On being afraid of God

Someone told me once that thinking about God’s wrath helped them not sin, that every time they were tempted, they just thought about how mad God would be at them if they followed through. That fear was enough to nip temptation in the bud. Our conversation ended shortly after, and while I’ve wanted to quell the observation with a pat theological answer about God’s wrath toward us finding its end in Jesus, it keeps coming back, like water you can’t push away.

I started reading through the Bible with my women’s group from church last fall, and as we traverse the Old Testament, I keep thinking, “God is not to be trifled with.” A lot of people—including his own people!—die by God’s hand. There is blood—so much blood—involved in the Levitical sacrificial system. Regularly, God’s anger is kindled against the Israelites, over matters of the heart that you and I are regularly guilty of ourselves, namely, of not believing God’s ways are best, and for thinking we can come up with  better ways to obey him. And that’s just in the first five books! Spoiler alert: it doesn’t get better. Not even for Jesus. There’s no getting around it—God is terrifying. Even the New Testament warns us that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

Whenever I consult the Google for an explanation, I often find answers that attempt to redefine this kind of fear as respect or reverence of God. Some really smart guys went to some really smart seminaries to be able to say that, so I guess they must be right. But I can’t shake the feeling as I contemplate the blood and gore that maybe I actually am afraid of God. Not so much that I’m afraid of his wrath toward my sin—maybe I should be more afraid of that, but I’m assured of the blood of Christ atoning for my sin. No, this fear is more a sober dread that God will do what God will do, in my life, in the lives of the people I love, in my neighborhood, in my nation, in all the universe. I cannot reason with him, because his reason is beyond my understanding. I can’t plead my own case, because apart from Christ, I’ve got nothing to stand on—no good works, no gifts, no nothing. But that’s the key, isn’t it—”apart from Christ.” But I do have Christ, and doesn’t fear have to do with punishment and perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18)?

Maybe I’m afraid the way we are when we fall in love (so I have heard)—vulnerable and helpless, exhilarated and terrified all at once. Am I afraid of God both because he is far better than me and because he will destroy my old self, with all its prides and insecurities and lusts and greeds? The very things I hold too closely, for no reason at all, really, except that they are mine, my preciouses.

I understand better why the disciples were afraid after Jesus calmed the storm. You’d think they’d be relieved—bye, storm!—but they are terrified (Luke 8:22-25). Who is this, that even the wind and the seas obey him? Who indeed? If we ponder that without our souls quaking, then maybe we either haven’t encountered the true God yet, or we’ve forgotten him.

I’m still not sure my friend had it right—shouldn’t it be God’s kindness and not his wrath that leads us to repentance? But maybe there is a kind of fear that is appropriate in the Christian life.

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