Practising Fear

7 Oct

[This post is courtesy of Dave Mears, posted on The Briefing 01st October 2012.]

I think it is fair to say that the days of ‘meat and three veg’ are over. A posse of reality TV cooking shows are standing over the body of old-school cooking each holding a smoking blow torch and a bloodied lemon zester. A whole raft of new culinary skills are being demanded by the increasingly enlightened household consumer.

But one thing has not changed: it’s all well and good if your ‘plated up’ culinary creation looks like an art exhibit, but that won’t count for much if it tastes like one! In much the same way my aim in this series has been to show that wisdom is far more than knowledge and facts. Looking good is not enough. So far we’ve looked at the wisdom of fearing God, and the particular characteristics about God we ought to fear. Now, to action: true wisdom is acting rightly—tasting good!—in response to the fearsome God.

That’s why it should not surprise us that the Bible tells us that the unbeliever has no fear of God. Consider the words of Psalm 36:1-2:

Transgression speaks to the wicked

deep in his heart;

there is no fear of God

before his eyes.

For he flatters himself in his own eyes

that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.

If people really knew God and feared him, they wouldn’t presume they could reject or marginalize him and get away with it; they wouldn’t presume that their good deeds could negate their rebellion and impress God enough to earn them salvation; they wouldn’t presume they could manipulate God with religious rituals. If they did fear God, recognizing him for who he really is—perfect in majesty, holiness and justice—they’d immediately comprehend their darkened state before him, repent of their sin and worship him in humble obedience.

However the absence of a proper fear of God has another effect: it deprives people of the security that only peace with God can provide. When you don’t have the peace of knowing that the sovereign Lord of all the earth is beside you and looking after you in all things, other things start to look much bigger and cut a lot deeper into your sense of wellbeing. It is not that non-Christians are without fear; it is that their fears are different. They fear the future, they fear not meeting their aspirations, they fear where and how they will live, and what they will eat/drink/wear. They fear pain, persecution, loneliness, loss of possessions, sickness, death. They fear what they don’t know or understand. They fear false gods, superstitions, ghosts and so on. It’s a very different story for Christians. We dearly love and cherish our Lord Jesus—he is our life. He who took our place, was punished for our failure to fear God, met the wrath that we deserve, and in that most glorious of exchanges, conferred upon us his spotless righteousness. So now we are found ‘in him’, clothed in the one who lived in perfect fear of the Lord.

Some wonderful implications flow from this. For starters, unlike non-Christians, we need no longer fear the world, for Christ has overcome it (John 16:33). It is not that all life’s challenges go away—in this life we will have trouble—but we can take heart, for in Christ we know that we will be victorious. As Christ himself reminds us:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven. (Matt 10:28-32)

We rejoice in this wonderful paradox: we fear God that we might not be afraid. In his grace, God has made himself known to us, that’s why we fear him. But we also know that this same majestic, holy, judge is on our side, and so as Paul reminds us in Romans 8:31, “if God is for us, who can be against us?” We can enjoy an unshakeable confidence in God’s power to carry his promises to completion. If there is one thing that a proper fear of God will lead to, it is faith.

Faith, however, should not be the only consequence of a healthy fear of God. The three aspects of our God displayed in the Scriptures that I argued last time elicit right and rational fear warrant their own appropriate response.

Fearing the majestic God

First let us consider how we should respond to our fearsomely majestic God. God’s majesty is all about his rule and authority.

If we truly fear him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the reasonable response is to obey him:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)

If we recognize that the majestic God is working in us that we might “will and act” according to his good purpose, we will take that purpose to heart. We will not take our salvation for granted, sit loosely with obedience, or question the rightness of God’s commands. We will obey him and take that obedience seriously—with fear and trembling. The mere thought of acting in disobedience to God should cause us to tremble.

Imagine if Barack Obama called one of his staff into the oval office, asking him to run a document over to Hillary Clinton, and the clerk rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, come on man! I am in the middle of a great game of solitaire. Leave it on my desk, maybe I’ll run it over tomorrow if I have time…” As Christians who know God, we should trust the goodness of his commands, and in humility obey them. We have been saved so that we might please God, so we need to strive to do that with the utmost diligence.

However, there is another way we show that we fear God’s majesty: by submitting to those earthly people he has placed in positions of authority over us. Christian submission recognizes the authority of God by recognizing the authority of others.

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ. (Eph 6:5)

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives. (1 Pet 3:1)

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Rom 13:3-5)

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed. (Rom 13:6-7)

Christians will submit to earthly authorities because they see beyond the person and fear the God of order, not of chaos. We recognize that it is he who, in his wisdom, has established all earthly authorities. Respecting him, we respect them.

Fearing the holy God

What about God’s holiness? How do we respond rightly to that? Again, it is quite simple. If we fear the God who is holy, then we will strive to be holy also. Holiness is all about distinction from the world. It is a movement away from sin and towards God. Unlike magnetic poles, which are drawn to their opposites, holiness is attracted by what is holy and repelled by what is unholy. Given that our God is absolutely and fearsomely holy, and we are to be holy as he is holy, what should be the strength of our attraction to holiness and repulsion from sin? Paul expresses a Christian’s polarity from the world in 2 Corinthians:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,

and I will be their God,

and they shall be my people.

Therefore go out from their midst,

and be separate from them, says the Lord,

and touch no unclean thing;

then I will welcome you,

and I will be a father to you,

and you shall be sons and daughters to me,

says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor 6:14-18)

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Cor 7:1)

We are to be God’s holy people. Living in the world, we are not to be like it, nor are we to ally ourselves with it, and we are to take this call to holiness very seriously. Holiness should make sin and wickedness repellent. We are to flee from sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18), idolatry (1 Cor 10:14), and false doctrines (1 Tim 6), to have nothing to do with divisive people in the church who don’t respond to correction (Titus 3:10), or with false accusations, any form of evil, and so on. And if holiness means we run from these things, it also means we run to what is holy. “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22). Fearing the holy God should mean we actively chase after holiness, and do so together, as a holy people: “along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart”. The church is holy, set apart by God. It is what he is building out of the wreckage of this fallen world with those he has redeemed. Christians meet because of holiness, drawn together as a royal priesthood, chosen by the Holy God.

Of course, holiness is difficult, and the pressure from the world to conform is immense. Thankfully, God in his measureless grace has given us his Holy Spirit to dwell in us and transform us. As we strive for holiness, the best place to start is to pray for a holy mind—a mind that will not uncritically soak up the world’s impure values and unclean attitudes, but be transformed and renewed, set on what God’s Holy Spirit desires. The fearsome holiness of our God should drive us away from the narcissism, individualism, and hedonism of our culture, towards the purity of thinking that Paul calls us to possess:

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil 4:8)

Fearing the God who is judge

How do we respond to the knowledge that God will hold all things to account? Surprisingly, it doesn’t mean that we act out of a fear of being punished:

By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as he is so also are we in this world. 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. We love because he first loved us. (1 Jn 4.17-19)

The person who fears the God who will judge the earth actually has confidence on the day of judgement. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! What then does a fear of God the judge mean? Well, we love God and can be confident of his love for us, from which nothing can separate us. Although we don’t fear his condemnation, we do know that he is the judge of the living and the dead and is watching the way we conduct ourselves, and we do fear our heavenly Father’s disapproval. There may be no condemnation—but there is still accountability. We want him to say to us on that last day “well done, good and faithful servant”, so we aim to please him and persuade others to turn to him:

So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. (2 Cor 5:9-11a)

Fearing God the judge, we have turned to Christ and are now safe. But that very awareness reminds us that others are not safe from that judgement. Fearing the God who is judge is the reason we preach the gospel! Christ’s love compels us to evangelise, but so does his judgement seat. Consider Paul’s own example later in that same chapter:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:20-21)

But there is one more thing that fearing the God who is judge leads us to, and that is to persevere in humility and not take God’s grace for granted. Paul says to Gentiles:

Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (Rom 11:19-21)

We are saved, not by favouritism, but by justice. God is the one who in Christ is both just and the one who justifies the ungodly. The only reason we are safe is because of Christ: when you leave Christ, you leave safety. We have assurance, but we must never become complacent and arrogant.

All this is why the fear of God is synonymous with wisdom. It teaches us not to fear the things the world fears. It leads us to faith, motivates us to obey him, and submit to the authorities he has placed over us in the world. Fearing him drives us to flee wickedness and pursue holiness; it provokes love for God and the desire to please him. It gives us a passion for the lost, helps us persevere and keeps us humble before him. All these things are true and wise responses to the reality of the infinite God.

The experience of fear

One question still remains: what is the experience of fearing God? What are we meant to feel? Should we be scared of God? Is fear just reverence? The reality is that our experience of fear will depend on how we are relating to God at any given time. Fear can be awesome, but fear can also be anxious.

Perhaps the best way to describe how this works is to think of looking out over a really high cliff edge. I love heights and have, on more than one occasion in my youth, found myself on the edge of a high cliff, with no barrier between me and a thousand foot drop. It can be quite scary. You peek over the edge and go “yikes!”, and so you move back, maybe even lower yourself to make sure you have more contact with the solid rock underneath. That’s a very different experience to being at a scenic lookout and standing behind the barrier enjoying the view from a position of safety. Then the sheer scale of the view before you can take your breath away as you gaze out at the magnificence of God’s creation. One has a more anxious ‘scary’ feel to it, the other is more awe and wonder.

So it is with fearing God. Sometimes our fear of God is actually downright scary. And it should be. The warning passages in Hebrews, for instance, serve that very purpose: to scare us away from abandoning Christ. They do this by taking us to the very edge of the cliff and practically dangling us over it—to show what would happen if we were to abandon him—so that we have the wise and life-preserving desire to run back away from the edge.

One such passage is one of the most terrifying passages of Scripture:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb 10:26-31)

What do you think God is going to do to those who, even though they know what Christ has done for them, treat his grace with contempt? What will God do with you if you insult his kindness and spit on his Son by continuing to sin with impunity? The mere thought of facing God under these circumstances should fill us with sheer quaking terror. Unbelievers who have been masquerading as Christians have no real fear of God and will ignore the warning. They’ll explain it away, get ticked off at the person who shared it with them, dismiss it as not applying to them. But believers who have been foolishly indulging their sinful nature do fear God, and so will hear the warning and recognize the dreadful reality of it. The thought that they are treating Christ this way appalls them. The thought of meeting the God they love and facing his wrath is distressing in the extreme and so they repent.

This is life saving, soul saving, ‘scared’ fear. It is a gift of God to give resolve to the weak and sinful human heart.

On the other end of the spectrum are Christians who live in faithful obedience. Their experience is not anxious fear. It is awesome, wondrous fear. It is ‘how-mind-blowingly-amazing-and-mighty-is-God’ kind of fear. They are nowhere near the cliff edge, but they see the spectacular view and are spurred on to greater faith and obedience even as they cry out in praise: “how great is our God!”

Final suggestions

Let me conclude with three final suggestions.

First, because you fear God, don’t envy the world, pray for it. It’s easy to look at the seemingly care-free lives of our non-Christian friends and family, not to mention our society that has wilfully discarded God, and compare that to our own lives as we deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily to follow Christ. It’s easy to look out and feel a twinge of envy, to feel our labour is vain. That’s what Asaph did in Psalm 73. But then he went to the temple and was reminded of the holy, majestic judge of all the earth, and he realized that the people were on slippery ground. Pray for our foolish world that does not have the wisdom to fear God. Pray that the people you know will fear what they should fear, and stop fearing what they shouldn’t. Pray that people will come to see God as he really is, fear him, and delight in his goodness and love.

My second suggestion is for any of us who are becoming complacent with sin in our lives. Only a fool starts tap dancing on the edge of a cliff. We must not take God or our salvation for granted. If you recognize that you are mucking around with sin, repent—immediately and decisively. If you are struggling for motivation to honour God read Hebrews 10 or Revelation 20. Let God hold you over that cliff, and while you are there, soak up the view, and don’t forget what you see. Be wise. Let the fear of God sober you up and strengthen you to do what needs doing! If you are dating a non-Christian person break it off immediately—it is unholy and profoundly dangerous. Will it be hard? Yes. But fronting up to God and saying that that person mattered more than him will be harder. If your non-Christian friends are having a much greater influence on you than you are on them, start distancing yourself. You don’t need those friends that badly. If you find yourself explaining away challenging passages of the bible because they conflict with your culture, beware: your intellectual pride, or love of the world is puffing you up and leading you to challenge God’s authority. Remember what Jesus said: “if your left hand causes you to sin, cut it off, if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out”. There are some things that really do matter, where we must not be casual. To indulge sin is to be a fool, and fools perish if they don’t wise up.

Third, let me encourage us all to delight in our fearsomely loving God. We all stumble when it comes to fearing God. We can all be fools. That is when it is worth remembering that the fearsome and great God of the universe resolved to pay for your sin through his Son Jesus Christ. He has given you his Holy Spirit. Who can condemn you? He has justified you! Who can accuse you? He has chosen you! Who is mighty enough to separate you from this God’s love? His ears are attentive to our prayers, his heart is full of compassion, and his nature is always to have mercy. It is he who has promised to carry on to completion the work he first began in you: to make you like his Son that he might delight in you for all eternity just as you will delight in him. Fear him, and love him. For he is God, and there is no other.

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