Apparently there’s some election campaigning going on in America. Unsurprisingly for a country like the US all the candidates are claiming to be God fearing, sent of God, and anything but God-awful. This has lead to a number of posts on Christian blogs questioning and examining the various claims.
I’ve also read in a few places about people getting all pent up about the phrase fear of God. There are many who define it as being afraid of punishment and therefore Christians should have no fear of God if we love him. This is probably the fault of our churches, we often teach a gospel too strongly built around personal relationship and Jesus being our friend. Those things are true of course and I love them, but as a church we’ve not been to good at teaching about God being judge as well. We’ve not taught so well about the otherness and awesomeness of God. Its just as well that God isn’t just our friend but also the creator of the universe, its just as well that he is so much greater than us because otherwise just what would be the point of following him?
But I think there is also a problem of language here. Lets not forget that it was once common to talk about God being terrible and nobody thought you meant that he was bad. Similarly having the fear of God doesn’t mean pooping your pants at the thought of thunderbolts being hurled at you.
The fear of God is about reverence, its about recognising that he’s the boss of the whole thing. Its about humbling ourselves as an act of submission and worship.
If you look up the word awe in the dictionary you will find the word fear listed as a synonym, thats the kind of fear where looking at here. But the context the Bible uses seems to make fear of God more of a conscious action, where as I understand awe as something we are struck with – it happens to us. Fear in the biblical context is something we choose and can be found lacking in, so there is a difference there.
Proverbs 9:10 uses the word fear,
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
Fear here is clearly about recognising God’s sovereignty. Knowing that God is God is the start of wisdom.
In terms of language alone its a sad state of affairs when we want to tame language and limit the semantic range of every word, its happening in culture generally and its happening here with our understanding of the word fear. I personally think that any ambiguity in the word fear as used in the Bible has a function in revealing its meaning. It causes you to think a little, like when Joshua encountered the leader of heavens armies its a reminder that God isn’t on our side.
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” (Joshua 5)
We can choose to be on God’s side but we can also act against him and to do so isn’t without consequence. May we be like Joshua and know when to stay in the tent of meeting like he did in Moses time as he was getting to know the Lord closely, and also know when to fall face down in reverence… you could also say in fear of God.
The poet C.D. Wright wrote,
If you do not use language you are used by it. If you not recognise the terms peacekeeper missile and preemptory strike for oxymorons, your hole has already been dug.
Language can be manipulated to temper our reaction to grim realities, such as in the examples Wright cites but it can also be killed when we work to make every word simple, dull, blunt and only able to carry the weight of one single meaning.
Ironically those American politicians are using language, and the phrase fear of God to their advantage. Appealing to the almighty is obviously wise move in a country as ‘Christian’ as the USA, but you’d be shooting yourself in the foot if you spoke about God in the same way that George W did: Nobody wants to be associated with him. Bush claimed that God told him to invade Iraq. He went all out on the personal relationship aspect of religious experience and spoke in those terms. So by employing the term fear of God today’s presidential hopefuls are hoping to tell voters that yes they’re Christian, but no they wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume God backs every decision they make. By saying Fear of God, they are suggesting that they are a safe pair of hands not likely to do anything controversial.
So there it is, complain about the language if you’d like, ignore it if you’d like, but I’d say how about seeking to use and understand it. If you don’t you could miss out on the true breadth of the gospel message (as in this case), and you could leave yourself open to the manipulation of anyone who applies any rigour in the language they chose to use.
If we don’t understand the terms we use to describe and talk about our faith, then anybody could come and teach a false message that we swallow because it sounds genuine.