Monthly Archives: May 2014

Being Afraid of God

 

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

John-the-letter-writer is talking about being afraid of God.

He’s talking about the kind of fear of God that’s not awe or reverence, but cowering fear that convinces us God is out to get us, that he is keeping a list and we are on the bad side, and sooner or later he is going to let us have it for all we’ve done wrong, or all the good we’ve forgotten to do.

I don’t know, but I guess that John is familiar with the kind of religion that makes hay off that sort of thing.  Because John goes on at length to point out that God has already shown us how he feels about us:  “this is how God showed his love among us:  He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

God has already made a huge investment in rescuing us and bringing us back home, and he made the first move.  If we have the idea we need to show God some adoration and some life change before he might turn his face toward us, we’ve got it wrong – he already came here looking for us.

And what about the punishment we might deserve?  That’s what Jesus was doing: taking the penalty for our sin.

The amazing thing is that God has shown where he’s coming from: he wants us.  He loves us completely – “perfectly.”  He has shown his cards – he’s not keeping anything back.  He’s poured it all out for us, so we could come home to him.

He doesn’t want our fear.

Love?  Yes.  The respect that goes with love?  Yes.  Our worship and praise? Yes – when we realize who he is.  But God has shown us in Jesus that he is not interested in our trembling fear – that’s what John is saying.

Instead, he is out to make us new – to finish us and make us whole – make us “perfect” – as we were meant to be – in his love.  There is no fear in this love.

So, if someone wants you to be afraid of God, they are not talking about God, the father of Jesus Christ, and they’re not talking about the good news of Jesus.  If they’re trying to reinstate fear, they’ve missed the point – that’s really what John is saying here.

I’ve heard this verse used other ways – like, because Jesus loves us we don’t have to be afraid of tornadoes or snipers.  Maybe that’s true, although all humans come equipped with a fear of things that might kill us, Jesus included.  It’s true that because Jesus loves us, if we have turned toward him in faith, we don’t have to fear death ultimately – we know that we are eternally safe, in Him.  So, in that way, his perfect love does cast out fear.

But what John was talking about, was the devil’s attempt to make us fear and suspect God, in fact, the devil’s accusation of God, to us, that he wants to keep us afraid.

We have the ultimate demonstration that it isn’t true:  Jesus.

The Bible is also intensely human.

The Bible is an intensely human book.
David, the man after God’s own heart, expresses joy and faith…but also fear, anguish, fury and grief.
Paul, for whom “to live is Christ,” expresses irritation, fear, jealousy, fury, sorrow, resignation and a serious need to be right…as well as huge joy, humility, deep peace and bold faith.
And of course Jesus, 100% divine and 100% human, demonstrates for us implicit trust in and joyful obedience to his Father, but also an anguished desire for “another way” in Gethsemane, deep sorrow and anger at the rejection of ‘institutional Israel’ of their Messiah, and even irritation a time or two with the disciples and their lack of faith.
Yes, the Bible is inspired by God’s very breath, but tells human stories and is written by human hands and all of the human experience is in its pages, while it testifies to us of God.
This is one reason why it is important for us not to grab verses and passages out of context and claim them as God’s word.
This is why it is vital for us to learn and know the whole arc of the story of God and humanity that the Bible tells (and why its many writings were gathered together in one library).
This is why we who teach God’s people need to push back against the marketplace’s demand that we keep things short and deliver useful nuggets of advice for everyday life whenever we command their attention – because without knowing the whole arc of the story, what nuggets we deliver are rootless and confusing.
And what happens when we don’t understand the whole arc of the story, is that we risk of baptizing the most human parts of the Bible as though they are God’s word. Which vindicates us when we live out of fear and anger.
But Jesus, though he certainly understood our natural fear, anger and grief, called us not to trust fear and anger, but instead to avoid being afraid, to put away our swords, and to find our peace in him.
“Do not be afraid” is a common theme when humans encounter God – and not just because to encounter God can be terrifying, but because the whole point of what God is doing is to deliver us from fear.
And James writes, “….let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20) But we, in our humanity, forget that – and if we can find some angry writings in the Bible we can justify our own anger with them, and do much damage.
I am learning that in following Jesus I need to always question myself about what I’m angry about and what I’m afraid of, and to root out the resentment, competition, jealousy, fear of losing my place or my livelihood, fear of losing my status or my assumed superiority…all the things that lie underneath my reactions which take the place of better responses.
When Jesus taught us to pray, “thy will be done, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” it was to pray that we would begin to behave out of the peace and settled righteousness that exists in God’s presence, and less out of all the striving we do in our kingdoms.
Being still and knowing God is God, removes from me all the ways I think I am obligated to be God in my world. And it undermines all the ways I have crowned my anger and fear and given them Christianized reasons to influence the way I think.
And so we need to learn to read our Bibles and identify the human parts, the this-world’s-kingdoms’ ways of reacting. We see it clearly when the Psalmist (137) expresses delight in the imagery of God’s enemies having their infants’ dashed against rocks, but do we see it so clearly in some of the images of judgment so gleefully described in other places? Jesus said the Spirit would prove us wrong about judgment, because in his crucifixion, the prince of this world (eg, Satan) would stand condemned (and not those who we might think were his enemies) (John 16:11).
We are intensely human – what else could we be? But we are also called to keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, because of all we don’t know. And from him we get a vision of the kingdom — “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27).