We live with too much fear of God. This has many faces, from the superstitious fear of the naive, to the legalistic fear of the over-scrupulous, to the intellectual fear of the very sophisticated. In the end, we all struggle to believe that God is the last person of whom we need to be afraid. But in our own ways, we all struggle with fear of God.
There is of course a healthy fear, not just of God but also of anyone whom we love. Scripture tells us that “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”, but fear, in this context, is not understood as fear of punishment or arbitrariness. Fear of God in its healthy sense is basically love’s fear, fear of not living with the proper reverence and respect before the one we love, namely, fear of violating love’s proper boundaries. But that is not fear of hellfire, as we commonly understand this. Fear is the antithesis of faith and a sign that something is wrong in our love. We aren’t afraid of what we love and of what truly loves us.
Everything inside of our Christian faith invites us to move towards God in intimacy rather than in fear. Indeed in virtually every instance in scripture where God appears within ordinary life, either through an angel, a special phenomenon, or through an appearance of the resurrected Christ, the first words are invariably: “Do not be afraid!” The soothing of fear, not its intensification, is the normal criterion that the voice we are hearing is coming from love.
With that in mind, I would like to offer ten principles, all rooted in the person and revelation of Jesus, that, hopefully, can be of help in purifying our image of God so that our faith might cast out fear rather than enkindle it.
I begin with a story that, though true, can act as a parable to expose and highlight many of our unconscious fears of God: Fear that God is not as understanding and compassionate as we are. Fear that God is not a big-hearted as we are. Fear that God does not read the heart and cannot tell the difference between wound and coldness, immaturity and sin. Fear that God gives us only one chance and cannot bear any missteps and infidelities. Fear that God doesn’t respect our humanity, that God created us in one way but wants us to live in another way in order to be saved. Fear that God is threatened by our achievements, like a petty tyrant. Fear that God is threatened by our doubts and questions, like an insecure leader. Fear that God cannot stand up to the intellectual and cultural scrutiny of our world but somehow needs be segregated and protected like an over-pious novice. Fear that God is less interested in our lives than we are and less solicitous for our salvation and that of our loved ones than we are. And, not least, fear that God is as helpless before our moral helplessness as we are.
Here’s the parable: A number of years ago, I was at the funeral of a young man who had died tragically in a car accident. At the time of his death, on the surface, his relationship to his church and to some of its moral teachings was far from ideal: He was not attending church regularly, was living with his girlfriend outside of marriage, was not much concerned about poor or the larger community, and was, in simple terms, partying pretty hard. But everyone who knew him also knew of his essential goodness and his wonderful heart. There wasn’t an ounce of malice in him and heaven would be forever a less-colorful and more impoverished place if he weren’t there. At the reception following the church service, one of his aunts said to me: “He was such a good person, if I were running the gates of heaven, I would certainly let him in.” I assured her that, no doubt, God felt the same way, given that God’s understanding and forgiveness infinitely surpass our own.
What are the ten principles inviting us to live in less fear?
1. God’s insight and understanding surpass our own.
2. God’s compassion and forgiveness surpass our own.
3. God respects nature, our human make-up, and our innate propensities.
4. God is a blessing parent, not a threatening one.
5. God can handle our questions and doubts and angers.
6. God reads the heart and can tell the difference between wound and malice.
7. God gives us more than one chance, opening another door every time we close one.
8. God desires our salvation and the salvation of our loved ones more than we do.
9. God is the author of all that is good.
10. God can, and does, descend into hell to help us.
“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.” 1 John 4, 18