Last night, we continued our summer Q&A series by answering the question, “What does it mean to fear God?” We began by looking at two extreme views that we’re often tempted to take of the fear of God. The first is what we called “Angry Grandpa God.” This is the view that often tends to caricature God as an angry old man who is out to get sinners. As one of our students pointed out, this is the picture of God as a kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass glibly roasting the creatures below. People with this view love to talk about the fear of God as it relates to his anger over sin. The prime extreme example of this view in today’s society is “Pastor” Fred Phelps’ “church” in Kansas that pickets the funerals of homosexuals with signs declaring “God hates fags.” This view is an affront and an insult to the gospel of Christ. All in all, the “Angry Grandpa God” is the result of seeing God’s holiness but not his love. On the other extreme is the view we called “Buddy Christ.” This is the view that is summed up by the “Jesus is My Homeboy” t-shirts. This view sees God as a kind and loving friend but not as one who should be approached with reverence and awe. By focusing too much on God’s love at the expense of his holiness, the “Buddy Christ” view results in a small God who often receives admiration but not respect. Both of these extremes can be easy to slip into (especially the “Buddy Christ” extreme in the relaxed culture of generation Y) and both are destructive to our spiritual life, since they neuter one attribute of God in an attempt to emphasize another. The better picture that brings us a more balanced view is C.S. Lewis’ depiction of Aslan the Lion in The Chronicles of Narnia. The following interchange, between Lucy and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, highlights Lewis’ depiction of Aslan as a loving friend, but also a great and mighty king whom it was appropriate to fear…
"Is Aslan quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."To understand this nuanced view of the fear of God, we turned to Exodus 20:18-21. The Israelites have just received the Ten Commandments. They’ve seen God’s presence descend on Mt. Sinai as a cloud, with streaking lightning and a roaring voice. They are terrified, and they plead with Moses to act as a go-between for them and God so that they will not have to be in his presence again. Moses responds with these curious words, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” He tells the people not to be afraid, but that these things have happened so that they would fear God. At first, it seems Moses is contradicting himself – should they fear God or not? However, this points to the reality – illustrated elsewhere in Scripture – that there are two types of “fear of God.” One is appropriate for Christians, the other is not.
"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 just plain 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? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."
The type of fear that we don’t need is characterized by terror and despair. These were the feelings expressed by the Israelites that prompted Moses to respond, “Do not be afraid.” Realizing their sinfulness in the presence of God’s holiness, the Israelites feared for their lives. Moses said that this wasn’t necessary, since God by his mercy had received them as his covenant people. This kind of fear certainly is appropriate because of our sin, but because of the forgiveness we have received in Christ, we need fear God in this way no longer. As Romans 8:1 says, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Thus, we can see that the terror and despair of judgment (also seen expressed in James 2:19, Revelation 6:12-17, and Hebrews 10:26-27) is the kind of fear that Moses is telling God’s people not to have.
So, what is the fear of him that Moses says should be before us? This is a fear marked by reverence and trust. This is the amazing realization that though we should rightly be terrified under God’s judgment, he has instead accepted and loved us as his own for no good reason to be found in us. This should cause us to be amazed at our God’s love. His love is not the casual admiration of a buddy, but the deep and abiding love that is fixed on us in spite of ourselves. We need to recapture this wonder at our salvation. We need to allow our jaws to hit the floor as we contemplate our God. This fear, this reverence that forgiveness brings is mentioned in Psalm 130:1-4. We need that wonder in our Christian lives. Yet this reverence also must be joined with trust. Look at God’s admonition to Isaiah in Isaiah 8:11-15. He tells the prophet that when we quit worrying about what the world worries about and put our focus on our amazing God, we find that the fear and reverence that this provokes is a sanctuary for us. The very stone that many will be broken upon as they fight against it is the stone of refuge for us. An appropriate fear of God must be coupled with trust for a Christian, as we look at his greatness, our sinfulness, and realize with joy, “I’m glad he’s on our side.”
Which caricature of God are you more prone to worship? Do you lose his love in the midst of his holy and righteous judgment, or do you see him as simply “the man upstairs” – a neutered, friendly deity who you approach in the same fashion as your next-door neighbor? I’ll admit the latter is usually my temptation. Yet, whichever side you struggle with, I pray that you will see a view of God’s holiness and his love that is balanced, and that causes you to fall into the awesome embrace of the one who is never safe, but always good.