and my mind began to tread into the systematic prayer: "now i lay me, down to sleep..."
but the words, formed and generated as they were so many nights before since i had learned the bedtime supplication, started to drift from their typical path. in fact, my mind veered from the words and started thinking on their Recipient. and His nature. i started considering where God was and what He was doing right at that moment and if i was on a holding line or live on air. and then i thought again about where He was, and on the line of the prayer "if i die before i awake, i pray the Lord my soul to take." which was followed by the thought: "well, if i'm going to die, what will my next waking moments be like?"
and i was petrified.
i considered what it meant to live in eternity, and it frightened me. the longevity of it frightened me. my inability to fathom such magnitude frightened me. the naive assumption of my impending boredom of living in clouds and doing the same things day after day after day into infinity frightened me. my heart raced. my sheets became hot and heavy over my stiff and alert frame. i kept myself up far past my bedtime, reeling my mind over such thoughts.
and it is this moment that i point to and say, "this is where i first tried, and failed, to experience a fear of God."
I John 4:18 says, "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." i scratched my head at this verse recently, as i had been weighing the concept of godly fear. if i'm supposed to fear God, and God is love (earlier in verse 8), how can there be no fear in love?
when we talk about a fear of God, anyone (Christian or atheist, ignorant or well-informed, young or old, etc.) can relate to what we mean by fear. it's the unattributed bump in the night. it's the ghost movie you knew you shouldn't have watched, especially while housesitting at 8 p.m. at night. it's the haunted house, the lost child, the upcoming test or the contemplation of death.
but if these are our only reference points when we apply an emotion of fear to our encounter with the living and active God, we have only begun to wrap our arms around what that colloquialism and commandment mean. we limit our scope of godly fear to merely personifying God as an angry father striking down the sinner with lightning bolts. is this what God made fear for?
in his book World War Z, Max Brooks explores the societal, global and psychological implications of a fictitious zombie outbreak. early in the novel, an interviewee makes the following insight about the ability to sell a "miracle drug" during the initial signs of the epidemic:
The only rule that ever made sense to me I learned from a history, not an economics, professor at Wharton. "Fear," he used to say, "fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe." That blew me away. "Turn on the TV," he'd say. "What are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products." ...Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells.indeed, fear is primal. what motive but fear does the first man attest to his act of shame? "...'I heard the sound of you in the garden, and i was afraid...'" (Gen. 3:10). certainly this is quite the literal sample of a fear of God. fear is a driving motivation and factor in decision-making. why would we be equipped with such an emotion? doesn't a spirit of timidity cripple our faith (II Tim. 1:7)? i would assert there is no doubt that a Christian--and therefore every human--needs fear to appreciate a dimension of our relationship with our Creator.
following a cursory exploration of Strong's concordance, the word "fear" is often linked to two ancient words and derivations thereof: the Hebrew "yare" and the Greek "phobos" (disclaimer: i don't claim to be a scholar in semantics, languages, translation studies, etc.--just a guy trying to better understand his faith). these words have forms that are often associated with terror, fear, being fearful, fright--you get it.
however, when used in certain contexts, these words take on a higher level of meaning. it's not just a fight-or-flight response, but a longstanding awe and reverence for the source of fear. the base-level terror is what we read of in Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:5 where Jesus teaches us fear God's power rather than men. However, we see the elevated sense of reverent fear when the Israelites are commanded to fear God: "It is the Lord your God you shall fear (revere)" (Deut. 6:13). It's also that sense of reverent fear that the unbeliever is rebuked by the psalmist: "there is no fear (reverence/respect) of God before his eyes" (Ps. 36:1). this reverence is required to fully acknowledge God for who he is.
in the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer sums up two alternative displays of fear in nature in laymen's terms:
'I read something in National Geographic about how, when an animal thinks it’s going to die, it gets panicky and starts to act crazy. But when it knows it’s going to die, it gets very, very calm' (emphasis mine).i believe Foer captures the elusive difference between a simple terror of something and a submissive, yielding respect of that something. to fear something is to give the source of our fear power (boggarts, anyone?). fear recognizes control and a lack of understanding. i freak out around spiders because i don't know the nature of spiders and i don't spend a lot of time around them or studying them. similarly, i'm afraid of heights because it is an uncommon occurrence for me to be high up and i recognize my helplessness over the circumstances should gravity pull me down.
applying this to my adolescent, heaven-fearing self: thinking about my soul's condition after death and the temporal concerns of how time will be spent resulted in my panic. i rebelled, in typical fight-or-flight fashion, against something that i couldn't understand (this is why i say i failed at my first attempt to fully fear God). knowing about my soul's condition and God's grace and the hope of heaven, however, yields peace, calmness, stillness.
we must fear God, in the full sense of that word, to be faithful to God. this is why Paul encourages Christians to work out our faith "with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12, 1 Corin. 2:3). but it's not the babe in Christ's initial understanding of fear (terror) that yields sanctification; this surface-level fear is a mere hearing and gut-reacting to God's wrath, judgement day, our own imperfect condition, God's power, etc. only when we marinate our fear into its full form do we allow ourselves to be paralyzed in perfect submission to God's authority and might, recognizing His control. He is the only thing truly worthy of our purified fear.
circling around to I John 4:18, then: the more we lose ourselves in God's perfect love, the more our terror-fear and fear of punishment is cast out, leaving room for a reverent-fear and respect: God is holy, perfect. i am imperfect. God has done something about it, and that something is Jesus. it is in the wake of such fear-deserving love and power that i must work out my faith and respond to God's calling to a higher standard of living.
i would argue that our world needs more Christians who truly fear the Lord (and i place myself at the front of this line). i am much too comfortable, too fearless, with modern conveniences and standards of living in this world, so much so that i often lose myself to become part of this world--i fear the things the world fears. Trials and tribulations, being ostracized or not being "normal." may we take the time to acknowledge our fear of God, attributing to him the sole source of worthy fear, and may we let ourselves fall trembling face down before His throne in reverent submission. may this keep us in humble service to Him. may our fear mature into the daily awe that guides in Jesus's footsteps in our lives. and may we more fully experience God's blessings in this life because of it.