Those who have read this blog for a while will recall that about a year ago, God took me on a journey of exploring the Biblical concept of the fear of the Lord. The problem is that Christians conflate two different kinds of fear when talking about God: the Biblical sense of awe that compels our worship and the frightfulness which causes us to hide our sins and cling to idols. But I’ve also realized that fearing the Lord in a good sense is more than just awe; it also means that I hate the thought of dishonoring God with my sin, not because I’m worried about being punished, but because I love His truth, which I zealously seek and defend. This is very different than carrying around a fearsome god puppet who spews wrath on His enemies and happens to agree with me on who His enemies should be.
I think the way to determine whether you actually fear God or carry around a fearsome god-puppet can be evaluated by your “obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22). The truth in our world is a still, small voice that is constantly being drowned out and trampled by the “truth” of the powerful. Now the “truth” of the powerful can certainly intersect with the real truth insofar as it doesn’t pose any real challenges to their power. But the problem is that all of us as human beings have an agenda of self-justification in how we interpret reality; we describe what we experience and witness in the way that most validates our lifestyles and best confirms our ideologies.
Some people do this with greater subtlety than others, but it’s a core brokenness that all of us wrestle through and from which we need a savior to deliver us by providing an alternative justification we can trust over the justification that we spin for ourselves as naturally as we breathe. The self-justification of the powerful is the “truth” that predominates, not because the powerful are any more devious or sinful than anybody else, but simply because to be powerful means that you are the one whose self-justification is the “truth.”
Those who are powerful use all kinds of tools and tactics to reinforce their “truth,” one of which is to create a god-puppet who spews wrath against anyone who contradicts this “truth.” The powerful are not really afraid of their fearsome god-puppet because the god-puppet always agrees with them, but they reassure themselves that they are people of integrity by showing off how fearsome their god-puppet is.
The real truth is not the point of view that is “obvious” and “crystal clear” with which “everybody in the world” agrees. It’s impossible to develop that kind of clarity and conformity without compromise, even among people who have the best intentions. The real truth is the voice that cries in the desert, the haunting from between the cracks of the official narrative. The nagging “What about this?” voice that makes everybody groan: “You always have to make things so complicated.” It’s like dust on a counter that can be wiped down and sponged over thousands of times to our temporary satisfaction, except that it always reappears after the counter dries.
If you fear God, then what you fear is to dishonor this dust that humanity is always sweeping under the carpet. If you’re only worried about the consequences of contradicting the powerful, that’s not the fear of the Lord. So here’s the ultimate question: if you could be reassured that there were absolutely no consequences for contradicting the truth, would you still hate the thought of doing so?
However you answer this question verbally, the real answer reveals comes in how you live. We live in a time in which there are no consequences for spreading outrageous lies about our religious or political enemies. When one lie gets called out and exhaustively proven false, there’s no repentance; we just find another piece of slander to replace it, hoping that something will stick. What’s remarkable is when people who are fanatically committed to defending the concept of “absolute truth” don’t have any problem slandering other people falsely in order to score points for their ideological team. To live that way is the opposite of fearing God no matter what you “officially” believe theologically about wrath, judgment, hell, and so forth. If you believe in hell and don’t have any misgivings about bearing false witness against other people, then the hell that you believe in is a hell for other people.
In a sermon series I preached on Jesus’ cross over Lent, I talked about the way that the cross represents the victory of truth over power. If power had triumphed in that story, then the only story that would have ever been told about Jesus was the official account of the secular and religious worldly powers at the time: that Jesus was a Sabbath-violating, God-blaspheming anarchist rabble-rouser who deserved to die and His disciples stole His body from the tomb after He was dead to create a myth about His resurrection. Nobody would even know about Jesus today if power had won over truth.
It’s very hard for us to grasp this from our vantage point since the movement Jesus started has become a tremendous worldly power. But the original truth of the gospel had no political action committees or billionaire campaign donors to grease its way to victory; it was simply a testimony shared by word of mouth thousands of times by people who were entirely irrelevant and nameless in Roman civilization, even though we know and honor their names today.
In our context today, the same truth that made an insignificant Galilean carpenter’s execution into the most decisive event in world history continues to cry out in the desert, bearing witness to people and circumstances that we can easily ignore since there are no consequences for doing so. To truly fear God is to be haunted not by the prospect of consequences, but by the convicting reality that doesn’t fit into the boxes and systems that we (the powerful) have created for “truth.” So do you fear God’s truth or do you fear the contradiction of the “truth” with which you justify yourself? Do you believe that truth will win in the end or are you putting your money on power?