In the Daily Office scripture reading for Monday, a verse that caught my eye was Acts 9:31 — “Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” Of course, being a pastor in a declining mainline denomination, any reference to an “increase in numbers” is going to get my attention. But there’s also something beautiful and perfect about the balance between living in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit that doesn’t have anything to do with church growth. We are in the process of contemplating a spiritual formation program at our church. I wonder if the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit can be described as the perfect intimacy with God that is the goal of spiritual formation.
I think there’s a wrong understanding of the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The fear of the Lord is not the same as being scared of God, just as the Holy Spirit’s comfort is not the same as complacency. Evangelical Christianity often uses the wrong combination of fear and comfort. It’s fascinating is to see how comfortable many suburban Christians are with their privilege in contrast to how “fearsome” they talk about God being. If God really were so fearsome, then wouldn’t you be sweating bullets running around trying to get on the right side of Jesus in Matthew 25? It makes me suspicious that getting your weekly fix of the “fearsomeness” of God can perversely become a tactic for making peace with your complacency. I’m not alone in this observation. Francis Chan has called out this behavior of loving a hard, fearsome sermon, but not doing a !@#$%^&* thing to love your neighbor.
True fear of the Lord means allowing yourself to face God in the fullness of His glory and splendor. If you’re scared of God, you cannot experience the fear of God. I know that sounds like it doesn’t make sense, but “fear” in the original Hebrew is the word yore, which means to be overwhelmed and blown away. It’s very difficult to have an authentic experience of God’s glory and splendor when you’re in an environment where Christians feel pressured to put on a show of “out-fearing” each other with their “incredible” testimonies. As I wrote last week, I really think that the fear of the Lord can only happen when you’ve been liberated from performance and you’re actually able to worship. When you’re putting on a show for an invisible audience even in your private spiritual life, you cannot fear God because you’re paying attention to your performance, not God.
As I’ve written all these theoretical things that seem to sound right, I’ve been questioning whether they are actually authentic to my actual spiritual experience. I think that I fear the Lord because I agonize over spiritual matters with an intensity that would seem strange and neurotic to a non-believer. It’s not that I feel like God is priming up his lightning bolts to throw at me; it’s more that I desperately don’t want to blaspheme His name. If I’m afraid of anything in my fear of the Lord, I’m afraid of finding out that I’ve gotten God wrong. If you read my prayer journal, you would see a lot of hand-wringing and cuss words and clamoring for God to show His face to me. Somehow it’s in that agony that I discover the comfort of the Holy Spirit. It’s because I allow myself to be afflicted by God that I have a strange, simultaneous peace. If I were confident in my views and assumptions about the world, I don’t think I would know what it’s like for the Holy Spirit to comfort me.
Whenever I go to the basilica each Monday, I start by walking around the chapels saying the Jesus prayer over and over, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I don’t know how to explain the weight that I feel as I do that. I sometimes feel like I am physically out of breath. But as I get up to the front of the cathedral, the weight starts to lift. It’s interesting because the way I walk, I go through the scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion and life story in reverse. I end with Gabriel and Mary. The reason I walk around it that way is because the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is on the front left side. When I get there, I bow to the ground before walking in and the weight is gone. Sitting in that chapel, I feel the comfort of the Holy Spirit. I don’t have to say anything to God. Words become ridiculous. There is light in that room that isn’t just physical light. I can’t explain it more than to say that. But I don’t think I would know that comfort if I hadn’t felt the weight before it.
I don’t know exactly what fearing the Lord is, but I know it means that you refuse to accept the lie of the world’s predictability. I know it means that you’re perpetually dissatisfied with the depth of riches that you have discovered. I know it means that you get physically ill when you see people mocking God, especially if they claim to be representing God. Likewise, I can’t explain the comfort of the Holy Spirit. But I know that there’s a safety that can sweep over you that seems like what I want my youngest son to feel when he gets hurt and I have to hold him. I also know that it has nothing to do with the level of stability or chaos in your life at that point in time.
The Holy Spirit comforted me today. I had met a friend in DC at a coffeehouse and I forgot where I parked my car. So I was frantically rushing around for 45 minutes trying to find it. I walked past the same people on the sidewalk multiple times and felt extremely self-conscious. But somehow God spoke and it was like the sky shifted or something because suddenly I was just walking in the city and all the weight of my embarrassment was lifted away from me. I found my car soon after that.
So let yourself be afflicted by God. Do not be afraid to fear Him, if that makes any sense. Because when you open yourself to God in this way, then the Spirit will cover you with safety and give you courage.