Today I preached at the iglesia evangélica dominicana de Sosua here in the Dominican Republic on one of my favorite texts in the Bible: Isaiah 6. I’ve always seen the story of Isaiah’s call as a model for how God calls each of us. It also illuminates the importance of the fear of God and its relationship to holiness. Before Isaiah can come to the place where he says, “Here am I; send me,” he has to go through the overwhelming encounter with God’s presence that causes him to say, “Woe is me! I am lost.” He is able to respond to God’s call with authenticity because he feared God first.
The fear of God is a difficult concept. On the one hand, we read in Proverbs 1, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all understanding.” But we also read in 1 John 4, “There is no fear in love for perfect love has driven out all fear.” Furthermore, there are two major differences of perspective that cause us to view the fear of God differently in our time than ancient Israelites like Isaiah did in theirs.
In ancient times, people understood all natural events as an expression of God’s mood. Since hurricanes and earthquakes showed God’s wrath, they were a reason to fear God. In our day, with the exception of some
Calvinists like John Piper, we understand natural disasters as scientifically explainable phenomena rather than outbursts of divine rage.
The second difference in our time is that we live after the incarnation of Jesus Christ who we understand to be the perfect representation of God’s nature. Since we read that Jesus was a kind, merciful, patient man who welcomed children into his arms, it’s hard to fear the Triune God to whom Jesus belongs.
Our difference in perspective from Isaiah means that we have the opposite problem that he did. For Isaiah, standing in the Temple before God was an experience that completely overwhelmed and terrified Him. Even though he was a prophet already very intimate with God, to see the light of perfect truth in God’s face made Isaiah feel unbearably dirty. He needed a sign of atonement and an experience of purification, which he received when the seraph singed his lips with the burning coal from the altar.
Unlike Isaiah, our atonement through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross precedes anything we have ever done. We have our atonement, but the question is whether we will trust this sacrifice enough to approach the throne of God and face the light of perfect truth in His eyes (Heb 10:19-23), giving Him dominion over all the secrets of our hearts. Many of us engage in all the tasks of religion, like worship, prayer, Bible study, mission work, etc, as part of creating a mask of piety under which our shame and sin can be concealed. We might spend all our time at church but we are not approaching the throne of God if we are trying to hide our brokenness from Him.
Here’s where it’s important to make a distinction between being afraid of God and fearing God. In Spanish, I made this contrast using the two different words for fear: miedo and temor. To be afraid of God means that I don’t trust Him and try to hide part of myself from His all-penetrating gaze. On the other hand, the fear of God simply describes the inevitably overwhelming experience of standing before Him without hiding anything. So they’re actually the opposite, as strange as that sounds. To fear God means you open yourself completely to Him despite whatever terror you might feel as a result. If you aren’t overwhelmed by God, that means you haven’t fully opened yourself to Him.
Why should we be overwhelmed by God? Think about it this way. In the presence of perfect beauty, we’re going to feel ugly. In the presence of perfect truth, we’re going to feel false. In the presence of perfect goodness, we’re going to feel evil. To face God truly means “seeing without perceiving” and “hearing without understanding” (Is 6:9). That is what the fear of God looks like: being made speechless in the presence of Someone who completely blows our mind. This also means that when we think we know everything about God and have a rapid-fire answer for every theological question that arises, we’re not really living in the fear of God.
The final image of Isaiah 6 in verse 13 is a tree that has had all of its limbs removed, reducing it to a stump. I told the congregation in Sosua that we’re all like trees with dead branches that, because they haven’t been cut off, prevent the Holy Spirit from growing new life within us. These dead branches can be arrogance, shame, hidden sins, wounds from our past, doctrinal fanaticism, or any number of other obstacles that prevent us from approaching the throne of God in complete openness.
What we need is for God to cut the dead branches away so that the stump left behind can be a “holy seed” (v. 13) out of which all new growth will be Spirit-generated. It is when we allow ourselves to be reduced to stumps which are altars of living sacrifice (Rom 12:1) that we can receive God’s call for our lives. When we have the trust to come before God’s throne and let Him cut away all our dead branches, then when he asks, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” we will be able to answer, “Here am I; send me” (Is 6:8).