Recovering the mysterious fear of the Lord
There is a phrase throughout the Bible that we tend not to talk about a lot these days in church: “the fear of the Lord.” In many ways, it is understandable. The word ‘fear’ does not offer a lot of positive connotations for us. Who wants to connect with a God who we are supposed to fear? However, the richness of this phrase is something that we avoid to our harm in the spiritual life.
Barbara Brown Taylor gets at this in her book Leaving Church through a curious experience. I’ll leave it to you to soak up the whole experience of her husband, Ed, and a group of Native Americans celebrating a Sun Dance ritual. But it is through that experience that Taylor recovers a sense of the risk inherent in approaching God. She writes:
For many Christians I know, the idea of divine dangerousness went out of fashion shortly after the book of second Kings was written, or the book of Amos at the very latest. In the traditional understanding, Jesus put an end to all that by volunteering to satisfy God’s wrath, and since then those who follow him have had nothing more to fear from God. God has become a great friend who would like to get to know us all better, if we can find the time. And if we cannot, God loves us anyway. ‘The fear of the Lord’ has become as outdated as an ephod. (189)
If you don’t know what an ephod is, well…you get the point exactly. Taylor goes on to explain how the Native American ritual helped her get a glimpse of where holy fear and holy love connect. Again, she writes:
Because their fear has proved to be the means of their transformation, they do not want to get over it. (190)
The sense that Christ has done all that needs to be done on the Cross can at times create an unhealthy easiness about Christianity. It is true that in Christ God has reconciled us to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18). It is true that Christ offered Himself for sin once for all (Hebrews 9:26). It is true that we are saved by grace alone through faith (Ephesians 2:8).
But these truths are not easy truths. They do not negate the fact that God was called “the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42) in early days. These truths do not nullify the proverb that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). These truths do not blot out the New Testament admonition to “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
Sometimes it takes a moment of drawing aside from what is familiar to see what is blazing before us. That is what Moses needed to do when an apparent hallucination about a burning bush ended up becoming a breath-taking encounter with the living God.
Leaving Church helped me to remember that worship of God is never without risk. Although Christ has made the way clear for us to worship, we are still dust-hewn people approaching the only awesome God.