Thursday, September 25, 2008

Artificial Intimidation and the Real Thing

I read a blog recently that attributed to M. Gandhi the following:

Let the first act of every morning be to make the following resolve for the day:I shall not fear anyone on Earth. I shall fear only God. I shall not bear ill will toward anyone. I shall not submit to injustice from anyone. I shall conquer untruth by truth. And in resisting untruth, I shall put up with all suffering.

What I found interesting, beyond the sheer sagacity of Gandhi’s words, were many responses to these resolutions. Most of them were positive, of course, given Gandhi’s standing among many people of good will. But, some of them were critical of the use of the word 'fear.' They liked the first resolution, not to fear anyone on earth. But, they balked at the second one, mostly with the argument that God is to be loved and not to be feared.

Fear. It appears in two significantly different ways in Scripture: “Fear not,” that oft-repeated phrase; and “Fear God,” also often repeated. Wow. Put those beside one another and the question arises: To fear or not to fear?

It certainly seems like there are two different referents to the word ‘fear.’ In the first case, there is an invitation not to be afraid, but to feel welcomed into the presence of the holy. You remember the phrase “Fear not!” from many Christmas pageants, I’ll bet. That’s because the ancient folk saw angels as more like Ninjas than Fairies. Think about it: they sneak up at night, totally unseen until the just suddenly appear. And, they are just as likely to kill you as to aid you. The word “host” as in “heavenly host” typically is a military reference to a battalion of soldiers. So, some poor schmuck of a shepherd, abiding in a field, suddenly gets accosted by this sneaky, warrior-like creature from the outer-world … well, there’s going to be some serious pant-wetting going on. So, the first word that Ninja/Angel says is “Fear not.” And the shepherd says, “Phew! It’s a good visit, not a bad one. All I have to do now is run home and change, then I can go and see this child that has been born.”

The sense of the word “fear” in the multiple cases of “fear not” seems to be a way of assuring people that God is listening, caring, and responding to their deepest times of need and anxiety. Their fear- while understandable- is inordinate, because God is their sure companion and help.

In the second case, with the phrase “Fear God” in both the Scriptures and in Gandhi’s morning discipline, the word “fear” seems to refer to a proper feeling of utter humility, awe, and wonder at being in the presence of One who is higher than our imaginations can soar, more beautiful than our hearts can bear, beyond good. I know the song is sung to death, and I don’t particularly like the melody, but these words really capture what I think that word ‘fear’ is all about in this second reference:

Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
consider all the worlds thy hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
thy powers throughout the universe displayed.

Now, that’s someone who has gotten a glimpse of sheer glory. And it puts everything else into perspective. Gandhi understood, for example, that when one has this kind of awe and feeling of humility before God, then fear of some human- even some powerful despotic leader who thinks he is God- is abated. One can say, “No, you are not God, you are not power, you are not majesty. You are, perhaps, more powerful than I, but God is all in all.” It is utterly essential for Gandhi’s fear of God to be the ground on which he can say ‘I shall not fear anyone on Earth.’

The deception of Left Behind Theology is that God will somehow abandon the earth, making pseudo-gods and blaspheming powers truly scary. But, as long as God is God, that is a deception that warrants this response: “Fear not!”

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