Fear is a natural part of our humanity, often seen as a survival instinct, where we fear what can cause harm. Take a mental tally of your own fears, and you will most likely find that your healthy fears are the ones that keep you out of trouble.
According to a recent Washington Post survey about what it is that most Americans fear, topping the list was “public speaking” (with “heights” following closely behind). Given that a great deal of my graduating seniors need to give a TED Talk as their senior culminating project, I’ve witnessed firsthand the fear that enters when a person is told that he or she needs to present a grandiose idea to a large group of people. They are frozen in place just thinking about it. Their survival instinct of self-preservation and avoiding public judgement is normal, as they attempt to maintain their credibility amongst their peers.
The rest of the list of surveyed fears consisted of such expected categories as drowning, needles, zombies, and clowns. Yet nowhere on the list is there evidence that we have a fear of God. When suggested, most scoff at the idea of being afraid of God, yet in fact, we have a deeply serious lack of fear when it comes to God, and we are not nearly as afraid of Him as we should be.
When most people are asked to characterize God, they conjure an image of a loving mentor who passively died on a cross, adhering to the nurturing father that is portrayed in so many sermons and homilies. However, we quickly forget the side of God that characterizes Him as one of judgement and condemnation, a God who despises sin and actively fights against evil. 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards knew that a healthy fear of God would keep his congregation from sin, as his sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” pictured the Christian as one who “dangles precariously over Hell…a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.” If it is this image that is invoked, how is it that we lack fear when we purposefully offend His word?
Illustrating the point of how much we lack said fear, take a minute and Google the words “caught” and “scandal” together and see the multitude of news articles that come up. When we commit sinful behaviors, we are more afraid of being caught in the eyes of men than in the eyes of God. The Google search for “scandal” and “apology” also turns up a tremendous number of articles, as we only confess our wrongdoing when we are caught. If we truly feared God, more articles about people openly admitting their wrongs would appear when we search “scandal” and “confess.”
Proverbs 3.7 give this advice: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.” When we fear Him, His wrath, and His punishment, we reflexively reject evil. If we lack that fear, we turn a blind eye to evil, allowing it to enter because we don’t fear the one who can bring consequences.
Many argue that this image of God is very Old Testament, where His consequences often included the outdated idea of wiping out whole tribes and nations, bringing grandiose punishment to those who opposed Him. Yet consider the Acts 5 story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife Christian couple who, when they sold land for donations to the church, held back money for themselves, and when asked about it, lied about how much they were giving. Peter questioned the husband about his lying to the apostles: “’What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’ When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died” (Acts 5.4b-5), and when his unknowing wife similarly lied later in the story, she followed suit and died, as well. They could hide their misdeeds from man, but not from God, and because they feared man and not God, they continued in their sinful misrepresentation, thinking that they were not being watched.
It has often been said that when speaking publicly, a good litmus test for appropriate speech is that you should never say anything that you wouldn’t want your mother to hear or that could be read allowed in court. Perhaps this barometer should also include “or in front of God.” God truly sees all things we do, yet we continue to sin, foolishly thinking that because we don’t see Him, He doesn’t see us. By embracing a healthy fear of God, we are not as quick to embrace our sinful nature and embark on the wrong path. Although we may not drop dead because of our actions, if we fear God, we are kept from that wrong path and are put back on a path towards Heaven, one that keeps us from sliding into an eternity without Him. Amen.