Fear and friendship

Most people are afraid of something. During these days of pandemic and vaccination, many people have rediscovered their fear of needles. But the old standards haven’t gone away: fear of public speaking, of snakes and spiders, of dogs and dentists. Our brains remember things that have hurt or threatened us in the past, and we can react strongly and viscerally when we encounter them again.

Sometimes, unfortunately, those fears are related to the way we’ve been hurt in relationships. A physically or emotionally abusive spouse. An abusive parent. A spiritually abusive church or pastor.

And unfortunately, any of these can also lead to a perception that God himself may be abusive and unloving.

It probably doesn’t help that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, so frequently holds up “the fear of the LORD” as the key to wisdom. We’ve known parents who threatened to put the fear of the Lord in their kids. Too often, what that really meant was fear of the parents, who themselves played God with their kids.

But what does the fear of God really mean?

. . .

Jesus was out on the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. He was asleep in the stern when a sudden and furious storm engulfed them. Terrified for their lives, the Twelve woke Jesus up. The three gospels differ a little in what they said to him. In Matthew, it’s “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” (Matt 8:25, NRSV). The Greek here actually reads, “Lord… save… we perish,” as if the disciples were choking out the words through splashes of seawater. In Luke 8:24, the disciples’ words convey a similar desperation: “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And in Mark 4:38, it’s “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Those words sound pretty polite for a desperate situation, but there is within them the accusation that Jesus doesn’t care.

So Jesus wakes up and tells the wind and waves to cut it out. An eerie calm settles over the sea. Matthew and Mark tell us the disciples are gobsmacked. Luke says they were terrified and gobsmacked. And the question they were asking each other was, “Who the heck have we got in the boat with us?”

. . .

This, I think, is an excellent example of what the fear of God should mean. Shouting “Don’t you care?” at Jesus doesn’t mean they really believe he doesn’t care. Quite the contrary: they’ve had ample opportunity to experience his love and care, and shout this way to rouse him to action. They’re afraid of the storm. They’re afraid of drowning. But after Jesus stills the storm, they have something new to fear, something more powerful than the elements, more powerful than death.

That’s a proper fear of God. It’s not the fear of abuse. Jesus is their Master, the one who even calls them friends. But up to that point, it hadn’t quite sunk in who Jesus was.

What about us? Do we know who we have in the boat with us?

. . .

Psalm 25, in keeping with the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, mentions the fear of the LORD. The psalmist, knowing his sin, prays humbly for God’s mercy and forgiveness:

For your name’s sake, O Lord,
    pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Who are they that fear the Lord?
    He will teach them the way that they should choose
. (vss. 11-12)

The prayer for pardon shows a proper fear or reverence for the righteousness of God, but it also displays the confidence that God will direct the faithful person in paths that are more pleasing to him. Likewise, two verses later, the psalmist says, “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them” (vs. 14). Note that in both these cases, fear of the LORD is met by the teaching and guidance of the LORD.

But what is this “friendship” of which the psalmist speaks?

It can be useful, sometimes, to read Bible passages in several translations. Most of the time, the versions will be quite similar. But every so often, the differences can be quite striking, pointing to places where the meaning of the original is uncertain or difficult to render into English.

So it is here. The NRSV says that “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him.” The NASB, however, refers to the “secret of the LORD.” The NIV says, “The LORD confides in those who fear him,” and the CEB has “counsels” instead of “confides in.” What could the Hebrew possibly mean that all these translations are possible?

Many Hebrew words are capable of a range of seemingly unrelated meanings, because they begin with a basic meaning or image and expand outward through somewhat loose associations. But here’s an image that I think helps hold all the above meanings together:

Thing of a sports team huddling together to plan their next play. Think of a group of friends sharing a hug and some word of caring. This is the image the Hebrew word conveys: of people circling up, drawing close to one another, to confide, to counsel, to whisper a secret. It is a picture of intimacy, of friendship.

This is the God we are to fear. Other psalms talk about how God can lay waste to a landscape with just his voice, or will bring the wicked to utter ruin. The gospels also show us a God who has power over the elements.

But that same God has power over sickness and death, and uses that power to set us free. This is the God whom the psalmist says draws close in friendship, who pulls us into a huddle to tell us what we need to know.

This is not the fear of abuse, but awe in the face of a love beyond understanding.