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To Live in Beautiful Fear

“Fear seized them all, and they glorified God" (Luke 7:16).

I doubt there is a biblical concept harder for modern men to grasp than “fear of God.” It is often glossed over as simply meaning ‘awe,’ but that is not satisfying. What does awe mean in the first place, or to be seized by awe? Does the word ‘fear’ imply something not found in awe? I believe so.

A funeral procession was leaving the city when they encountered Christ. It was a dark moment. Christ heals a lot of wounded people, but this miracle is unique. It is so piercingly bleak, heart rending. A young boy lies dead in an open coffin. He was in the flower of his youth, young, sprightly, promising, and hopeful. Now he is pale and lifeless. His mother is weeping, a widow, alone, and abandoned.

This procession parallels closely with our modern, nihilistic culture — a society of death. You can always evaluate the amount of despair in a culture by its degree of hedonism. The catch phrase, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll is not a sign of jubilation. It is an indication of depression, a culture so hurt and empty that its youth are desperate to escape reality. But it is an antiquated phrase now — so “1960’s.” We have moved farther down the rabbit hole.

I heard recently that there is hardly any punk scene anymore. This is a tragedy. The punks, with their mohawks and screamo, represented the psyche of our culture, which recognized that something was wrong. With their drums and guitars, they were crying out for life, for meaningfulness, in a world that had become plastic. But there are no more punks today, or very few. The punk scene is phasing out. What happened? Younger generations are too successfully distracted now to make good punks; they are too buried in their iPhones and social media. We have our drugs. We do not need to feel anymore.

This is the scene into which Jesus Christ walks — despair.

Then what happens?

“He came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them" (Luke 7:14-16).

“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you . . . and put breath in you, you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:5-6).

Christ touched death and breathed into death life. The boy rose from the dead. The mother woke from her stupor, her grief became joy, her despair became wonder.

“Fear seized them all, and they glorified God" (Luke 7:16).

What is this fear? We have seen what despair looks like? That funeral procession embodied it. But all that changed. They were seized with fear and overwhelmed with worship? This is the new life Christ brought to the world.

Ἔλαβεν δὲ φόβος πάντας καὶ ἐδόξαζον τὸν Θεὸν

They were seized with φόβος.

The Ancient Greeks believed φόβος (fear) to be a deity, and the son of Ares, god of war. They associated φόβος with aversion, the desire to run away when faced with death. The same word took on a new meaning with time, similar, but totally different — awe, reverence, and wonder. We like to say these words, but we may understand them less than the word ‘fear.’

Our world today is obsessed with comfort. We do not like mystery so much. We want everything spelled out, with a warning label, and easily accessible. We want to feel in control. But φόβος, fear of God, has nothing of this. Awe is closer to fear than we might like, because it implies recognizing a presence, infinitely bigger than us, infinitely more powerful and overwhelming, good, beautiful, but also terrifying, as an enormous wave about to crash down.

Imagine standing in a dark room. You are told that somewhere in that room there is a tiger. You would be afraid. Now imagine standing in that same room, and being told that there is a ghost. If you believed it, you would also be afraid, but in a different kind of way. A tiger is one thing. A ghost is another. The tiger implies sharp claws. The ghost implies another world, a world beneath a veil, eternity, soul, mystery. Now imagine being told that you are in a room with a mighty Spirit. C. S. Lewis suggests: “You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of a prostration before it.” This is what fear of God means.

The German theologian, Rudolf Otto, used the word ‘numinous’ to describe fear of God. The word comes from the Latin ‘numen,’ meaning a “deity” or “spirit,” and implies being caught up in a mystery both terrifying and fascinating.

“The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude . . . It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of — whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all” — Otto writes.

In that wonderful book, The Wind and the Willow, Rat and Mole were drifting along the stream when they encountered the forest spirit. “‘Rat,’ [Mole] found breath to whisper, shaking, ‘Are you afraid?’ ‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid? Of Him? O, never, never! And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid.’”

Fear means being shaken up by the numinous, being overwhelmed by the colossal gravity of something Other. Part of you wants to flee; another part to cling and adore.

Fear of God implies dread with hope, humility and boldness, wonder and love.

“Fear seized them all, and they glorified God" (Luke 7:16).

Jesus Christ walked into a scene of darkness outside the gates of Nain. Our Gospel begins in dread, and ends in awe.

This is the Christian life, to be awake, no longer like the funeral procession, but overwhelmed with adoration.

“Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling" (Psalm 2:11)

“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up . . . walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31).

Christianity remains paper thin until touched with the numinous — joy with trembling.

But we are modernists, are we not? We look at the universe through secular lenses, all atoms, or chemistry, or politics. The wonder we lived in as children was beaten out of us in grade school, and then starved by our television shows. Was it not?

Or is there a hope that we can wake up, a chance that we can live seized in a beautiful fear of God?

Everything depends on this.

Look up!


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