Between 10,000 and 2 million years ago, during an earlier global warming, glaciers moved through a mountain of granite nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, carving wonders through what is now Yosemite Valley in central California. Among the glaciers' wondrous work is the Half Dome, which rises nearly one mile above the Yosemite Valley floor.
From the valley you can gaze up at the bald rock, or, if you're a rock climber, you can scale its face. Many visitors climb a path that winds to the top. Or, as I am wont to do, you can drive to Glacier Point and behold Half Dome across the valley, face to face.
When visitors get out of the car and start walking toward Half Dome, they typically have two reactions: they grow afraid and awestruck. Or awestruck and afraid—it's hard to tell which comes first. It's a combination of the sheer size of the dome face combined with the dramatic drop to the valley below. They start walking more carefully as they approach the edge. Parents grab their children's hands; friends grasp each other's arms.
The view literally takes one's breath away, and visitors tend to start whispering. They dread falling into the abyss, and yet they want to get as close to the edge as they can.
Approaching the edge of death and wonder like this inevitably leads to silence. LA journalist Christopher Reynolds recently put it this way about Glacier Point's "jaw-dropping views": "The spectacle is an invitation to consider eternity and forget petty human affairs."
For the Christian, the experience may bring to mind the first line of the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." It's that "almighty" part—and the human reaction that goes with it—that interests me here: fear. More precisely, the fear of the Lord.
Those of us in ministry circles today try to banish fear from our vocabulary. Fear is such a downer. Isn't ministry about helping people overcome their fears? Doesn't Jesus say, "Do not fear, only believe" (Mark 5:36, ESV)? Doesn't John say, "Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18, ESV)? Perhaps the fear of the Lord is an Old Testament idea, a religious relic of a distant past when people thought the finest thing to say about God was that he was all-powerful. We on the other side of the Resurrection know that the greatest thing to be said about God is that he is love. Perfect love, in fact, that doesn't produce fear but instead banishes it.
And yet, when we go to places like Glacier Point, we find ourselves attracted to the very thing that makes us afraid. And rather than running from it, we want to get closer, at least as close as we can without getting killed. At such moments, we realize life is a little more complicated.
To Fear and Not to Fear
I can hardly count the number of times in the Bible that "the fear of the Lord" is extolled as a virtue, or when people meet God almighty and are left stammering. At the foot of Mount Sinai, "there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled" (Ex. 19:16, ESV). When Isaiah sees the glory of God in the temple, he thinks he's going to die: "Woe is me! For I am lost" (Isa. 6:5, ESV). We get the distinct impression that God wants us mostly to fear him:
Know and see that it is evil and bitter
for you to forsake the Lord your God;
the fear of me is not in you,
declares the Lord God of hosts. (Jer. 2:19, ESV)
When "gentle Jesus" shows up, things get worse. The disciples are frightened after Jesus stills the storm (Mark 4:35–41) and "terrified" at the Transfiguration (9:6). The woman healed of a blood flow is at first filled with "fear and trembling," and on the first Easter morning, the witnesses are seized with "trembling and astonishment . . . for they were afraid" (16:8).
When people witness the power and glory of almighty God, they are terrified. They think they are going to die. When we blithely sing to God to "show us your glory, Lord," we might as well be making a death wish. Or maybe we just want to get close to something that scares us to death.
Then again, notice what the people of Israel do when they encounter God almighty. They don't run. They keep hanging around the mountain. Isaiah doesn't bolt from the temple. The result of Jesus' terrorizing miracles is that more people than ever flocking to him. Yes, the women run from the tomb in fear. But they are not running from God as much as obeying the heavenly messenger to tell others something that may well scare the living daylights out of them: Jesus is alive and well.
Perhaps evangelism is not so much one hungry person telling another hungry person where to find bread, as one terrified person telling others where they can go to experience this beautiful fear. It would appear that, at least initially, the Resurrection was not intended to bring witnesses a warm, fuzzy comfort that all will be well. Rather, the message seems to be, "Do not just believe, but also fear!"
And yet how many times in the Bible does almighty God tell people, "Fear not"? And this, just after he has scared the bejeebers out of them by displaying his might. This is a steady refrain in the opening chapters of Luke, when epiphany after epiphany begins with the angel telling the witnesses to fear not. Perhaps the best-known example—partly because it preaches so well—is Jesus' admonition to the ruler of the synagogue who has just learned his daughter has died: "Fear not, only believe" (Mark 5:36, ASV).
Of course, these repeated fear-nots are God's Twitter way of saying that "neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38–39, ESV). In the end, there is nothing so big or ominous or powerful in this life that compares to God. There are many things that harm us, and some of them we could even call mighty. But they are only mighty. God is all-mighty. And if almighty God is for us, who can be against us? So chill out. Fear not. Or at least don't fear relatively petty things.
The Beginning of Wisdom
But God almighty? Yes, fear him.
Not respect him. There are plenty of good words in Hebrew and Greek that communicate honor and respect. But the biblical writers rarely use them when talking about God. Honor your father and mother (Ex. 20:12). Respect the emperor. But when it comes to God, they tell us to "fear" him (1 Pet. 2:17). When it comes to God, they keep using the word that scares us. (We may have nothing to fear but fear itself, but that seems to be what we fear.)
Like many biblical commands, the command to "fear not" comes with a promise: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10). If we fear God, then we will become judicious, understanding, knowledgeable, and astute. Perhaps we have abandoned teaching about the fear of the Lord because, really, we no longer want to be wise. Loved, yes. Comforted, hopeful, forgiven—yes. But not wise.
Then again, the Lord is gracious, because the very mention of forgiveness suggests that he is opening a back door to let proper fear sneak in.
There's a surprising verse in the Psalms that points to this. The psalmist is meditating on his behavior as he prays in the presence of a holy God. He concludes that, all things being equal, things look pretty hopeless. He expresses it differently than Isaiah, but it amounts to the same thing: "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?" (130:3, ESV). If God's righteousness were the first and last word about God, we would be as good as dead. Then he continues, "But with you, there is forgiveness." Whew—we are not dead men walking. The kindling of our sinfulness and the fire of God's holiness are not going to touch. Instead, the mountain of sin is crushed and reshaped by the glacier of God's forgiveness.
What comes next may surprise the modern reader. The psalmist does not continue by saying, "And you've done this that we might sing your praises." One hopes that people will praise God for such a gift. But this is not what the psalmist says. Nor does he say, "And you've done this that we might love you forever." Nor, "And you've done this so that we will forgive others." Again, true enough, as far as it goes.
No, the psalmist says, "But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared."
It's hard for us to imagine what the psalmist is talking about. We expect him to suggest that we'll be thankful. Or joyful. Or relieved. But not fearful. There are many reasons for this, but I suspect one of them is this: we generally start talking of forgiveness way before we have seen and understood the utter devastation of sin and the magnificence of redemption.
Redemption is like that massive glacier, nearly a mile high, that shoved its way through the immense granite block, sweeping away mountains here and splitting others there. If we grasped the power that removed the granite mountain of sin and carved from it a scene of unimaginable beauty, I dare say we'd be inspired by a beautiful fear.
Beautiful because of the sheer glory of redemption, and yet filling us with a fear that attracts. We feel in our souls that if we get too close to the God who pulled this off, we will fall into an abyss. Yet we can hardly help edging closer and closer, with friends grabbing our arms telling us to be careful, to watch ourselves.
That's because our friends suspect something that we may have forgotten today: that to free fall into the hands of almighty God is a dreadful thing (Heb. 10:31).
It is also the most wonderful thing. Because to know this beautiful fear is to know grace, for "his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation" (Luke 1:50, ESV). And to know beautiful fear is to become like Christ, who, according to Isaiah, is one whose "delight shall be in the fear of the Lord" (11:3, ESV).
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.
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