As a young man growing up in the American south, I heard the phrase “God fearing” a lot. As in, “He’s a God fearing man.”
I think it comes from Psalm 111:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” or its near corollary, Proverbs 1:7: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
So someone who is “God fearing” is someone, presumably, with wisdom or knowledge: who knows better than to sin, or for that matter to do anything that would offend the Almighty.
It’s not really about somebody who loves God, or who has known the love of God in his or her life. It doesn’t suggest confidence, but rather anxiety. To be God fearing suggests not really knowing if you’ve pleased God or not, so you need to make sure you don’t do the slightest thing that might displease him (and I do mean “him,” — all the rhetoric of fearing God seems to be intimately bound up with a male-gendered way of talking and thinking about God).
Now, I am all for people making choices in their lives that reflect spiritual wisdom rather than narcissistic sin. But I know that I grew up with an idea of God that was, frankly, kind of scary. I saw God as wrathful, punishing, angry, and quick to condemn. I had no problem being afraid of that God. But I sure wasn’t about to love him, either.
I’ve come across spiritual writers over the years who have tried to deconstruct the word in the Hebrew Bible that gets translated as “fear” — yirah — suggesting that it ought to be understood not as angst or dread, but rather should be seen as denoting awe or reverence. This “fear” is similar to the response we might have when contemplating the mystery of death, or the vastness of the cosmos, or the beauty of nature. The awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Reverence for God is the foundation of knowledge.
That makes a lot of sense, and I am willing to go with it. But still, the word yirah is used over 300 times in the Hebrew Bible, and the vast majority of times it is translated into English as fear. So it seems to me we’ve got it pretty hard-wired into our religious narrative that God is someone we should be scared of.
But then there’s the first letter of John, especially the fourth chapter.
That’s the chapter where John says, more than once, that “God is Love.” And then, in verses 18 and 19, he really pulls out a zinger:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.
As Neo in The Matrix would say: “Whoa!”
So the fear/awe/respect of God represent the beginning of knowledge and wisdom — but if I’m reading John correctly, it’s only the beginning. Because ultimately, love casts out fear, and when we are perfected in love, we have a relationship with God that is based not on fear (or punishment), but on giving back the love which has already been given to us.
There’s a kind of basic logic here. We know that early human cultures (including Hebrew culture) often related to God (or the gods) in terms of sacrifice and propitiation. In other words, humans made offerings to the gods, trying to buy them off, so to speak. We made offerings to secure good fortune, or a bountiful harvest, or to ward off evil. We bargained with God (or the gods). Our relationship with Divinity was grounded in fear. We had to perform the right rituals or make the right sacrifices — or else.
But even in the scope of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) we see that the understanding of God — and God’s dealings with humanity — evolves. Perhaps the watershed moment comes in the prophetic writings, where we see verses like Hosea 6:6: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” and Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
So even if we begin with fear, awe, reference, a kind of holy dread which recognizes that God is a whole lot bigger than we are — Biblical spirituality seems to suggest that we don’t drop anchor there; but that we move from being God fearing to a place of God loving where the heart of spirituality is not fear or sacrifice, but is love, justice, mercy, kindness, humility, and knowledge of God (all of which sounds mighty contemplative to me).
But if this is the trajectory of spiritual development, then why did we praise people for being “God fearing”? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to laud someone for being “God loving”?
This brings me to the point of today’s post. It occurs to me that, even though the heart of Christian spirituality is the love of God, many people remain stuck in fearing a God who punishes, rather than trusting a God who loves.
God is a mystery. God is bigger than human language, human thought, human imagination. So we all, all of us, relate to God through images of God, which we either concoct on our own or inherit from our families, churches, or even society at large.
Everyone — even agnostics and atheists — has an image of God (just because you don’t believe doesn’t mean you don’t have a mental image about the God you don’t believe in). Our image of God shapes how we think about God, how we understand religion, our understanding of ethics and morality, and yes, our spirituality. It shapes how we pray (if we pray), and how we approach meditation, contemplation, and mysticism.
If you have an image of God that is anchored in fear — fear of a God who punishes, who condemns sinners, who is angry at those who disobey in even the smallest of ways — then this will shape every aspect of your identity and behavior as a person of faith. And you will be communicating, consciously or unconsciously, with everyone you come into contact with, that you fear a God who is fearful.
Chances are, you will try to control other people, for no other reason then your belief that if they don’t shape up, they will face the wrath of the punishing God. So, in a rather twisted way, your attempts to control other people is your way of showing you care. Of course, most people don’t want to be controlled, and will respond to your efforts to control them by trying to put as much distance between you and them as possible.
But does your image of God have to be so fearful? So punishing? So… wrathful? Sure, you can point to plenty of Bible passages that promote precisely that kind of God-image. I know they’re there. But to every one of them, I reply, “I John 4:18-19.” When we settle for a fear-based image of God, our love is not yet perfected. We still have some growing to do, some learning to do, some maturing to do. We need to truly discover God’s vast and lavish love for us — so that we can in turn love God back, and love others, and even love ourselves and our enemies.
I am convinced that when a person’s image of God is anchored in fear, he or she is handicapped when it comes to love. They don’t do a very good job at loving God, their neighbors, themselves, or (especially) their enemies. They might love some — even the world’s greatest sinners still were capable of some degree of loving. But it’s a limited love, a broken love. It’s not grounded in the love that flows to us from God, enabling and empowering us to love.
I don’t want to overstate this distinction. A spirituality grounded in the love of God is not an “anything goes” spirituality, where rules no longer matter and morality is abandoned. Far from it! But when spirituality and faith are grounded in the love of God rather than the fear of God, then what naturally follows is a morality and a way of life that is likewise grounded in love. From our sexual behavior to our dealings with money to the way we relate to people who are different from ourselves, our choices and commitments will be anchored in love. Which is to say, anchored in compassion, in justice, in mercy, in forgiveness, in peace and joy and kindness. We will still live by an understanding of right and wrong. But we will be motivated by the love of the good, not fear of the evil.
So my friends — how is your image of God? Maybe most of us have messy and sometimes even contradictory images of God, blending elements of fear and elements of love together. Perhaps this is something to reflect on in your own spiritual practice. How is your image of God? What can you do to retire your fear, and foster your love — knowing that the love you share comes from the love that God has given you?
I invite you to pray about your image of God. And to ask God to bless you with an image that is grounded and anchored in love.