Monday, February 20, 2006

Fear or Mercy?

I recently received an email from a good friend of mine, in which he posed several interesting questions. They are, in fact, questions that I think many Christians wrestle with at some point in their journey. The basic question boils down to whether we serve God out of love for Him, or fear of Him. My short answer would be ... yes. All kidding aside, I often find that the questions we posit as "either/or" are actually "and." And I also believe that this dichotomy between the fear of God on one hand and the love of God on the other, is somehow a product of the juridical view of Christianity that emerged from medieval scholasticsm in the Christian West. The tension that exists between the two views is not one found in scripture, nor in the life of the early church, nor (as I can tell) in the Christian East. That being said, my friend's letter is attached below, in its entirety. I will respond at the end, and encourage other (and more learned) input. (S-P, that means you!)

My friend writes, as follows:

Why should we fear God? My answer to this may be readily obvious to someone that was raised in church or conducted more study on the matter. But it came to me when I was reading Psalm 103, where there is both praise for God’s mercy and warning of God’s anger and punishment. This has always been a confusing point for me. I think of God as merciful and loving, so fearing God has always seemed unnatural. I think it is commonly taught that we will be punished for our sins. This makes God seem spiteful and revengeful. Here, I would like your comments on the subject. Below is the thought that I had. Basically, I think there is a bad Public Relations job being done. We should have faith because Jesus is the Light and the Truth, and we have an eternal gift awaiting us. It shouldn’t be that we are afraid of the church and faith in general because we may be punished for our sins. “Jesus shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” I think people use this “judgment” to attempt to conform people to their way of thinking or acting, and then say we should fear God’s judgment. Unlike us, the holy trinity is not revengeful. I would say that mercy and forgiveness of sins are the staples of the Lord’s judgment, not pain and punishment. I am taking a glass is half full approach. We are judged to receive eternal life, we are not judged to be damned to hell.

We fear God because of his Mercy!

God has granted us the possibility of eternal life which is greater and to be more valued than any experience on earth. However, to obtain this life we must have at the very least faith. Psalm 103:10 “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities.” If I am to be given eternal life then this is an understatement. I am flawed, I continue sin, but I still live in hope of salvation and fear of my own transgressions. However, I do not fear god, for he is merciful. I fear my own actions and short comings, and hope that I may be forgiven.

If God did not have forgiveness and did not show mercy, there would be no need to fear him. If we were judged on our acts there would be no one spared. Without mercy we would be lost. If you reach a place where there is no hope then we loose accountability for our actions and thoughts.

I have said all of this to ask a question: Do you fear God, and if so, why?

I will start by answering my friend's initial and concluding question. I fear God because He is God and I am not. As a created being, I fear my Creator, who is Uncreated.

Psalm 103 is one of the best! And yes, the Psalmist does speak (a bit) of God's anger, but the psalm is overwhelmingly tilted towards the mercy and goodness and love of God. In fact, in reference to anger, he is said to be "slow to anger." So the main thrust of Psalm 103 is the mercy and goodness of God.

I think of God as merciful and loving, so fearing God has always seemed unnatural. Well, I think of God as merciful and loving, as well, but it doesn't follow then that fearing God would be "unnatural." I view it as the most natural thing in the world. What is "unnatural" is the lack of fear of God. In the West, in years past, a popular conception of God was that of a temperamental, almost capricious judge, who could be angered and who exacted punishment from those who went astray. Evidence of this mentality is not hard to find. Just read the papers after any disaster, and some televangelist will by running off their mouth as to how this was the punishment of God for (fill in the blank). Also, my Protestant and Catholic friends will have to bear with me on this point. I'm not picking on "the West," but I frankly do not find this mindset in the Christian East. I think we err when we ascribe human emotions to God. Within the language of scripture, licence is taken from time to time to make the point understandable to our feeble intellects. But we know that God is unchanging. And we know that God is Love. The believer basks in the glorious light of God and receives nourishment from it. To the one who turns his back on God, this same light is blinding and burning. So, I really don't see the tension between a loving God and fearing God. God is Love. I love Him because of His love for me. But, as the creature, in light of my own unworthiness, I fear the overwhelming awe of Who He Is. But this is a different "fear" than the fear I would have if I believed that when (not if) I screw-up today, He is gonna zap me!

I think it is commonly taught that we will be punished for our sins. This makes God seem spiteful and revengeful. -- Yep, this idea is unfortunate. It is as though we have made God in OUR image. But again, I believe it goes hand in hand with a juridical view of salvation, as opposed to viewing salvation as a healing.

we are not judged to be damned to hell. --- Well, we damn ourselves.

“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities.” These 2 lines are some of the most comforting in all of scripture. I also like the line from Psalm 130--"If You, O Lord would mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?" Believe, me I need to hear verses like this! And I agree with your closing comments about mercy, but I would hesitate to say "I do not fear God, for he is merciful." I cling to the mercy of God--for like you said, "I fear my own actions and short comings"--but, but, but to me, the fear of God is just the other side of the same coin. Yes, I love Him because He first loved me. But, in light of the fact that I'm pretty unlovable, in light of the only dim conception I have of Who He Is, and the very vivid realization of exactly who I am and who I am not; I fear Him. I love Him. It's all the same to me.

Now, somebody help me out with this.....


Jared Cramer said...

I love the Orthodox image of salvation as healing or "Divine Therapy."

I wrote a post about this a while back:

Salvation as Divine Therapy

Good thoughts on fear, the East has got it right on that one too. Though Anglicanism certainly doesn't have the capricious judge image, our image is rather shallow and not as deep as the Orthodox image.

John said...

Yep. The Orthodox image of salvation as a spiritual healing has made all the difference in the world in how I live out my life of faith from day to day.

Thanks for the link to your post. I have heard Vigor Giroian and have one of his books, but have not read the essay you referenced. I particularly liked your closing paragaph, which I have copied, below.

"Our illness of sin is indeed understood as an offense against God, but the state of sin is an illness that mortally weakens the patient. Through the sacraments, God’s nature becomes a part of our nature, healing our very being of our disease of sin: our human defect. We are healed and brought into the divine nature. By dying a death for us and being resurrected bodily, Christ provided a way of salvation for us. We die with Jesus, we submit ourselves to his care through the cross as an image of divine love. This salvation heals us. It is the cure for our moral and physical sickness. But it is more than that. It is also the source of eternal life for us."

s-p said...

You must have some time on your hands lately... :) I've been working 14 hour days this past week and am catching up on blogs... I'll have to post something when I can think. But nice posts lately all around.