Fearing God vs. carrying a fearsome god-puppet who agrees with you

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. Continue reading

Jonathan Martin’s Prototype: Salvation as the Restoration of Humanity

It’s a strange and beautiful thing to hear someone preaching your own thoughts in a sermon. That’s what happened for me last summer when I heard Pentecostal preacher Jonathan Martin‘s sermon series “The Songs of Ascent” about King David and the Psalms. My whole life, I have been on a journey of trying to understand the nature of worship. Growing up Baptist, I was instilled with a zeal for sincerity in worship. What is the difference between truly worshiping God and putting on a performance? In one sermon last summer, Jonathan said that King David’s worship was to delight in the discovery of God’s delight in him. This beautiful way of framing things is at the heart of Jonathan’s new book Prototype, which I would buy and ship to every Christian who has been wounded or disillusioned by the church if I had the money. Continue reading

Two opposite ways to “delight in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11)

Those of you who have been following my journey know that I keep on stumbling into Biblical passages that talk about the “fear of the Lord.” It actually started this summer with a sermon I preached in the Dominican Republic on the fear of the Lord in Isaiah 6, even though the phrase didn’t actually appear in the text. Then, in the fall, I came across Acts 9:31: “Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, [the church] increased in numbers.” Then I encountered Psalm 19:2: “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever,” which prompted a longer meditation contrasting the fear that leads to wisdom with the fear that has to do with punishment. More recently I discovered in Psalm 25 the strange statement that God offers “friendship to those who fear Him.” My latest milestone in this journey came this past weekend preaching on Isaiah 11, in which verse 3 says that the messiah will “delight in the fear of the Lord.” I think there are two ways to understand this statement: one is perverse and the other beautiful.

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From fear and trembling to refuge (Psalm 2)

I have always had a particular attraction to Philippians 2:12, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” partly because it creates a crisis for evangelicals with a formulaic “decision for Christ” account of salvation. I do believe that justification by faith is a core part of our salvation, but I also think that δικάιοω (justify) means “make just” more than “declare just” in a way that the English language screws up with the word “justification.” Though we need to have Christ’s justification declared to us to wrest us free from self-justification, it is a means to the end of the Holy Spirit’s sanctification by which we are made just. And God doesn’t need to have the results of an act that He authored “declared” back to Him through some contrived performance of feigned ignorance. You can call the trust that God instills in us a “decision” if you need to, but it’s a decision that must be remade over and over again, and furthermore it’s a surrender, not the product of dispassionate rational deliberation (sorry Bill Bright!). In any case, I was reading Psalm 2 in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament this past Monday. It may have been what Paul had in his head in writing Philippians 2:12 because it talks about “fear” and “trembling” and how they relate to the refuge that God offers to humanity. Continue reading

Sinners, judgment, and fear in Psalms 25

I knew something was missing from my spiritual rhythm the last two weeks and this morning I realized what it was: Wednesday morning prayer, which a very small group of dedicated prayer warriors celebrates together each Wednesday at 8:30 am. In addition to liturgical and extemporaneous prayer, we always read a psalm responsively as part of our routine. Two months ago, this small prayer meeting got flat-out Pentecostal. For a month after that, the Spirit was breathing all over the place every time I opened the Bible. I went through a dry spell for a month and a half largely because of my lack of discipline but the breath of God came roaring back today as we read Psalm 25 and encountered sinners, judgment, and fear in a quite surprising form. Continue reading

Pleasantville Christianity vs. Kingdom Christianity

This weekend, I preached on the text of the parable of talents. My regular readers might recall that I’ve been contemplating this text a lot recently in thinking about the difference between the two kinds of Biblical fear: being afraid of God and being awestruck by God. Many American Christians want to know exactly what they need to do to get into heaven so they can do it and not add a penny more, just like the third servant who thought it was the safest option to give his master back exactly what he owed him. Many of us pursue “safety” throughout our lives and spend them riddled with anxiety rather than receive the authentic salvation that teaches us not to be afraid of God but to delight in His wonder instead. In my sermon, I decided to explore the contrast between this false sense of safety and real salvation, contrasting the kingdom of God with a metaphorical use of the 1998 film Pleasantville, which is about a stereotypical 1950’s sitcom in which everything is perfectly pleasant and predictable. I’m sharing my sermon slides below with some abbreviated reflection. You can listen to the audio here: From Pleasantville to the Kingdom. Continue reading

Theology of capitalism: entrepreneurs vs. money-changers

There are two different stories people tell about capitalism. Those who describe capitalism favorably say that it is the story of how the innovation and creativity of entrepreneurs are unleashed through a spontaneity of resources provided in a free market. Capitalism’s critics tell the story of how money-changers are constantly hunting for ways to make money without sweating a drop by leveraging workers and markets against each other and finding loopholes to be exploited. Both of these stories are true, though not always equally. At this particular juncture in our nation’s history, the money-changers are winning the day by masquerading as entrepreneurs. If it’s true that corporate profits are at record highs while unemployment remains high, then the money-changers have found a way to create wealth for themselves without creating jobs. I am not qualified to explain how this works, since I’m a pastor, not an economist, but Jesus had plenty to say about entrepreneurs and money-changers that is relevant to thinking through a Christian response to the competing economic visions that are being set before us this election year. Continue reading

Sight as a Metaphor for Salvation (Mark 8:22-26)

The last sermon in our Jesus Is My Candidate series had the theme “He gives me a vision.” The scripture I used was Mark 8:22-26 in which Jesus heals a blind man twice. The first time He heals the blind man’s eyes, he can only see partially; it’s the only time Jesus had to do a redo. Since Jesus was never inadequate in His healing power, most Christians have concluded that His purpose in this healing was to provide a symbolic act for us to think about three stages in our ability to see God and experience His presence – blindness, partial vision, and full vision. These different stages can be used to describe the historical development of humanity as a whole as well as our individual salvation experience. I made a chart like the one I’ve reproduced below to partition out these different phases of salvation. I will explain further below the chart. Continue reading

The conflation of two fears

Several Mondays ago, when I went to the basilica in Washington, DC, and sat in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, I read Psalm 19:9 which says, “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.” You cannot understand this verse unless you understand that there are two kinds of fear that are the opposite of one another even though both kinds use the word yore in Hebrew and phobos in Greek.What we are used to understanding as “fear” when it relates to God is the kind of fear that 1 John 4:18 describes: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” One of American Christianity’s basic problems is a widespread conflation of these two fears: the fear that is awed reverence and the fear that is cowardly fright. Continue reading

Fear & the Fixed Game of Following Jesus

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #2, 3/19/2011
Text: Mark 14:32-42

One of my favorite books is Where the Wild Things Are. How many of you read that book when you were little? I remember my dad telling me after reading it that if I had scary monsters in my dreams, I should ask them to play with me and it really worked. Sometimes fears have simple solutions, but that isn’t always true. So what are you afraid of? How many people are afraid of monsters? How many people are afraid of the dark? How many of you are afraid of someone breaking into your home and hurting you or your family? Who’s afraid of making a fool of yourself? What about going to the doctor? How many of you are afraid of conflict?

One thing that every type of fear has in common is the dread of facing our lack of control. I’m afraid of burglars because I can’t control what they’ll do. If I bought a gun, I wouldn’t be afraid of burglars, but then my fear would shift to the fact that I can’t control what my sons might do with the gun. These past couple of months, I’ve had a pain in my stomach that’s made it hard to sleep. I was afraid to go to the doctor for a long time because I didn’t want to find out that something was growing inside of me. It was easier to pretend that I had the situation under control. Well I finally went this week and got a CT scan which came back clear. So I went to the store and got some heartburn medicine and I think that may have been the problem all along. So how many of y’all have a man in your life who would rather suffer quietly than admit that he’s not in control of a situation? I’m guilty.

Now there’s a way that this dread of our lack of control at the root of every fear is the basic hurdle we have to overcome to be ready to spend eternity with God. The default position that we start out with as humans is to think that the world revolves around us. All toddlers have to go through the traumatizing experience of learning that Mommy is not just a milk-cow and snuggle-mountain created for their convenience. My son Isaiah stopped nursing a year ago but he’s still fighting hard against the notion that his mommy exists for any purpose other than his needs.

To some degree, everyone graduates from the complete self-centeredness of a baby. But not entirely. As we grow, the form of our self-centeredness changes; it becomes the delusion of self-sufficiency. We no longer think that everyone else in the world exists to make us happy, but we find it important to believe that we are the masters of our own destinies. I may not be the center of attention for the whole universe, but there are things that are mine because I earned them and inside my castle, I am God. In this delusion, we try to deny that anything can happen to us beyond our control. We can keep up this front of denial as long as life plays along and does nothing to shatter it. But ultimately, nobody can avoid the absolute loss of control that is death and there is no ruder awakening than to spend a lifetime building a castle of self-sufficiency only to see it crumble to pieces at the very end.

What Jesus Christ has given us through His life, death, and resurrection is a safe way to let go of our delusions of self-sufficiency so that we can adjust to the reality that we’re not in control. Jesus makes it okay to admit that we don’t have our lives under control through renouncing control of His own life and even His own body to a horrible death on the cross. One aspect of Jesus’ journey to the cross is that it gives us a model for the right way to face fear.

So how does Jesus face fear? Is he calm about what he has to do? He says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” That doesn’t sound calm. The gospel of Luke is very graphic about his physical condition, saying that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” He knows what His destiny is; He knows why He has to do it; and yet He asks His Father, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken away.” That sounds like fear to me. It sounds like Jesus really didn’t want to do what He had to do.

Of course somebody might try to be smart and say, “What’d he have to worry about? He’s the Son of God. Didn’t He know His Daddy was going to bring Him back?” The way one person put it was to say that Jesus was playing in a “fixed game,” where He knew what the final score was going to be before the game even got played. It’d be like Coach K pretending to be worried that Duke might not win the national championship when Kyrie Irving is back in the lineup. So is Jesus just playing along? Is He just acting? I know that some people can cry on cue, but I’ve never heard of anybody learning how to sweat bullets on cue. And just because Jesus trusted that His Father had Him covered didn’t mean that the cross wasn’t going to hurt.

Jesus could have pulled out of the situation. He had divine powers. He could have called down lightning or an army of angels or whatever He needed. But He didn’t, because despite the fact that He was afraid, He was absolutely committed to following His Father’s plan for saving humanity. And so at the end of His prayer, after He tests the waters to see if His Father will give Him an out, He says, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” That little phrase encapsulates what it means to face our fear perfectly. Let’s practice saying that. Not my will, but Thy will be done. Remember how I said fear is about not being in control. Well facing our fear is about trusting the One who is in control and believing that whatever His will is, all will be well in the end.

The fact is that we’re playing in a “fixed game” ourselves. A lot is going to happen between now and the end of the game – we’re going to lose some friends and gain other ones, we’ll have career successes and disappointments, our kids will make us proud and embarrass us, people we love are going to leave this life before we’re ready, and one day we will reach the finish line ourselves. But what we can trust is that God is going to win the game, and if we trust in His plan, then whatever crosses stand between us and the finish line of our lives, we will join our resurrected savior in glory.

God doesn’t expect us to pretend like we’re not afraid. We can and should admit it whenever we are afraid just like Jesus Himself did, but we should also trust that God’s plan will achieve the final victory and hold onto the promise of Romans 8:28 “that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” Now just to be clear, this promise is not some kind of underhanded hint that if we prove our love for God by putting lots of money in the offering plate or acting really passionate about the Bible, then God will stop bad and scary things from happening to us. But if we put our trust in God and hang onto the stubborn belief that He loves us through thick and thin, then He will help us find the good in the bad and scary things that do happen in the natural processes and human societies that constitute life.

The process of becoming a Christian disciple is learning how to really mean it when we say, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” That’s hard to do! The first step is admitting that we are not in control. At first, it might be an act of discipline, but if we trust God enough to let Him transform our hearts, it will become an act of love. What we discover as we put our trust in God is that doing this makes life bearable as we face what we’re afraid of, whether it’s shame, loneliness, getting hurt, or getting sick. What makes it possible to walk through the valley of the shadow of death that every single one of us will face no matter how lucky we’ve been so far is knowing not just in our mind but in our heart and soul that God is with us.

Now I’ve been places in my life where hearing a preacher say that would do nothing for me. Words and ideas are little comfort to people facing fear. But God does better than words. Through Jesus Christ, He has made a vine for us to grow on and those of us who trust in Him are the branches that He uses to touch other peoples’ lives and help them get onto the vine. God has made us into a body so that He can use us to care for all of His children, whether they know Him or not. Trusting God is not just a private relationship that has nothing to do with other people; we trust in God by becoming the body of Christ, through which God provides a safe place for people to bring their fears and receive His love. Jesus faced fear, so that we could face our fears together as one body who say in one voice, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”