FEAR OF GOD - PART 1
And Now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord's commandments and Hisdecrees that I am giving you today for your good? [Deuteronomy 10:12-13]
Fearing God is just about the most unwelcome prospect to the sensibilities of our times. This is not because fear is alien to us. Modern life is marked by fear. T. S. Eliot defines the human predicament as 'fear in a handful of dust'. Fear has reached nearer, farther, higher and deeper in human life today than ever before. We fear just about everyone and everything. We accept fear as the given. Yet it sounds so strange that we should fear God at all.
Why is this so?
This brings us to the central paradox in fear. It is not because we are above fear that we disdain to fear God. Disclaiming fear of God does not prove that we are brave. It is because we are fearful we fear just about everything else - that we do not fear God. This truth deserves a closer look.
Our piety does not prove that we fear God. The truth could well be the opposite. A fear-driven religiosity will readily confess, "God is my refuge" [Psalms 46:1]. It is good that we acknowledge God as our refuge. But it is neither good nor fair that God is for us nothing more than a refuge. To most people, the word 'refuge' carries undertones only of danger. It is fear that forces a person to seek refuge. In that event, we would not need God when the danger departs. Give a good thought of this: why does Jesus invite us to 'abide in Him'? [John 15:4] Does He offer protection from fear? No, what He offers is fruitfulness. We hardly ever associate fruitfulness with 'refuge'. God as a refuge from fear is quite a different prospect from God as a fruitfulness. It is fear of the latter kind that is akin to the ethos of the Kingdom of God.
In the kingdom of man, it is sufficient to fear the consequences of wrong-doing. But the fact that we avoid wrong-doings does not mean that we do what is right. It ensures, at best, a sterile life in which culpable offences are avoided. While this is helpful, it is not sufficient in the Kingdom. There living a fruitless life is an offence. Remember the fig tree that withered under the curse of Jesus for its barrenness? The tree that does not produce good fruit, says John the Baptist, will be cut down and burned. Jesus underlines this idea more elaborately. He is the vine and we are the branches. The branches that abide in the vine become fruitful. Those that produce no fruit will be cut down and burned. God is, thus, not a refuge from self-indictment of living a purposeless and fruitless life. To seek refuge in God is to lead an upright, dignified and purposeful life. Any deviation from this narrow path activates the fear of Lord. Fear of the Lord urges and enables us to walk the way of the Lord. It is this, and not fears per se, that makes us wise. Fear of the Lord is not wisdom. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It sets you in course for wisdom.
Fear-driven religiosity is not the same as the fear of God. Only those who love God can fear Him. Love, not fear, is the foundation of spirituality. God is the fullness of love; and to love Him is to experience the fullness of love. Fullness of love casts out fear: all worldly fears, including the fear of men [1 John 4:18] As long as we are not delivered from these fears, we will not fear God. When we turn to God only to be safe from the troubles and pains of this world, from the malignant dispositions of stars and starlets, demons and globins, it is not God we fear. We fear calamities and treat God as a tool of convenience. We may take the name of God and even cry out to Him. But that is not because we fear God but because we fear what could happen to us, if we don't. The moment the cause for fear departs, we begin to take God for granted. Religion of fear and fear of God are contrary to each other!
The Pharaoh of Egypt is a classic illustration of the fact that fears of afflictions has nothing to do with the fear of God. Each time a pestilence comes upon him, he succumbs to fear. Fear forces him to 'repent'. He agrees to let the people go. But as soon as the pestilence vanishes, his heart hardens. He goes back on his promise to set the people free. He fears the pestilences, but has no fear of God. Significantly, it is because he has no fear of God that pestilences have to come upon him, one after the other. Some significant insights into fearing God can be derived from what Pharaoh does and what undoes him.
Given how rudely the idea of fearing God jars on modern sensibilities, it would have been politically correct to exclude it from the symphony of these meditations. We would have, if only we could. But it is so central to the ethos of the Kingdom that avoiding it would be like building a mansion without a door to enter it. One cannot be a subject of the Kingdom without loving the Lord; and loving the Lord perforce includes fearing Him.
But that is not how it seems to us. We are happy that God is love. But it troubles us that God is also wrathful. The universal truth, though, is that whatever is dynamic harmonizes the opposites. Day includes night. Wheat and tares grow up together. We hold love and hate in our heart. Ask a little child, and she will tell you that anger is not out of place in parental love. Only mechanical love - love as a mask - excludes anger. The more a parent loves her child the greater her indignation be when the child misbehaves. Apathy to personal degradation does not prove love, but the absence of it. To expect mercy from god, without leaving a margin for His wrath, is to degrade God into a lifeless thing, a convenient mask.
Prophet Isaiah contrasts significantly with Pharaoh in respect of the fear of God. Fear overwhelms the Prophet in the presence of God (Isaiah 6:1-8) The thing to note is that this fear has a positive outcome. It results in Isaiah's willingness to serve God; "Here I am, Send me". Two factors contribute to this. First: Isaiah's knowledge of God's awesome holiness. Second: his acute awareness of his own uncleanliness. The fear of God involves a dual knowledge: who God is and, in comparison what we have to become. God is holy, and we are unclean. This awareness is the moment of truth. Fear of God is awe concerning God's holiness. More accurately, it is the fear instilled by God's holiness vis-à-vis one’s uncleanliness. Strictly speaking, it is not God's holiness that we fear. It is the prospect of being alienated from God that awakens fear in us. Fear of this kind proves our need to be in communion with God. Hence the paradox: fear of dangers makes us flee from them, but the fear of God draws us closer to Him. This fear overcomes alienation. Alienation is a breeding ground for foolishness. So, the Psalmist is right after all: the fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom.
The Word is meant to help us to know and love God. Knowledge of God instills wholesome fear of God. For that to happen, we need to accept the authority of the Word. That we won't do, so long as we relate to the Word selectively. The problem is that we have our favorite passages, beyond which we rarely go! What are they like? They are the passages that portray the convenient aspect of God. Partial knowledge about God falls short of knowing God. Selective reading of the Bible promotes only informed ignorance. It serves to inhibit, rather than activate, the fear of God. Isaiah's awareness, in the wake of encountering God, creates an eager willingness to do the work of God. This mission motivation is the first fruit of the fear of God. The proof that we fear the Lord is that we walk in the way of God. To walk in the way of Lord is to become a co-worker with God. That is because God is not, primarily, a walker but a worker.
The experience of Isaiah affords yet another insight. The fear of the Lord involves not only an awareness of the nature of God but also a relationship with Him. God's holiness, together with our uncleanness, need not awaken fear if we are not with Him. Nearness is the catalyst for fear. What activities the fear of the Lord is the awareness that we are in His presence: that our nature is such that it contradicts the nature of God. The fact that we do not fear God proves, therefore, not only that we do not know Him, but also that we are far away from Him.
The fear of Lord is a sign of spiritual vitality. Insensitivity in this respect, correspondingly, signals spiritual death. Fear of ordinary kind makes our hearts beat faster. Heart can beat fast for love as well. Absolute love for God is the heart, and fear of the Lord is heartbeat, of spirituality. Heartbeat facilitates blood circulation, which keeps the body alive and healthy. Blood carries nutrients, removes impurities and fights disease. Healthy fear of God, rooted in the love of God, is indispensable for our health and wholeness. Consider what the book of Proverbs says on the blessings that result from the fear of Lord.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom [Psalm 111:10; Proverb 1:7]
The fear of the Lord causes one to hate evil. [Proverbs 8:13; 16:6]
The fear of the Lord is fountain of the life [Proverbs 14:26-27]
The fear of the Lord leads to a satisfying life, and spares one from much evil. [Proverbs 10:23; 22:4]
Frontiers of the fear of God:
Extreme spiritual darkness results when religious abandon the fear of the Lord. It was this, which infuriated Jesus most. For want of the fear of Lord, the temple of Jerusalem became a den of extortion, a market place of Mammon worship. This is the gravest threat that a religion suffers and it should not be compromised with. A religion can be corroded and crippled only from within. No religion succumbs to external threats and dangers. Before Caiaphaz and Pilate can get at Jesus, a Judas has to betray Him. When religious leaders forsake the fear of the Lord, they become catalysts for ungodliness. They become the ambassadors of spiritual anarchy.
Ironically, religious leaders are more vulnerable in this respect than laity. They handle sacred things routinely. Familiarity dims the awe of things holy, even if it does not breed contempt. So godly things become priestly accessories. The service of God becomes casual routine, which excludes the need to seek the Kingdom of God and His justice. Not to seek is to preside over and to perpetuate the status quo. The status quo is a responsibility of human interests. Religion could slip away slowly from the authority of God and become over-ridden by worldly interests. The only safeguard against this seminal degeneration is the fear of the Lord. Religion in the Kingdom of God is marked by the fear of the Lord. Fear of man corrupts religion in the kingdom of man. "Fear not," said Jesus to disciples, "those who can kill the body, but not the soul."
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LIGHT OF LIFE
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