Fear and trembling

Millions upon millions of people do it every day, all around the world, without thinking. They don’t realize what’s happening, because they take what they’re doing for granted. You may be one of them. Personally, I do it much less of it now than I used to, partly because of how things changed during the pandemic. It’s also (temporarily?) more expensive than it used to be, so if I don’t have to, I don’t. But I still want the freedom to be able to when it’s convenient or necessary.

I’m talking about going down the street, setting off explosions.

Normal people just call it driving.

This is you, if you drive a car with a gas-powered engine. You start the car and drive away, without a thought to what’s happening under the hood, just inches from your feet. A controlled amount of fuel is injected into several metal cylinders. In each cylinder, an electric spark causes the fuel to explode. This happens over and over again, thousands of times, even on the simplest and shortest trip to the grocery store. But you don’t think about all that power: the power it takes to move 4000 pounds of machinery at high speed.

If you did think about it, would you respect that power more?

. . .

Previously, we saw how Paul counseled the Philippians to “work out” or “carry out” their salvation: to show the evidence of their salvation by living together in a way that befits the gospel. That means adopting the humble mindset of Christ in order to maintain their unity, in the face of persecution from the outside the church and conflict from within.

But disturbingly, he tells them to do this with “fear and trembling”:

Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes. (Phil 2:12-13, CEB)

Why fear and trembling?

Paul is using the moral language of the Old Testament: the wise and righteous person fears God. Some prefer the words “awe” or “reverence.” But given the way we typically use those words, they’re not quite right. Consider, for example, the words of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt 10:28). This is more than “reverence,” even if this is part of Jesus’ description of the Father’s sovereign care.

Or think of the story of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4:35-41. Jesus and the Twelve are out in a boat in the midst of a furious storm. The boat is being swamped by waves; the disciples fear for their lives. But Jesus is asleep in the stern — “on a pillow,” Mark adds wryly. Panicked, the disciples wake him. I imagine him blinking and rubbing the sleep from his eyes before telling the wind and waters to hush. A sudden and eerie calm settles over the scene as Jesus asks why they’re afraid then goes back to his nap.

We have that kind of power in the boat with us? Now the disciples are really afraid. Jesus might just as well have said, Don’t fear the wind and the waves — fear the one who can shut them up with a word.

Jesus loved his disciples, and they knew it. He even called them his friends (John 15:15). But this isn’t a buddy-buddy relationship; Jesus is not our BFF. What the disciples encountered was a power beyond what they could imagine.

And Paul says, that power is at work in you.

I’m not saying that believers can control the weather. To say that the Spirit of God, or what Paul elsewhere calls the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:2, 9), is at work in us is not to say that we can all heal the sick or raise the dead.

But surely — and this is Paul’s point — we have the power we need to be humble in our relationships with each other.

. . .

Wisdom, the book of Proverbs teaches, begins with the fear of God (1:7; 9:10). This isn’t the terror of being destroyed by someone’s malice or evil. God is righteous and faithful; God is gracious and loving. And, as we have seen, God is humble. When we fear God, we acknowledge and worship him for all these qualities and more.

But in doing so, we never forget that this is God we’re talking about: the one who created the heavens and the earth, the one who hung the stars in their places and knows them by name. And this is the astonishing thing: this God, Paul says, is at work in us, empowering us to do the things that please him.

God is at work in us. The Spirit is at work in me, and the Spirit is at work in every believer with whom I might choose to pick a fight. Do we treat each other with the respect and wonder this truth entails? We have the power to be humble.

If we really knew that power, if we stopped taking it for granted, we would be wise to tremble.