Loving God, Fearing God Can we really do both at the same time?

Loving God, Fearing God
Can we really do both at the same time?
Paul Thigpen

© 2003 by Paul Thigpen


In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – that wonderful first Chronicle of Narnia by C. S. Lewis — some children and their beaver friends come upon the lion Aslan for the first time. The sight of this great and glorious golden beast, a symbol of Christ, strikes terror in their hearts even as they fall in love with him.

"People … sometimes think," Lewis comments on that moment, "that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now."

The good and the terrible; something worthy of love and something worthy of fear. Can they be one and the same? Or are fear and love always mutually exclusive? More specifically, can we love God and fear God at the same time?

The familiar text from St. John's first epistle comes immediately to mind: "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love" (1 Jn 4:18).

At the same time, however, the Scripture in numerous other places commands us both to love God and to fear Him. In the Old Testament, for example, Moses insists that our love for God must be total: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Dt 6:5). Yet just a few lines later, he adds: "Fear the Lord your God, serve Him only" (v. 13).

If we're tempted to think that the command to fear was a passing element of the Mosaic law, destined to fade away with the New Covenant of grace, we need only listen to the instruction of our Lord Jesus Himself. He repeated the exhortation of Moses about loving God with all we are (see Mt 22:37), but He also warned sternly: "I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after the killing of the body, has the power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him" (Lk 12:5).

So we have a biblical dilemma: If perfect love casts out fear, how can we fulfill the commands both to love God perfectly and to fear Him? The answer lies in understanding first what we mean by love and fear.

Movements of the Will

Ancient Christian writers — in particular, St. Augustine — often spoke of love and fear as opposite movements of the will. The will, of course, is that faculty of the soul by which we choose and act on our choices. From this perspective, to say that we love something is to say that our will is attracted to it, that our soul chooses it, "reaches out" for it, or is drawn to it as something desirable. On the other hand, to say that we fear something is to say that our will is repelled by it, that our soul has an aversion to it and shrinks back from it as something intimidating or undesirable.

This imagery of motion drew in part from biblical language. The Old Testament uses the term "heart" to mean "will," and when the Hebrew writers speak of loving and obeying God, they refer to a heart turned toward God or a soul attracted to God (see, for example, Ps 42:1-2, 1 Ki 8:47-8). When describing terror, on the other hand, they write of a heart that falters, melts away or in some other way shrinks back from what it fears (Is 21:4; Ps 22:14).

In this view, then, to love God is to see Him as good and thus desirable, and to act according to that desire. To love Him perfectly is to see Him as the greatest Good, the source of all Good, and thus to desire Him above all else and to act accordingly.

Why Fear God?

If we find God desirable, then, why would we shrink back from Him in fear? What would it be about Him that, even as He attracts us by the beauty of His goodness, also repels us as intimidating?

It's certainly true that we sometimes have false views of God, creating in us a groundless, unhealthy fear. "I knew you are a hard man," said the servant to the master in Christ's parable, and his misperception led him to bury his talent (see Mt 25:24-25). In a similar way, I've known Christians so terrified that God will condemn them for anything less than perfection that they've given up trying to live the Christian life altogether.

Even so, since we're commanded to fear God, there must be something about Him that genuinely calls for a response of restraint: of shrinking back, of stopping short, of corralling our desires and our actions in accordance with what we know about Him. The Scripture and ancient Christian writers identify several such divine traits that make Him, as Lewis said, both "good and terrible at the same time":

1. We fear God's superlative attributes as our Creator because we are mere creatures. I could never forget the first time I ever stood beside Niagara Falls. I was awestruck by the sheer immensity and raw energy of that natural wonder. Though I wasn't really in any danger of falling in from where I stood, nevertheless my heart pounded with fear just to be in such close proximity to something so big, so powerful, that dwarfed me by comparison and was capable of crushing me as if I were a tiny, brittle leaf.

Niagara, of course, is a little droplet in the hand of the One who spun the galaxies out across the heavens. So how much more should our hearts pound with fear in His presence? We're only grains of sand on the shore of His infinity, fleeting seconds in His eternity. He is utterly greater than all the greatness we've ever witnessed, fantastically more powerful than all the powers we've ever encountered, inconceivably more intelligent than all the most brilliant minds we've ever known or known about.

Scriptural examples of this natural fear of God are plentiful. At Sinai, the Israelites trembled at the fearsome power of God's presence (see Ex 19:16-19). When God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind of a fearsome storm, He challenged the frightened man with these sobering words:

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? … Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place …? Can you loose the cords of Orion? … Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? (Job 38:4, 12, 31, 35)

Job's reply provides us a useful lesson: "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. … Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (42:3, 6).

Like Job, we must learn that this kind of fear of God — a natural fear of the Creator by the creature — is healthy for us because it humbles us. It reminds us who we are by reminding us who we are not: The Boss. The universe does not revolve around us. We are not omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, or omni-anything. We have limits. He does not.

No wonder, then, that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Pr 9:10). It teaches us who God truly is and who we truly are.

2. We fear God's utter holiness because we are sinful. Sin is a disorder in our souls — a stain, a rust, a scratch in the substance of who we are. When we come into the presence of a God who is wholly without such disorder, such corruption, we find the encounter jarring, even painful.

Why? Because when holiness meets sin, it "burns"; our God is a "consuming fire" (Dt 4:24; Heb 12:29). When we encounter Him, His order begins rearranging and correcting our disorder. His purity begins bleaching our stain. His wholeness begins rubbing against our rust and scratches, to make "the rough ways smooth" (Lk 3:5).

Ancient Christian teachers compared this reality to the encounter of a diseased eye with brilliant light. The eye is made to see the light, but because of the eye's disordered condition, the light causes it pain. Nevertheless, if the eye will endure the pain and not turn away, the light will ultimately heal the disease.

We fear God because we fear the pain caused by the light of His holiness. His very presence provokes in us a discomfort; as it was for Isaiah in the temple, when we stand before a God who is "holy, holy, holy," our sinfulness makes us cry out, "Woe to me!" (see Is 6:1-5). But once again, the fear is healthy; it's a sign that we're standing in the Light, which is the source of our healing, and the flaming coals of God's righteousness can burn us clean.

3. We fear God's justice, because we deserve punishment and need chastisement. When we first learn the truth that there is a just God who "comes to judge the earth" (Ps 98:9), we fear Him, for we know we're guilty. We rightly have "a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God" (Heb 10:27). Such was the fear that prompted three thousand listeners to be baptized after the Apostle Peter's Pentecost sermon, which ended with a warning of judgment (see Acts 2:14-41). It can be healthy if it spurs sinners to repent and seek forgiveness. If fear drives people away from hell, it can drive them straight into the arms of God.

Even after we become Christians, if we read the biblical accounts of the ancient nation of Israel we soon discover that the Lord often chastises His children in order to help them grow spiritually. I'm reminded of my own daughter's toddler years: Her occasional serious misbehavior used to provoke a few corrective pops on the rump from my wife's wooden cooking spoon. The spoon sat out in full view in a jar on the kitchen counter, and I still recall how thoughtful my little girl looked whenever she passed by it.

In much the same way, sometimes when I misbehave, I see God's spoon coming. It may be the chastisement of shame from having my failings revealed to others. It may be the damaging effects on family relationships caused by my impatience or insensitivity. However the chastisement appears, it's God's way of getting me back in line and calling me to grow up. And the next time I'm tempted to sin the same way, I fear that divine "spoon," and it increases my motivation to do the right thing.

This kind of fear, then, like the others, is our ally. "Through the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil" (Pr 16:6); it's a fence to keep us from trespassing.

Fear and Love

In all these ways, the fear of God is obviously a great good, even a necessity for the spiritual life. So we must return to our original question: How is this fear compatible with the love of God, and how does love "cast out" fear?

First, we must recognize that in the course of obeying God as a result of fear, we come to know Him more deeply: Jesus promised that if we obey His commands, He would show Himself to us (see Jn 14:21). As we imitate God's ways, we ourselves become like Him, and that allows us to recognize Him for who He is, to understand and appreciate Him more.

Once we know God more intimately, we discover all those things in Him that are so desirable, so attractive — the things for which we, like King David, pant and thirst (see Ps 42:1-2). Our soul reaches out to the goodness of the Lord, a compelling Beauty (see Ps 27:4) that draws us to Him in love. In time, that love grows until it overwhelms the fear.

In a sense, the fear is displaced. St. Catherine of Siena echoed the thoughts of many Christians before her when she observed that fear of God begins as the fear of servants toward their master — the fear of punishment. But as love grows, in time we learn instead the fear of friends — that is, fear that something will damage our relationship. We are repelled by whatever would come between us, because we've come to love God for Himself. As St. Catherine pointed out, at the Last Supper Jesus described the growth in their relationship with Him in such terms: "I no longer call you servants … Instead, I have called you friends" (Jn 15:15).

Meanwhile, the more that fear of God teaches us about ourselves — the more we know our limitations, our sinfulness and the fate we deserve — the more we come to love God for His surpassing mercy and grace. The more holy we become through obedience, the less terrifying His holiness becomes; instead, it appears more attractive to us, more "lovable." Finally, the more we obey, the less we need fear the chastisements of God's justice; this is the specific kind of fear St. John writes about, the fear that "has to do with punishment," which is "cast out" by love (1 Jn 4:18).

To sum up, we might use the homespun image offered by St. Augustine: A needle pierces cloth but brings the thread behind it, and when the needle is gone, the thread is left behind. Thus the needle makes room for the thread.

Fear of God is a needle, he concluded, and love of God is a thread. The fear pierces the heart painfully, but it makes a place for the love, and when the fear has gone, the love remains.

From Chill to Thrill

Does any kind of fear of God stay in our hearts? Certainly in the ebb and flow of our earthly progress in the spiritual life, before we reach perfection in heaven, we live from day to day in a varying mix of fear and love toward God. Yet even in eternity, I'm convinced, we'll never become so familiar with God that we totally lose that "primal" fear of the creature before the Creator, that natural and fitting awe in response to His awesomeness. That particular fear, however, will come to be joined to our love in such a way that the love will actually be transformed by it.

When my son was a preschooler, I used to chase him around the house as a game, roaring like a lion. Being a small child, he felt a genuine chill of fear — Daddy was indeed bigger, faster, stronger and (maybe a little) smarter than he was. But when Daddy finally caught him, scooped him up in his arms, and held him tight in a big, growling, loving hug, the little boy squealed with delight. His fear was one with his love, and that love was heightened and sharpened by the fear.

The creepy chill had become an exquisite thrill. Just imagine, my son exulted; this person who is so terrifyingly big and strong and fast and smart is the same one who loves me and wants me close!

And so it is with God.

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