Fear and trembling (part 1)

What do you fear? Things in nature, likes snakes and spiders? Catastrophic events like earthquakes, flood, and fire? Public speaking? Rejection, failure, embarrassment?

All of the above?

Everyone is afraid of something. And in some cases our fear, though unpleasant, serves us well, because the world can be a dangerous place. Our fear can help keep us safe and alive.

But do we also fear God?

The Bible seems to think we should.

This may sound odd to those who are used to a gospel that emphasizes grace and love in a way that leaves us with the vague impression of God as a kindly and doting father who pays his children’s parking tickets. The horror of sin is downgraded to a series of misdemeanors. The holiness of God and his righteous wrath against sin are downplayed or edited out of the story. It sounds too rough, too angry, too vengeful. It’s just not… well, nice.

And we want our God to be nice.

Some of us have had horrendous experiences with the church, leaving us with no desire to return, or even to pray or read Scripture. Some of us have been taught a tyrannical God who looks for bad little children to cast into hell. “You’d better behave,” some parents warn their kids, “or God’s gonna get ya.” Thus, some people fear God because they’ve been given wrong ideas of who God is.

When the Bible speaks of “the fear of the Lord,” however, it doesn’t mean the fear that comes from wrong ideas, but the fear that comes from a right understanding of God’s power and holiness. The fear of the Lord, Scripture insists, is where true knowledge and wisdom begin (e.g., Job 28:28; Ps 111:10; Prov 1:7, 9:10; Is 11:2; Mic 6:9).

Some people think of this as having the proper respect toward God. But I don’t think the word “respect” goes far enough.

Listen, for example to the words of the apostle Paul, written to his beloved comrades in Philippi: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13, NRSV). Respect God? Certainly. But to tell you the truth, I don’t tremble much in the presence of people I respect. There’s something more going on here, and its name is holy fear.

I sometimes think of it this way. Back in the 70s, it seemed that just about every TV drama had to have an episode about someone transporting bottles of nitroglycerin, a liquid used to make dynamite. If the shipment wasn’t handled properly, it could explode. Anyone who really understood the danger did more than just respect what was in the bottles; they had sense enough to be afraid.

When Paul tells the Philippians to “work out” their salvation with “fear and trembling,” he’s not saying that they have to work for their salvation. He’s not telling them to fear rejection from a cranky, capricious, or demanding God. Rather, he’s saying that their salvation needs to have its out-working; their internal transformation must show outwardly in their life and character. It’s not about coming up with the willpower on your own, he reassures them. Always remember that it is God himself who is working in you through his Spirit. He is the one who empowers you not only to work, but to have the will to do so in the first place.

Great. Terrific. But why “fear and trembling”?

Think about it. The God who created the universe, who hung the stars and set the planets in their orbits, is working in you. God is the only one who can be filled with wrath against sin and at the same time fully righteous; that God is in you. When you really and truly get that God —  the holy God of the entire universe — is in you, it should cause an awe-filled tremble or two.

Dare we take that for granted? We’re walking bottles of spiritual nitro. We may not blow ourselves to kingdom come, but the kingdom has come, our lives should show it, and we have the power.

And that, I think, is the perspective we need to understand the frightening story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. More on that in the next post.