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Monday, August 11, 2014

An Unlikely match: Fearing & Loving God at the same time (PART 2)

Welcome to Part 2 (Part 1 here). To summarize Part 1: (a) Most Christians tend toward either fearing or loving God, but certainly not both at the same time (b) Fear, by nature, is consuming - specifically feasting on your thoughts so it can get fatter and take up more space first in your mind, then trickle into your values & priorities (your heart) & then outward from your will (your actions); (c) The Fear of God is different, it is equally thought-consuming but, unlike other fears, it is life-giving. So you can fear and love God at the same time. Having looked at the apostle Paul's conception of the terrible mercy and merciful terror of God in Romans 8, let's turn back the Bible clock and look at Psalm 130...

Psalm 130. This is perhaps my favorite Psalm (though Psalms 27, 77, and 139 are strong candidates). If you read this post and are somewhat inspired to begin simultaneously fearing and loving God, memorizing Psalm 130:3-4 would be a great place to start:
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities (ie. sin), O Lord, who could stand?                    But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. 
Here we have described in two verses what Paul was describing with a lot more ink & parchment. The psalmist, who has no doubt fretted and feared just as he has endured real and potential harm in his life, now awaits a solution to His biggest problem. God marks sin in His holy ledger and none can stand without a solution. All will fall. But the psalmist anticipates a future solution:
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits; and in his word I put my hope;                                My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning (Psalm 130:5-6)
Watchmen on the wall knew their shift was over and the danger of invasion had passed when the morning came. Morning always came - but, without timepieces, they just didn't know when that first sign of dawn would lighten the sky. Similarly, the psalmist is confident a solution will come...he just doesn't know when. That solution to falling, justly, into the abyss of God's eternal judgment will be complete and total.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD. For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him there is full redemption.                                                                            He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities (Psalm 130:7-8)
As with Paul, the psalmist is in touch with his greatest potential harm - full, awful, wrath-filled, just condemnation for a heart and life that daily rebels against its Creator. His default posture when considering how he will one day answer to God: Can't even stand! Full redemption and forgiveness come through Christ..."that you may be feared" (v.3). He wants to consume our thoughts with this wonderful deliverance. The fear of God is the only fear that doesn't lead to all its negative implications (worry, self-protection, insulation, flight) though the God is the greatest potential threat & destructive force we will ever encounter. We currently know and relate to the same God from whom we deserve the fulfillment of eternity's worst fear, a real fulfillment that we still be executed for some (ie. the same God who is no less wrath-potent & will execute the fullness of his just wrath once more), yet not for us who trust Christ because He consumed it on our behalf. This is the terrible mercy/merciful terror designed to grow larger as it consume all thoughts - thus crowding out all smaller and earthly fears. Unlike the others which robs your time, shrinks your trust toward others, and spends time (unlike every other fear) life-giving. 

So in summary: The Fear of God is all-consuming, ever-growing thinking whose central refrain is: "I relate, respond to, worship a God who is terror-potent with a wrath-promise...just not toward me because Jesus mercifully absorbed the wrath I deserved" and with the result that every other earthly fear must shrink in comparison to the growing Fear, such that earthly fear will cease limiting bold acts of faith done out on the ledge of life.

A Way to Enter into simultaneous fear & love: Sometimes we have to enter into something new by way of what's familiar - via an illustration or a word-picture that relates more concretely to our lives. Jesus did this all the time when he related truth through parables. His listeners could thereby enter into His truth by the familiar ways of the agricultural, familial, or economic venues which daily inhabited.

If you would then, take a moment to approach your largest fear which contains potential harm. And what if I could guarantee for you, that thing you fear will cause others harm in the future. Yet as you approach it, without losing it's potential for harm, it just keeps on not harming you. Could you stand to remain near it? Would you not be compelled and drawn, yet wide-eyed and perspiring all the while?  I mentioned some possible examples in my first post:

A tarantula that sits on your knee but never does bite you.
A viper that has slithered up your shirt sleeve but never strikes.
Saying something conspicuously embarrassing in front of group of people but they never turn to gawk nor give the slightest laugh at your expense. 
$1 in your savings account but despite your spending, that dollar never runs out. 
Standing on the edge of a cliff, now walking, now dancing, but never teetering nor toppling over the edge.

I trusted my life to Christ and later worked at a International Christian sports camp in the
Pilot Mountain: God hath redeemed the thought of you.
foothills of North Carolina. I met lifelong friends there including Katie, my wife. We would occasionally get to spend time 'off-campus' - usually during a day off or with a smaller group of remaining campers from the previous week's session. One off-campus place to which my friends and I would often go is nearby Pilot Mountain. We'd take food out there, go hiking, and tool around for a while. Most of my friends especially enjoyed hanging their feet over the edge of the precipitous fall. The only way I could get near the edge is by way of "army crawl," which if you are not familiar: Front of the entire body making contact with the ground while inching forward using only your forearms (thus minimizing risk of the accidental "trip," "stumble" or "slip"). Hearty laughter often abounded as I slowly crawled my way into a conversation. 

I must say it was a spiritual if not darn near "mystical" experience that led to the writing of these two posts (but I think this subjective experience lines up with the objective, biblical concept of the simultaneous fear and love of God). In prayer one day, I sensed the Holy Spirit beckon me to the ledge of that same cliff to which I used to crawl - along with the invitation: "Come learn what it means to fear me." After approaching the edge of the cliff on my feet: "If you trust me to keep you from falling, walk along it" and, then, "Run!" All of this played out in my mind's eye. Even though I was safely in my backyard with two feet on the ground, I was sweating through my shirt at 7 am. I think God put me through this spiritual exercise to help me appreciate truly approaching and relating to Him. If I call Him Savior, make no mistake He is saving me from something real and terrible. If I can expect a warm and Fatherly embrace, I must walk to the edge of the abyss to get it.

As I was working on this posts, I did have a couple days where I thought I might be a little 'out there' with my understanding of the fear of God. So I was exceptionally grateful at that point to hear the idea of such an edgy approach to God so similarly advocated by an older and wiser pastor whom I esteem so highly (note especially: Grand Canyon):
Fear and trembling are not because God is our enemy but because He saved us from His wrath through Christ, and now we stand on the brink of the Grand Canyon of His holiness and justice and grace and wrath with unspeakable wonder, knees wobbling and hands trembling, but overcome with worship at the depth of his majesty, not with worry that we might fall in  (John Piper, "The Present Effects of Trembling at the Wrath of God," March 6, 2005). 
What does a simultaneous fear & love of God do? 1. Solves the problem of trying to 'get' ourselves to fear God. It's not something you start doing, it's something you start thinking. You don't get rid of fear - you replace it. So utilize the one life-giving fear available to you.  2. Helps us better discern our design. You can start to tell we were designed for fear. We are made to be filled full with fear (Ps. 139:14). As a good friend pointed out to me over lunch this week: There are activities in this world which we both love and fear and so "hint" at our design.  Sky-diving (death), gambling (loss of money), a suspense murder mystery (heart attack?), game hunts/safaris (loss of limb or worse), roller-coasters (loss of lunch). All involve real and potential harm...and toward us. But what a rush! We are designed to live out on the edge. That begins with our relationship with God, who is full of potential and again-to-be-deployed wrath...just not toward us who trust Christ. 3. Fear & Love are wed. All those verses about trembling with joy and delighting in fear (see Psalm 2:11; Isaiah 11:3; Nehemiah 1:11). The only way to access this is through fearing the God of the gospel. That we are teetering toward the abyss of eternal torment and only the merciful hand of God keeps us out. "Thank you and wow!" Might such be our forever response. "Thank you and wow!" Awestruck & Lovestumped.   4. Empowers you for more and bolder faith-risks. The more we meditate on this unseen reality, the more we are emboldened for faith-risks on the edge of life because thoughts of their potential harms shrink as the fear of God grows larger. This doesn't happen overnight and I'm not sure you wake up one day and everything else is just "whatever bad happens, no biggie" (I'm not sure because this journey of fearing God is something to which, in some ways, I'm still pretty new).

This edgy, terrible mercy/merciful terror nature of God is something we must neither simply give mental assent nor be satisfied to experience only on special occasions, but daily meditate upon, soak in, and keep before us if we are ever to fear and love God at the same time. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

An Unlikely match: Fearing & Loving God at the same time (PART 1)

A tarantula that sits on your knee but never does bite you.
A viper that has slithered up your shirt sleeve but never strikes.
Saying something conspicuously embarrassing in front of group of people but they never turn to gawk nor give the slightest laugh at your expense. 
Standing on the edge of a cliff, now walking, now dancing, but never teetering nor toppling over the edge.
$1 in your savings account but despite your spending, that dollar never runs out. 

That's where we will end up. Such paradoxical illustrations will reappear at the finish line as I seek to unwind what is an explicitly biblical mystery of how a true Christian both simultaneously fears and loves God. And how it changes them...

The Problem: Either fear or love of God likely bothers you, even if just a little (& certainly trying to both at the same time!).

  • There is the love of God. Intimate, faithful, other-delighting, vulnerable love. We are told: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear, for fear has to do with punishment. Whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 John 4:18). Fearing God would mean that I'm worried at any moment, depending on an inward thought, an outward action, or just the fact that I'm not naturally a good person on the inside, He might just leave or even throw some wrath my way. People who tell me "to fear God" need to creep on out of the Old Testament!
  • There is the fear of God. Reverential, trembling, awestruck, gulping, "can'" fear. We are told: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom/knowledge" (Proverbs 1:7). Treating God (or "buddy Jesus") like the bloke I most want to have a drink with after work or person with whom I want to plan my baby/bridal shower is not a God worthy of my worship. People who say: "Jesus is my homeboy/bestie" should probably turn off Christian radio and spend a month in the Book of Revelation. He is the Almighty, the King, our Judge.
But these two crazy kids belong together. The Bible almost inexplicably weds the two ideas and more often than the appearance of the occasional proof text (see 1 John 4:18 above) used to prove the other side wrong. Consider the following appetizers:
  • Psalm 2:11: Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.
  • Isaiah 11:3: And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
  • Nehemiah 1:11: O LORD, let you ear be attentive to the prayer...of your servants who delight to fear your name.
The Game Plan. How might we arrive at such an awestruck & lovestumped kind of life? It is upon this question I've been reflecting considerably. First, we need to reevaluate what fear is and what fear does. Second, armed with what fear does to us, we will learn how fear and love are wed such that the fear of God becomes functional and life-giving (unlike every other fear which is offers no return on time & energy invested & is utterly debilitating) Third, we'll delve into how such a fear changes how we relate to God and the world around us. It also turns out that God has been teaching me so much on this these past couple weeks or so that this will be Part One of a Two-part effort.

1. What fear is and what fear does. I would define fear as a deep-seated emotion toward some potential harm, the growing thoughts of which causes a person to remain distant, protect, or run. Fear is not inherently evil but neutral because the potential harm is, in fact, real. However, the fears that cause us to remain distant, protect ourselves at every corner and run, turn negative when we've fed such fear with more and more of our thoughts such that it has grown inordinately large. Hence, what fear does. Fear consumes thoughts. Anxiety, worry, fears become inordinately large because we think on them. We imagine the possibilities of life ruined by them, we mull over our past hurts related to it, we consider a news item, a doctor's warning, or anecdote your friend told you and begin to think of the consequences should the potential harm become actual. Fear feeds on our thoughts. Such that whatever potential harm we think on most, that becomes our largest (or fattest) fear. And Fear never stops eating on it's own. In fact, it goes on to consume our priorities & values (heart) and then finally eats out to our will & actions (behavior) [see horribly-rendered drawing above].

You can see how this begins to relate us to God. He has made us to function with fear (we are not just wonderfully made, made to fill full with wonder, but fearfully also, made to fill full with fear - Psalm 139:14). We want Him to become largest in our minds, our all-consuming love that we sing about, teach about, tell our lost friends about, write Facebook posts about, and influences every thought and action. So combining God and fear would be great because Fear never stops eating on its own - grows in our minds, down toward our hearts & outward through our actions. Except that fear always thinks on potential harm and fear, as we normally experience it, would cause us avoid, protect, run. Not to mention the Bible affirms God is the greatest potential harm and destructive threat we will ever encounter. Jesus told us bluntly: "And do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell" (Matthew 10:28). 

2. How is the fear of God different from every other fear? How does God get larger in our minds without simultaneously avoiding Him altogether in fear or living ever-cautiously like He is ready to bring down the hammer with any false move on our part? How can God consume our thoughts with His largeness without also putting aside His tender, humble and secure love? What I am going to share is nothing more than the gospel. However, it's the gospel with an edge. Those who sit under my preaching have heard me say frequently: The greatest gift of the gospel is God. Through trust in Jesus Christ, you are reconciled to the Father who created you. You get God! But it's not a God who has thrown out wrath, terror, divine justice for mercy only; nor is it a God who shows to us only one face - the sweet lamb face and not the lion. Every time we approach God and relate to God (even now!) He is lamb and lion. The real, three-personed God puts us on the edge with HIm - the edge between just wrath and tender mercy - and empowers us to live with emboldened faith on life's edges as we begin to really fear Him. 

There are two places in Scripture I've turned to most frequently when I worry, grow anxious, even fear. One is the Book of Romans, where I find a bedrock of truth regarding my firm standing with God secured by Christ through faith. The other is the Psalms where my fears find a voice and a God who speaks to them. It is in these two places where the Holy Spirit has helped me grow in simultaneously fearing and loving God. Let's look together first at Romans 8.

Romans 8. Romans 8:31: "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us." That Scripture has given many of us great comfort and emboldened us to step out in faith - for a business meeting when a promotion or our very job was on the line, for trying something, getting up the nerve to pop a question of great import, saying "no" to people who've never heard you say that, for the courage just to get out of in bed, and to speak up for Jesus. Now the Apostle Paul did step out in faith to do some or most of the above (though it was likely 40 lashes minus 1 and not depression that made it hard to get out of bed). Yet none of these gave cause to Paul writing this courageous battle cry. Deliverance from the just condemnation and wrath of God was Paul's supreme reason for bold living. I say this for two reasons. Just a couple sentences later:
Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or danger, or sword?  (vv.34-35).
There was only One who can condemn and who still condemns but will no longer do so toward the lawbreaker who trusts in the Jesus - who bore the full weight of the condemnation on our behalf (what the Bible calls propitiation; see Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 4:10). "If God is for us, who can be against us" and the glorious section describing the Christian's essential invincibility to follow is the end of one long thought that began in v.1 of chapter 8. In fact v.1 of chapter 8 is the undisputed turning point of Romans that separates chapters 1-7 and 8-16. Paul has just described justification by faith in chapter 6, the ongoing presence of sin in chapter 7 and ends that chapter describing his ongoing struggle with sin. In a word, he expresses fear - fear that he'll never be done with sin. Then chapter 8, verse 1. 
There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
The most eternal fear & greatest love: Both present at the cross.
All other worldly fears dissipate because there is no longer fear of condemnation. The condemnation is still real because it fell on Jesus and because there is still condemnation to come for those in the world who do not trust Jesus to make them right with the Father...just no longer toward Paul. This liberating truth consumes Paul's thought. You can feel it escalating with every word in Romans 8! Out of awestruck gratitude & armed with every-moment access to a God of both merciful & terrible power, he risks all manner of potential harm for the glory of Jesus. Potential harm like tribulation, distress, persecution, famine (ie. not eating for days), danger, sword... even nakedness. His earthly fears shrink or are "crowded out" now that this new Fear expands even as it consumes most every thought.

Paul can teeter on any earthly edge precisely because He has/is teetering on the edge - between merciful eternal life with God and holy, just, divine judgment (again, it's the same God) and yet remains supremely confident he will never topple into it. This thought has so consumed Paul's mind that any bold act with the potential to harm - things present, things to come, demons, rulers, and spiritual powers of the gnarly sort (Rom 8:38-39) - are mere child's play by comparison.

In Part 2 (here), l share about Psalm 130, speak to how the fear of God transforms us, & finally explain the spider/snake/ledge/$1 bank balance...

Monday, August 4, 2014

Fear Not: Series of Blog Posts

Howdy friends. Hope you are having a fantacular summer. I just got back from our annual holiday-polooza across the Southeastern part of the United States (including a trip to its capital Washington, D.C. -- admittedly, to visit with close friends but with the excuse that our little American citizens should learn some American history whilst living abroad).

Worshipping Sunday with my local family of faith and diving together into His Word was a breath of fresh air. I have just started a 3-week series entitled Fear Not which aims to lay out 3 anchoring truths designed to move people (including this guy) from fear to faith.

Sooo...the Sunday messages are intended to be more prescriptive than diagnostic in nature (ie. spending less time on WebMD figuring out how fear works & its symptoms and more time going to the Physician for truth prescriptions). Nevertheless, taking time to look at some of the inner workings of fear can help ready us to fight against it.

Each week of the series I'll write a blog post, during which time I'll take a poke at the following:

  • An unlikely match: How Fearing & Loving God go together
  • An 'acceptable' weakness: The fear of man
  • The straw that stirs the fear: Worldly & Satanic lies
  • Stranger Danger: When fear is good

I'm already working on the first, but having a hard time choosing 2 out of the remaining 3. If you have any thoughts or preferences, do please let me know (or would that constitute me "fearing man"?!...chuckle...ridiculous).

Will report back soon.