Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Should God’s Children Fear Him?

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is a widely-loved children’s novel that was written by L. Frank Baum and published in 1900. The book was musically adapted into the classic movie starring Judy Garland in 1939. For those of you who are familiar with the plot, consider how the symbolism in the story parallels aspects of the Bible’s narrative. The four pilgrims are encouraged to follow a “yellow brick road” (like streets of gold). This golden street resembles a narrow path with distractions (Matthew 7:14). The path finally leads to an Emerald City on a hill (Heaven), complete with a gate keeper (popular Christian myth). All this to see the great and powerful Oz (God). Is this beautifully paralleled imagery or Christian satire? After all, Oz turns out to be a fake and the only real power is wielded by the witches. How does that compare with Christians’ view of God today?

So many Christians do not seem to actually fear God as they should. It is as if they see God as the old man behind the curtain pretending to be the great Wizard. Most reduce the fear of God to merely respect or reverence. But, the Bible defines fear of God as so much more. In fact, the Bible uses the word “fear” over 300 times with reference to our response to God. Those 300-plus mentions span both Testaments and are comprised to a large extent of characterizations of fearing God as a positive and necessary act. Fearing God is a central theme of the Bible. Even Jesus addressed his disciples (not unbelievers) in Matthew 10:28, “And 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.” Therefore, downplaying fearing God, even for God’s children, to merely reverence is probably rife with Biblical malpractice.

Some preachers even go as far as to preach as if Christians should never fear God at all. They reduce God to some form of spiritual grandpa incessantly dispensing candy to His disobedient children. But where can such a caricature be found in the Bible? In truth, “the Lord disciplines the one He loves.” After all, He is our Father and we are His children in need of discipline. In fact, discipline is where we get the word disciple. Therefore God disciplines His disciples (His children). Hebrews 12:5-11 says it best:

 “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.’
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

That said, Biblical discipline is not the same as Biblical punishment. One big difference between the two is that there is love in Biblical discipline, but there is no love in Biblical punishment. Punishment threatens fallen man whereas discipline only threatens our ego. Punishment is pure and undiluted condemnation and wrath. But, both discipline and punishment are worthy of fear albeit at different levels. Punishment is worthy of fear because it is eternally wrathful and void of love. Discipline is also worthy of fear because it is painfully correcting. My father disciplined me while I was growing up when I willfully disobeyed him. He did not “spare the rod.” And, every time I anticipated his discipline, I was very fearful. But, my father disciplined me because he loved me. And, from then even until now, I not only see his discipline as loving, but I am very thankful for it.

There are far too many verses on fearing God to address them all in this post. But, we will review a few of them just to affirm some vital few conclusions. Before we dig deeper, keep in mind that the Hebrew word for “fear” is yare, which in Biblical use includes fear, terror and awe. This word is not only used for one of these three definitions, but for all of them. In contrast, the Greek word used for fear is phobeo, which is where we get the modern day English word, phobia. But, the modern word does not revise the ancient word. We are not called to have a Godphobia. But, the ancient word means fear that is much greater than mere reverence. We are to fear Him as we should fear a Heavenly Father who unsparingly disciplines. With that backdrop, let’s examine further the Biblical application of God’s children fearing Him.

Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” And Psalms 111:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” “Practice” does not imply a one-time event, but an ongoing lifestyle. And Proverbs 19:23 refers to the fear of the Lord as “life.” These verses should apply somewhat equally to the believer as they do the unbeliever. In fact, Psalms 33:8 says, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!” The “earth” and “all the inhabitants” includes Christians. While hell only awaits the unbeliever, these verses point out that we are all to fear God for reasons that we all have in common.

Probably the best analogy I have heard to illustrate this common fear is that of a hurricane. I grew up enduring many hurricanes which led me to understand and fear them intimately. At the center of a hurricane is the eye. When you are in the eye of a hurricane, there is typically peace and blue skies above. It goes without saying that it is much better to be in the peaceful eye of the hurricane than in its bands of destructive winds and waves. As we Christians journey this life, our fear of God should be like that of fearing a hurricane. As long as we stay in the center of God, we need not fear His force. But as we leave God’s protective center, we have plenty to fear.

On that note, the verse that gets Christians most confused is 1 John 4:18 which says, “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.” But this verse is not meant to discredit all other verses in the Bible about fearing God. For example, this verse does not mean that Jesus was wrong to implore His disciples to fear God. Rather, this verse is best understood by way of the disciplining father analogy. I feared my father’s discipline. But, his love, borne through discipline, brought me to a place of practiced obedience, which allowed me to avoid discipline. His love led me to a place where the need for discipline was replaced with maturity. Where discipline is no longer imminent, then the fear of imminent discipline is gone. I matured to obedience out of fear without living in fear. And, His love completed my wisdom. But, unlike our relationship with our earthly fathers, our spiritual maturation in relating to our Heavenly Father will likely span our entire lifetimes.

In closing, let’s complete our understanding of fearing God by returning to debunking the Wizard of Oz analogy. As we do, consider the words of William Eisenhower, adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, when he said:

“Unfortunately, many of us presume that the world is the ultimate threat and that God's function is to offset it. How different this is from the biblical position that God is far scarier than the world ... When we assume that the world is the ultimate threat, we give it unwarranted power, for in truth, the world's threats are temporary. When we expect God to balance the stress of the world, we reduce him to the world's equal ... As I walk with the Lord, I discover that God poses an ominous threat to my ego, but not to me. He rescues me from my delusions, so he may reveal the truth that sets me free. He casts me down, only to lift me up again … Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but love from the Lord is its completion.”

Sometimes it seems that having no fear of God is the root sin of the evangelical church in America today. It is the core reason for ineffective witness. It is certainly too strong to say that there is no fear of God. But it does seem that there is often too little fear of God. Do we truly know the revealed God of Scripture, or do we believe in a God who is like the Wizard of Oz standing behind a curtain with a biteless bark? 

Will we ultimately fear God? The answer is yes. In eternity every knee will bow. As Christians and God’s children, it is our challenge to daily bow the knee on this side of eternity.