than) an objection of adoration can.

This experience and my thinking after it didn't exactly redirect the course of my vocation, but they did reveal something I value and want to do within it. So many people, Christian and non-Christian, are enslaved by their fears. In the latter case, they may even think the fear is commanded by God. Fear of God is the only healthy kind of fear, and as I experienced, it is widely misunderstood. I now feel called to apply the gospel to peoples' fear through my future vocation and ministry, whatever that may be. As Christ's ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20), we are incapable of saving people ourselves—we can only pass on the grace we ourselves have received from God. I've found that I am especially passionate about helping others in the ways God has helped me. Earlier in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." (1:3-4)

My faith used to be (and to an extent still is) very fearful—of gaps in my theological knowledge, messing up on certain moral standards I hold, and of how other people view me for my faith. It's amazing and humbling to see God easing these fears in me, and I would love to let Him use me to help other people with their fears. This is not a simple task; as I know well, fear may operate and exert force through the rational mind where theology can speak to it, but it can have an even greater hold on peoples' hearts.

But through the various inventories and tools offered by this course, as well as my own reflection on what kinds of work I enjoy the most, I think God has prepared me for it. While I've known for years about my intellectual and analytical gifts, lately He's also been revealing a more heart-driven, people-focused side of me that is deeply dissatisfied with the prospect of studying theology without applying it in practical ways. I'm no longer interested in ideas merely for the sake of ideas; I'm interested in ideas for the sake of people, and it is wrong ideas that are too often at the root of our deepest fears as Christians. Through theology I hope to shift peoples' fears from all the lesser things that torment us to God Himself, the only One awesome (and loving) enough to bear them.

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