The Fear of God

Some might remember the “Buddy Christ.” In the movie, “Dogma” there is a campaign to renew interest in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Glick (played by George Carlin) says the crucified Christ and the crucifix are “wholly depressing.” Instead we need a “Buddy Christ,” with a statue of Jesus smiling and winking who points at onlookers with one hand and gives the thumbs-up sign with the other. The vacuous quality of much contemporary Christianity and its constant emphasis upon “uplift” and “being positive” and “claiming your blessings,” is adeptly skewered by the “Buddy Christ.”

I thought about this “Buddy Christ” when in prayer on Monday I came across this line, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). Raised on post-Vatican II Catholicism, I was spared an earlier generations’ emphasis upon fearing God. Instead I got a steady dose of how God loves each of us. It was not quite “Buddy Christ” but it came close sometimes. “Kumbayah” is not “Dies Irae.”

Does an emphasis upon fear of the Lord have to lead to “sinners in the hands of an angry God” like Jonathan Edwards preached long ago? Is our only other option pietistic pablum?

This week at Manna House when guests asked for the Word of the Day, I shared this Psalm passage, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

The first guest who heard this asked, “What does that mean?” Good question, which deserved a good response, “I don’t know for sure. What do you think?”

A guest jumped in to tell us. “You gotta show respect for God. He’s bigger than any of us.”

Other guests connected the fear of God to not fearing others. “To fear God is to not fear anyone or anything else” said one. “If you fear God no one can make you afraid. So you’ll do right and nobody can make you do wrong” he continued. “God won’t leave you alone; just hold on and you’ll be alright.”

“There’s a lot to be afraid of on the streets,” added another, “people jump you, cops get after you. The cold wears you down. It can be crazy out there. They try to make you afraid, but I ain’t scared. God’s got my back. When I walk down the street, there’s people trying to get me to do wrong. When I fear God, I don’t fear them. So I don’t do wrong.”

Still one more offered, “I don’t trust too many people. God I can trust. God don’t let me down. Fearing God I fear no man. God’s got me covered, just like he covered Jesus.”

I was starting to see how the fear of God depends upon appreciating the power of God for good, and the power of God standing against other powers. This fear of God is no ordinary fear; it is an empowering fear.

“I don’t think fearing God is being afraid of God’ said another guest. “God’s not out to get me. Fearing God means listening, doing what God says. When you do that God sticks with you.”

At the end of the conversation one guest urged a different translation. Instead of using the word “fear” he suggested we use the word “awe.”

“If you fear God that means God loves you and you are in awe of God for that. I’d go with ‘awe’ rather than ‘fear’ because a lot of people think ‘fear’ means being afraid God’s gonna do something bad to you. God doesn’t do bad things to people; that’s the devil.”

That took me back to the “Buddy Christ.” Some people think God crucified Christ. They emphasize how God (a horrible judge to be feared) punished Christ for our sins. The “Buddy Christ” goes to the opposite extreme. Neither sin nor the cost of confronting sin are taken seriously. But the guests at Manna House know something about sin, not only their own, but the sin of being deprived of housing and healthcare and jobs and respect. Their God has the power to take on that evil and overturns the power of sin and death, resurrecting Jesus. That kind of God demands respect. That kind of God is awesome.

“It’s just smart to fear God if you know who God is” said a wise guest.

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