“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28 NIV)
I have been struggling with the message I preached on Sunday night at Fear Factor that pointed to Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:28. It is such a foreign concept to teenagers in our culture that they should actually be afraid of God. I told them that they could work out all the issues surrounding this idea with their therapist during the 20s and 30s and blame their “crazy youth pastor” for their problems, but they at least needed to hear me out for a few minutes. The point of the whole message Sunday night was this: we fear all the wrong things in this life and do not fear (respect, have reverence for) the one thing we should legitimately fear, which is God.
The most frequent command in Scripture is “Do not be afraid.” I find it funny that it is not “do not murder” or “do not steal,” and not even “do not have premarital sex.” Over and over again Scripture commands God’s followers to not be afraid if we have faith in God. But that’s the catch: if we have faith in God. Otherwise, we do have a lot we can fear. If you do not have faith in God, then I guess you should actually fear global warming, that mole on your back, that dictator collecting nuclear warheads, losing your job, swine flu, terrorism, being sued, the government’s legislation, and your impending death.
But the problem is we can easily end up treating God like a genie or a divine vending machine in order to get immediate relief from these fears. The temptation is to put God in a box so we can have a break from our worries and anxieties. Rather than putting true faith in God, we turn Him into a doctrine, a theological position or a building. But it’s as C.S. Lewis says about Aslan (who represents a Christ-like figure) in the Chronicles of Narnia: “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” And then there is Mr. Beaver’s subtle but firm declaration of Aslan’s true character when Susan asks, “Then he isn’t safe?” And Mr. Beaver intones, “Safe?…Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Whether it is the cross you wear for “protection,” the miniature Jesus you rub for good luck, the preacher you listen to for a promise of good fortune, the doctrine you cling to for mental exercise, or the Jesus you pull off the shelf to push your politics, we are all guilty of putting God in a box. There is something about our fallen human nature that causes us to prefer a god we can manage, control and predict. In a world with so much to fear, we think we need a god that is simply a comforting presence…almost like a tame pet or a gentle grandfather. Our Christian culture has in a way domesticated and even tamed Jesus from being the Lion of Judah into being a gentle house cat.
It is simply no longer culturally acceptable to say that you should fear God, even in most churches. Luther may have gotten away with leading into his catechism with the phrase, “We should fear and love God…,” but we would simply say today, “We should love God…” This is probably why I feel so much turmoil over teaching a message that would imply we should “fear God.” And as long as we’re ok with making Christianity more about an institution, a doctrine, or a building, we will make it less about actual faith in Christ and having a healthy fear of God.
But as I implied earlier, this is an idea completely contrary to Scripture. Ellen Davis says, “From a biblical perspective, there is nothing neurotic about fearing God. The neurotic thing is not to be afraid, or to be afraid of the wrong thing. That is why God chooses to be known to us, so that we may stop being afraid of the wrong thing. When God is fully revealed to us and we ‘get it,’ then we experience the conversion of our fear…‘Fear of the Lord’ is the deeply sane recognition that we are not God.”
If you have come to that recognition in your own life, the Apostle Paul would urge you to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12 NIV) This is because we never completely have God pegged; He is not a static being. God is not a mathematic equation to be solved or a formula to be derived. He is the Living God. While His character may be discovered through studying theologically, He can only be known through personal relationship. I’m not sure how this fits into your theological box, but I guess I shouldn’t be too worried about it either. One thing boxes are good for is carrying around dead things in them, and there is no need to look for the Living God amongst the dead.