Fear of All the Wrong People and Things

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.

Swapping Anger for Empathy (and Donuts)

A friend of mine was recently celebrating his son’s ninth birthday party by hosting a sleepover.  As a special request, they had the local bakery make specialty donuts in the shape of the number “9” to give out to everyone when they awoke the next morning.  Making sure to be careful about planning the event with enough time, the father called the order in well-ahead so that the bakery would be able to fulfill the order.

On the morning of the sleepover, the man and his son went to pick the donuts up, only to find that one of the baker’s workers had given away half of the order to another customer by accident.  The father’s mind and heart filled with outrage, as he stood ready to angrily lash at them for their obviously careless mistake.  After a moment of lividness, he took a deep breath and asked the manager how they could solve the problem.  She quickly got on the phone to see what she could do.

Anger tends to be the go-to emotion for many people when life sometimes takes a turn away from what was expected.  American philosopher Martha Nussbaum keenly suggests that all anger is deeply rooted in feeling a lack of control in our life.  When anger rears its head, most times it is because of insecurity, where situations and relationships are deemed beyond our control, or events and outcomes are going against our wishes and wills.  Anger rises when our best laid plans go awry and we try to fix what we can’t; it is our futile response at attempting to solve problems.

When things don’t go our way, we also quickly look to blame someone, finding a target for our anger.  Yet, when we do, we ignore the problem and focus on the individual.  By shifting focusing to the problem, we look towards a solution, which is really what we truly want.  Anger might feel good in the present, but a solution feels even better in the future.

While the manager was on the phone, a young girl quietly came over and sheepishly took the blame.  Upon her confession, the father’s anger began to subside as he realized that this young girl was doing her best and was already embarrassed by the situation.  Despite whatever righteousness he thought he could achieve through his anger in that moment, he might have destroyed this poor girl had he responded in anger.

After the manager got off the phone, she said that she could have a new batch made later that evening.  He knew that he didn’t need the donuts until all the boys woke up, so he told the manager that as long as he had them today, he would be alright.  When he returned that night to pick up his order, he was met with three times the amount he asked for, all already paid for, along with various other free bakery items.

We have to wonder how this event would have turned out had he vented his anger.  He might have gotten what he wanted, but at what cost?  Proverbs 29.11 writes, “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.”  By holding onto his anger, he managed to salvage a girl’s feelings, be a good role model for his son, get a lot more bakery items than he asked for (and all for free), and be able to walk back into the store with his head up and be greeted with genuine kindness.

When we focus on the solution and respond with empathy instead of anger, the ripples of compassion and understanding spread far beyond the moment and affect more than just the outcome.  This week, as you find yourself angered and outraged, remember that these emotions stem from our insecurities and desire for control.  Then, re-route your intentions towards solving the problem instead of lashing out at others.  The results will be much more satisfying in the long run than any expression of anger could possibly grant.  Amen.

Unforgiving Claims of Fairness

“It’s not fair,” my student Julie repeated over and over to me, complaining about her last class.  She had just come from history, where the teacher gave back the tests, and Julie marked the correct answer on the question sheet, but copied it down wrong on her answer sheet.  “I knew the answer!” she stammered out with extreme indignation, but the fact was that her answer sheet was wrong, and so her answers were wrong.  However, Julie’s outrage was in comparison to the teacher’s treatment of another student.  “I get good grades, I do all my work, and Tara doesn’t do anything, yet she gets to do things over and I don’t.”  It was a fair point.  If one student gets extra chances, shouldn’t all?  I asked how her usually high grades compared to Tara’s, and then found that the other girl was often times borderline failing and could probably use all the chances she could get.

Fairness is a concern for us our entire lives.  When we are little, we measure the candy we receive against what others get, making sure we all get the same.  Teenagers decry the concept 7-8 times a day, citing how some can stay out later than others.  As adults, we resent other’s happiness and success, feeling that we are just as deserving, sometimes maybe more so.  Years ago, Rabbi Kushner, whose own son died at age 14, attempted to tackle the concept in his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which touched a collective nerve and was met with enormous success.  Yet, when we ask about life being fair, perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard.  In the morning, he finds townspeople, hires them for a day’s wage, and puts them to work.  Midway through the day, he finds that he needs more people than he originally thought, so he hires even more townspeople on two later occasions, agreeing to pay them a day’s wage, as well.  At the end of the day, the workers come to collect, but those who started work in the beginning of the day expected to be paid more that those who started towards the end of the day, feeling that it would only be fair that way.  The landowner disagreed, “I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?…I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you…Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20. 13-15).  Instead of paying what was fair, the man paid what was right, citing generosity as his motivation.  Perhaps he felt that it was not right that the others were unemployed and denied opportunity earlier in the day.  Maybe he felt that it was wrong that they couldn’t provide for their families.  Either way, through righteousness, the landowner modeled mercy and grace, which may not be fair, but is right.

When we talk about equality, we should talk less like the Pharisees who cited the law and its fair adhesion to it, but more about God’s grace and mercy, and how being merciful is right and just.  If we want life to be truly fair, then Christ’s death on the cross would not be allowed and because of our actions, we’d all deserve death.  We cannot be both fair and forgiving, as fairness means we get what we deserve, not what we need.

Would Julie ever make this mistake again?  Probably not.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but because of grace, she was being taught it so that she would learn from it.  Sometimes righteousness means having to suffer for our own good because it’s what we need, with the reason behind it being to mold us into better people.  Through righteousness, God’s deep love for us is revealed, and through His mercy, we are shaped to be people who walk closer with Him.  We can’t possibly fathom God’s plan, but we are certain as to His righteous intentions.  Amen.