Fear and Trembling

Why is the Old Testament so concerned with telling us to FEAR God?

After all, John teaches us that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4.18a). We could chalk this up to an Old Covenant vs. New Covenant thing, but I don’t think that quite works.  The fear of God is also taught by New Testament teachers, from Peter and Paul (1 Pet 2.17;  Eph 5.21;  Phil 2.12), to Jesus and his angels (Lk 12.5).

Certainly John is right in saying that love casts out the kind of fear that “has to do with punishment” (1 Jn 4.18).

But there seems to be another kind of fear, one that is beautiful and good.

I can honestly say that I fear my wife.  It’s not that I’m afraid of her hitting me on the head with a frying pan (as much as I occasionally deserve it).  It’s not that kind of fear.  It has do with my knowledge that I have absolutely no control over this woman.  Sometimes she does things I like, sometimes she does things I don’t like, and I never know what’s going to happen next.  It’s not about her doing good things or bad things; it’s about her being a distinct person from me.  It’s what makes relationships risky and thrilling.  It’s what necessitates that glorious experience we call “submitting one to another” (which, interestingly enough, we do “out of our fear of Christ” (Eph 5.21).

We all know that falling in love is a terrifying experience, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  This is a fear that love doesn’t cast out.  In fact, there is no such thing as love apart from this kind of fear.  As my theology prof Leron Shults likes to say, “love is a delightful terror and a terrible delight.”  And that’s the way we like it.

To fear God is to accept and deal with the fact that Aslan is not a tame lion.

If we want a non-fearsome easy-to-control god, we’ll have to settle for idols (which is, in fact, what we so often do).  But if we want to face reality rather than fiction, then we must deal with Someone with teeth and a sense of adventure.  We know that He will never leave nor forsake us, but we still never know what He’s going to do next, and whether or not we’re going to like it.

And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

~ John Stonecypher

5 comments so far

  1. tjbrassell on

    What a DELIGHTFULLY TERRIFYING post, that I love! Ha-ha!

  2. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks for this post, John. You help us understand our relationships with each other as much as with the Trinity, since others are distinct they also will act in “un-tame” ways, we can’t be in relationship with God or each other without a certain amount of fear and trembling.

  3. John Stonecypher on

    It’s my hunch that this kind of fear is part of the eternal Triune life. Because this kind of fear is about acknowledging OTHER-ness. The Father knows he cannot control his Son (nor does he want to), and vice-versa. And they both know better than to try to control the Spirit. I think this lack of ‘other-control’ is essential to how exciting Their life-together is. The idea that the divine persons ‘submit’ to each other implies this kind of otherness, this kind of ‘fear.’

  4. Pastor Jonathan on

    Excellent point, John, I’m not sure I had ever thought of perichoresis in quite this way before but I think you must be right. Just the thought of God’s nature in this way evokes in my mind the very thrilling sense of adventure we have been talking about! The persons of the Trinity are perfectly free to not co-inhere within each other but by the nature of who each is as an individual they each choose co-inherence and will never cease to choose that perichoretic relationship. To trust that the Trinity will never cease to be is not to trust that the Trinity cannot cease to be (because, for example, the Father forbids it) but it is to trust that the goodness of the Father, Son, and Spirit means that they will each forever choose to be in perichoretic communion. Since we see their faithfulness to each other, and know in Christ that we have been included in that Life, we can know that they will be as faithful forever to us as they are to each other – not because some controlling power requires it but because in their complete freedom they freely choose be eternally faithful to others without ever taking away the freedom of those others.

  5. Boyd Merriman on

    Wow, that put a whole new understanding of fear and that gives me the chills that is exciting! And the comments I just read added that much more to the understanding! As John Stonecypher wrote: “Because this kind of fear is about acknowledging OTHER-ness”



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