Fear of the Lord

“Fear of the Lord” is one of those phrases from the Bible that needs to be unpacked, to be thought about more broadly than is usually done. So often it has been tied to our behavior around the Ten Commandments and other rules of life in the Bible. It has been linked to our “bad” or sinful behavior, as if God is going to punish us for our sins at any moment. It was the foundation for what I was taught as a child in a hell-fire-and-damnation church in the South. God is a punitive, vengeful, capricious God and, boy, is he out to get us for every wrong we do.

For me by the time I was an adult my image of God was of a raven sitting on my shoulder ready to zap me for any misstep I made. And I did do harmful stuff to myself and others and good stuff, too. But most of all I was taught to cower before God and I was doing a very good job of it.

There are two Hebrew words most often translated fear in relationship to God in the Old Testament. The one used most often is “yare,” a verb that covers the whole gamut of fear from dread to respect to revere. Sometimes “yare” is used to convey terror and fright; in other contexts it means “honor, respect and awe as in the phrase, the fear of the Lord.”[1] Secondly, there is also “pahad,” a noun meaning fear, terror, dread and calamity. It is also used in conveying a few times the fear of the Lord.[2] In Psalm 36:1 the wicked are said to have no “fear of the Lord before their eyes.” Or in 2 Chronicles 19:7: “Now let the fear of the Lord be on you. Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.”

In the New Testament the Greek word most often used for fear is “phobeomai” which means to “fear, be afraid, alarmed, in some contexts an improper and impediment to faith and love, again the whole gamut from reverence, respect, worship, in other contexts a proper fear of God, a deep reverence and awe.”[3]

These translations point to a flip side to fear and that is awe. These are two emotions on the same continuum. The more we fear God, the less awe and reverence we will feel for him. We may be dutiful, obeying all the laws, but our hearts are not in it because of the fear of punishment. The more our response to God is awe, the more we can feel his love and care for us, the more we feel like we’re walking on holy ground every step we take on this earth. The more worshipful we are, the deeper the relationship we can build with God.

Just as Moses was told at the Burning Bush to take off his sandals because he was on holy ground, in God’s creation,[Exodus 3:1-6] so we should live on this Earth as if it is holy ground. If we look at the awesomeness of God’s creation, the universe and many multiple universes as cosmologists are now projecting, we have to stand in awe. If we think of what a speck we each are in the vastness of the universe, wow! Or if we try to imagine the mind of God which created the complex, interdependent system of organisms on Earth alone, it is the awe side of fear that is evoked. Of course, depending on how you perceive God, you could also be very afraid of God. That is our choice.

We are invited into God’s arms, not to tremble in fear of punishment but perhaps in awe and reverence, for his support and encouragement to become the person we were created to be if we would just live more in God’s arms than in the world. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son the wastrel was welcomed back by his father, welcomed and celebrated![Luke 15:11-32] Where was the punishment he so richly deserved for spending his inheritance profligately? Where was the vengeance of the Lord. Nowhere to be seen.

This parable is Jesus’ offering about the nature of God and how he feels about the inconstant nature of men and women. All God asks of us is that we return to our natural home in his arms by turning our backs on our former ways, and for us to be willing to learn a whole new way of being. In John the Baptist’s words, we are to repent, do a 180 degree turn from the ways of the world.

We are the ones who punish ourselves for our wayward, inconstant behavior. Anything that goes against our inner calibrator, our conscience, brings up guilt and shame. And so we cower before God because of our rejection of our own behavior. We project that shame and guilt onto God as the Big Parent in the sky and expect punishment from him and so we fear God. I am pretty sure that the prodigal son figured he’d take his lumps(punishment) about his behavior, but wanted at least to be home, not in slavery to some distant king or landowner or his old behavior.

Think of how surprised he must have been that he was welcomed home and celebrated. He must have been shaking his head at what occurred. And his inheritance was restored. I don’t think we are to think of that inheritance in the form of money, but rather in terms of his place in his father’s house being restored. He is his father’s son still.

In the Exodus story after leaving Egypt where God kills the rebellious Israelites off through various means like a plague, fire, etc. every time they rebel, I think we have to think figuratively. Of course this story is one of the main reasons we think we are to fear God. God is impatient, wondering when the Israelites will remember that he saved them from slavery. All throughout the 40 years of wandering in the generation that had lived in Egypt there were those who were always looking to go back there where everything was familiar to them. So often the Israelites were looking for someone to lead them back.

This rebelliousness while it continues will never be allowed in the Promised Land. God waits until the whole generation that he brought out of Egypt had died before he led Joshua and the Israelites into Canaan. It’s the rebelliousness, the wasting of an inheritance, the forgetfulness about how God has rescued us, the fear of being punished that says we’re not ready for the Promised Land. So during the forty years in the wilderness the Lord is teaching the Israelites how to live in the new way and taking care of the periodic rebellions. He lays down hundreds of laws that govern relationships, herds, how to worship the Lord in great detail and much more.

Isn’t this how we individuals meet God where he wants us to be? Don’t we have to get over our rebellions against what is happening in our lives and what he wants for us? Don’t we have to give up our expectations for how life should go for us? Our assumptions and desires that are built up by the world, not by God? And live in God’s will?

We are welcomed into the kingdom when the last rebellious parts of ourselves are healed. All healing and transformation in us can only be done by God. And so God is waiting for our rebelliousness to be turned over to him for transformation, so that we come, certainly with our baggage, but without it ruling us anymore.

Then we stand in awe and reverence. We take off our shoes figuratively because we are walking on holy ground before the Lord. So fear takes a back seat to reverence, to love, then divine love flows to us and back out of us again to God and to the world. We can feel that love in every cell of our bodies; we trust in the providence of the Lord and in his promises to us. We can love ourselves and others because we have opened ourselves up to his healing and transformation. Amen.

Questions to ponder over the week: So which side of the fear/awe continuum am I on? The fear side or the reverence side? What was I taught about God as a child? Does it line up with my experience of God? Have I even had an experience of God that wasn’t colored by those early teachings? Am I open to experiencing God as he is, as he would teach me about himself?

Putting a book up on Amazon is more complicated than I imagined. Hopefully, this week! Watch for the ad and link which will announce it on Facebook. Also, there is a new video up on YouTube, “The Kingdom is about loving God.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwNWX5DWMS0

[1] Goodrick & Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance, Second Edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999, p. 1419, Strong’s #3707.

[2] Ibid, p. 1473, Strong’s #7065.

[3] Ibid, p. 1601, Strong’s #5828-32

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