FEAR. Our world lives in fear. The news often seems to be a menagerie of the worst terrors of mankind. We live in fear of our planet, in fear of the weather, of tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes. We live in the fear of contagious diseases, economic meltdown, terrorism and the sinister inclinations of our fellow man. Even our own carefully tested technology fails us and scientific discovery has not rewarded us with a new global utopia. Our systems and organizations fail us. The Preacher said the one who increases knowledge increases sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:18.) In the midst of these terrors what should mankind fear the most? What issue should all of humanities resources be geared towards resolving?
Let’s imagine for a moment that the world has attended a special summit of the United Nations. Every nation has come together. Even enemies sit side by side because they are unified to stop a common adversary. After several days of closed door meetings a consensus is reached. A correspondent of a major news outlet has received information of the proceedings. She cannot believe what she is seeing. She goes over it again and everything checks out. Her editor gives her the go ahead. In full view of the camera, she slowly reads to the world the diagnoses of the UN:
THE PROBLEM IS WE DO NOT FEAR GOD.
What would be the reaction to such an announcement? Irate comments will reign in on that network. Many will call into question the usefulness of the UN. Network satirists will have a field day on their weekly reviews. Countless memes on the internet will appear mocking it. Many will gloss over the headline unconcerned. Others will say, “Let’s try and solve the real problem and ignore this superstitious nonsense.” In short the global community will not take it seriously, they will not be scared.
Often you see in films or music videos a dishevelled, homeless man, carrying a rudely cut cardboard sign. On this sign you will most likely see a Bible verse or quote, or a cryptic apocalyptic message about God. He is often in the middle of a busy metropolitan street being religiously ignored by passers-by. This is a representation of how the world sees true believers in God, Arthur M. Schlesinger’s “mystic prophets of the absolute.” The Old Testament prophets bear an uncanny resemblance to this description. Their message was also ignored.
“Spiritual” terminology abounds in our world but “the fear of God” is simply not in vogue. When you look at the Scriptures however, the fear of God is very important. There are two ancient notions concerning the god you served. These two primal ideas defined a man’s relationship with a god. They were fear and deliverance. Fear was the worshipper’s obligation to the deity. The deity in turn had to deliver its adherent in times of trouble. You feared the one in whose hands if you fell, you could not be delivered. If no one or thing could deliver you from him, it meant the deity could rescue you from everything else. Salvation served as a baseline. The ancients understood that the gods may not answer every prayer. If you invoked a deity and it could not help you in your most dire strait, it was not worth serving. Living in a culture where you can still readily observe paganism I find these things to be true.
People do not fear things that cannot harm them. We fear what is dangerous, and what is powerful is dangerous. True power should invoke fear. Take electricity for example. We cover conducting wires with insulating material. This is because electricity as a power source is dangerous to the touch. If we had no fear of electricity, we would not find the means to use it to our advantage. The computer I am typing this essay on would constantly shock me. No one could use an electronic device. Electronic innovation could not have started without us recognising the danger of electricity. Similarly, the Bible says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9:10.)
To fear God is to recognise how powerful he is, how dangerous he is. The fear of the Lord is to shun evil (Proverbs 8:13.) When the apostle Paul reviewed humanity in the light of the Scriptures he came to the same conclusion as our imaginary UN session.
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.” “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS”; “THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD, DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS, AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN.” “THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.” (Romans 3:9-18 NAU)
An autocrat ruling an oppressed country does what he wants because there is no one powerful enough to judge him. When he does something wrong there is no reckoning for him. Human beings also live without thinking there is someone to answer to. That is why the word of God calls the unrepentant heart desperately wicked, it has no restraint. The Preacher said the end of the matter is fear God, because God will bring every deed into judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14.) There are inescapable consequences to sin and disobedience. If you fear God you certainly will not wish to sin against him. If you know the power of electricity you certainly would not want to get your wires crossed. The scripture aptly says the fear of God prolongs life. The fear of God is so necessary, so fundamental, what the Scriptures says about it borders on common sense.
The prophet Isaiah talks about the Spirit of the Fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1, 2.) God is, ipso facto, terrifying. The saints of old readily understood this. If a person encountered God they did not expect to survive that meeting. If they lived to see another day they knew it was because of the mercy of God (Genesis 32:30.) God deliberately did things that caused people to fear him (Exodus 20:20.)
[For men will be] holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. (2 Timothy 3:5 NAU)
The Greek word for godliness meant piety, reverence and homage to a deity. Godliness is the practice of the fear of God. Religion without power was worth avoiding in Paul’s mind. It is expected of God to display supernatural power since he is a supernatural being. Even atheists recognise if there is no possibility of divine intervention then religion is futile. An impotent god is of no use to anyone. There is a natural association between power and piety. If God is not powerful then there is no need to fear him. If you do not fear him you cannot serve him with piety and reverence.
Godliness in the Christian framework has certain features. Paul calls this the mystery of godliness. This is the reason why Christians are committed to living a pure life before God.
By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.
(1 Timothy 3:16 NAU)
If godliness was only useful in this life then, it might be morally satisfying but eternally irrelevant. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is definitive proof our faith has value beyond this life. Christians therefore assume a supernatural position on life. The supernatural pervades the entire confession. The only way you can deny supernatural power is to first deny the supernatural. A godliness unaccompanied by supernatural power is in direct opposition to our faith.
I remember a friend of mine telling me of a conversation he had with a certain lady. This person denied God did miracles in the present. My friend asked her what if she saw a miracle right in front of her. She said it was of the Devil. In her mind, the Devil is more powerful than God nowadays. Many people unwittingly hold this view. God made the Devil. The creature cannot be nearly as powerful as its creator. If the devil is powerful then God is more! If the workings of occult spirits are regarded with fear then the presence of the Holy Spirit is far more awesome.
Some worry that talking about supernatural power dumbs down the importance of Christian virtues. The writer of Hebrews argues directly against this view.
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will. (Hebrews 2:1 NAU)
The evangelist Ravi Zacharias made an astute observation about miracles in the Bible. Whenever you see the proliferation of the miraculous in an era there are corresponding, and astonishing, judgments. From Moses and the people of Israel to Ananias and Sapphira, God has not changed. If the Church moves in supernatural power today, the standards to which God holds us, especially in this dispensation of grace, are more stringent.
I began by saying the world lives in fear. The one the world should fear is God. The Book of Revelation previews the terrible consequences the world will face on account of irreverence. Even then, when he delivers such fearful judgments, it is so that people will repent and serve him. Like Paul, knowing the terror of God, we must persuade men everywhere (2 Corinthians 5:11 KJV.) In the words of the late American professor Dallas Willard, God is very dangerous but he is definitely not mean.