Some Theses on the Church in North America Today (13)
13. I started this series with no order or end in mind except for this last one. I left out much that could rightly have been included (hence, the “some” in the title). And the discussions are intended to be suggestive and provocative, not exhaustive. I’ve included matters that seem to me important for the church to wrestle with in this time and place. But this final post I always meant to close with because it may be the most important of all I have or could have included here: “the fear of the Lord.”
We don’t hear much about this topic today. We’re all about getting the “fear” out of our relationship with God. And in one sense that’s a good thing (see my post on “forgiveness” above). Yet in another equally important sense, loss of “fear of the Lord” may be the most debilitating loss we could sustain. While God does not want us to live in fear of him because we are uncertain of his love or forgiveness or acceptance of us, God does want the awe, wonder, and respect he is due as God. That’s not because God is a narcissist who requires our adulation. But because we can only be fully human and the creatures God means us to be by relating to him as God.
Pr.1:7 in Eugene Peterson’s The Message gets it right: “Start with God—the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning.” He translates “fear” as “bowing down to God.” And it’s just such fear that I fear many (most?) of us have lost sight of in this age of refocusing on God’s love and Buddy Jesus
This loss leaves us with a one-sided view of God, which means a wrong view of God, which means idolatry. That’s what’s at stake here.
It’s the opposite error of the distant deity of deism or the distant, aloof, vengeful deity the church has too often been guilty of promoting.
Biblically, however, God’s relationship to humanity is asymmetrical. He is not completely distant and unconcerned about us in his lofty grandeur as God. Nor is he our best friend and soulmate as human. He’s both at the same time! That’s the mystery of the incarnation. He was fully human and fully divine. We can’t have one without the other. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus the Beyond in our midst. In him God has drawn near to humanity, near to point of becoming one of us without ceasing to be God.
Thus, our relationship to God in Christ will have both elements. Neither a distant, aloof, or vengeful deity nor a best friend, boyfriend, Jesus. The reality that Jesus is God ought to be, one the one hand, a sobering, awesome, reverential, “fearful,” awareness of the augustness of his presence. And, on the other hand, a joyous, freeing, awareness of the boundless love, mercy, and welcome he extends to us.
Two of our best children’s stories describe this best. The first is C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When the Pevensie children begin their adventure they are told they are on their way to meet Aslan, the great lion and Christ-figure in the story. The children experience strange feelings upon hearing his name and question their guides the Beavers about him. They learn he is the great lion, Creator and Lord of Narnia, and son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea.
“But shall we see him?” asked Susan.
“Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for. I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr. Beaver.
“Is— is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion— the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he— quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Aslan is not safe, but he is good. Fear and love are together the fullness of our relationship to Christ.
The other story is The Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Rat and Mole are seeking the source of the beautiful song they hear in the woodlands. This follows:
“Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror--indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy--but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
“Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
“'Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. 'Are you afraid?'
“'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. 'Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet--and yet--O, Mole, I am afraid!'
“Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.”
And there it is. The “august presence” that takes us to our knees in adoration and worship. The “fear of the Lord” that must be a part of our experience of God in Christ if we are not to fall off one side or the other into idolatry. And if you want to know how seriously God takes idolatry just thumb through the Old Testament and stop almost any place and read.