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Witness Protection Program

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I don’t think of myself as a strong witness for Christ. When I’m among people who are likely unbelievers, I tend to play it safe when the topic turns to religion. There are a number of reasons for this. Partly, it’s just habit. I’ve grown used to avoiding religion discussions. When I was a child, I didn’t want to be labeled. In fact, I had an inordinate fear of it after being ridiculed as a pansy or a goody-goody. As I matured, this fear turned into an unwillingness to be misunderstood. I would remain silent because I thought the people I was with would not understand what I said.

How unlike Jesus! He repeatedly said things that confused not only his opponents but also his closest followers. When religious leaders asked him by what authority he drove merchants and bankers from the temple grounds, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again.” The leaders were taken aback. The temple had been under construction for almost 50 years, how could this man claim to be able to rebuild it in only three days? On another occasion, he told his listeners that they would have to eat his body and drink his blood. “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink,” he explained. Talk about saying things that were ripe for misinterpretation! Yet Jesus said nothing to clarify his meaning.

What was the result? The Jews called him a crazy bastard. They vilified him. He was labeled and called names. He didn’t seem to care.

One thing I’ve recently noticed, however, is that I don’t have a problem discussing religion online. In person I shy away from religious discussion, but on my blog and in my Facebook posts I often choose religious topics. I’m not sure why. I know, for example, that people are often less civil online than in the real world. But talking God-talk online is somehow easier than in real life.

Perhaps it is the perceived distance. Even though hardly anyone reads my blog except friends and family—at least as far as I’ve been able to determine—I have the sense that when I commit words to the ether that anyone who reads them is far away, separated from me by a virtual chasm that cannot be crossed. Perhaps it is that written words can be meticulously crafted. When a topic comes up in conversation, I may be glib, but I cannot be well-researched. Whatever the reason, I feel somehow safer expressing my views online than I do in person. Being online acts for me as a kind of witness protection program, giving me a comforting illusion of safety.

I consider this a flaw in my character. I need to be the same person in real life as I am online.

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Love and Fear II

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After the last post on Love and Fear, I got several comments on my Facebook page. One from my niece, Raine,  raised some interesting questions. She wrote:

What a lot of facets of love and fear!

Chad says that God only desires obedience because obedience is the end-result of love (at least, I think that’s what he’s saying). This doesn’t make sense to me. At all. It seems to me that by saying that he is saying that the things that God requires of us, the things that we are to obey are then also beside the point. That those things don’t exist for their own sake, because they are right and wrong, and God is a righteous and just God. But that those things then are only a way of proving love.

Chad also says, “However, this is my experience of obedience that is gained by fear: it is half-assed. I see it all the time in the soldiers under me. If they are given a task they do not wish to complete, they may not moan or gripe. Instead they do the minimum. They fulfill the letter and only the letter of the orders they are given. As I understand it, Jesus urged us to look to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. This type of obedience can only come from someone who is acting out of something more than fear.”

In my experience, as a child when I did something out of fear of punishment, I did it far more diligently then when I did it simply out of a sense of obligation. I was completely thorough, knowing that my work would be inspected.

I would still be afraid to do the minimum in a situation where I am obeying out of fear, unless that minimum was a clearly defined, easily pin-pointed line. I would be afraid that my minimum wouldn’t be quite enough to avoid punishment.

But besides that, in a situation where someone is doing the minimum required to avoid punishment all the punisher has to do to get more out of them is raise that standard. God’s standard is perfection. God’s standard is obeying the spirit of the law not just the letter.

It seems to me that Chad is talking about a disrespectful fear, a fear where the person who is afraid does not like or respect the person they fear, and they are internally rebelling (and externally rebelling as far as they think they can get away with). This probably happens a lot amongst us humans. However, I do not see how anyone could fear and disrespect God. Doesn’t fear of God inspire great respect? We know that God is omniscient; if we fear him, we must respect him, because we cannot be disrespectful behind his back or internally. Fear of God requires respect. Fear and respect require complete obedience. Complete obedience means doing everything good and everything right.

Maybe the problem is that people do not have enough fear of God. They think that because of grace they don’t have to try as hard as they should, that they can get away with doing wrong and still be forgiven. More fear would overcome this problem; more fear would inspire more obedience, more obedience would inspire more love (because obedience necessarily requires a deeper and deeper knowledge of and relationship with God; you cannot obey God without getting to know him more, and you cannot know him more without loving him more) and as love became perfected, fear would no longer be necessary.

My last thing has to do with Chad’s first paragraph which talks about love of oneself being the basic human condition. This brings to mind a question that I have long had. The Bible says (in Ephesians 5:29) that no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it. But aren’t there a lot of people who hate themselves? And a lot of people who starve themselves or cut themselves or engage in other self-harming behaviors? I guess I must be missing something; I’m just not sure what.

I’ll start with the last question first. When Paul says that no one ever hated his own body, he is talking about common experience, not about pathologies. People who engage in self-destructive behaviors would probably have been regarded as demon-possessed in Paul’s day. In fact, Mark tells us that the Gadarene demoniac “would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). Yet even such a man retained a desire for his own comfort and happiness. Pascal wrote that all men seek happiness. Everyone does things that are consistent with what they believe will lead to their own happiness or lessen their pain. Those who starve or cut themselves are often attempting to alleviate some intense emotional pain through self-inflicted physical pain.

With regard to Raine’s comments on love and fear, I think she gets it exactly right. In fact, I would argue that fear without respect is not really fear at all. The “half-assed obedience” Chad talks about comes from insufficient fear. If his soldier were really afraid of disobeying, his obedience would not be “half-assed.” It would be meticulous.

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Love and Fear

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My last blog provoked a response from my son, Chad. He wrote:

I found this in a book called Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, and I think it applies well to many things in our lives both as men and as Christians—perhaps there is very little difference between the two.

In the book this is part of an ongoing dialogue about the nature of fear and of true nobility.

“When I first came to Lakedaemon and they called me ‘Suicide,’ I hated it. But in time I came to see it’s wisdom, unintentional as it was. For what can be more noble than to slay oneself? Not literally. Not with a blade in the guts. But to extinguish the selfish self within, that part which looks only to its own preservation, to save its own skin.”

The narrator continues to talk about the motivation for giving up one’s self, which I will not include because their motivation is not entirely the same as ours (although a love for others above oneself does certainly play a role). But the narrator makes the point through the characters that this “giving up of one’s self” is the ultimate defeat of fear.

So going back to your comments about how we need fear to hold us when our imperfect love is not enough. This is undoubtedly true. However, our goal should be to overcome fear. Not through protestations of love but by giving up that which we have to be fearful for: ourselves. Truthfully it is in the submission of ourselves, our desires, and our self interest to God that we best show our love to him. This cannot be done out of fear. It is impossible to be motivated to give up one’s own right to self preservation out of fear for that very preservation. It’s a contradiction.

I don’t think that it is obedience that God desires of us; it is Love. God could force obedience out of fear, but fear does not motivate love. Fear motivates an individual to do the very least he thinks he can do and still get away with it.

I do not know what word the Bible uses for ‘fear’ in Greek, or if there is a better translation. Often when I read in the Bible about the fear of or for God, I think of it more as awe.

I sometimes tell a story about a time I was in a valley surrounded on three sides by an enemy that outnumbered us. When night fell this enemy thought that the fighting was over. They lit fires for their food on the sides of the mountain. We could see the campfires from dozens of enemy positions on both sides of the valley. But with the night came one of our Specter gun ships. There was no moon that night so the bad guys had no idea where the plane was. But with my Night-vision goggles on I could see a giant infrared spotlight come down from the sky onto one of the camp fires. It stayed on them for a few moments and shut off. Fifteen seconds later a 105-mm shell struck the campsite. I’m certain that everyone there was killed. This continued for more than an hour. I am certain that dozens of enemy were killed and wounded that night.

The feeling I had that night was awe at the awesome might of the U. S. military. At that moment we seemed unstoppable. That is the kind of fear I imagine is appropriate to have of God (Just multiply by 100.) It’s not a kind of fear that forces obedience but the kind of fear that acknowledges the awesome and infinite power of God.

Here is my reply:
I think you are right that fear is fundamentally self-centered. Where there is no concern for self, there is no fear. I also agree that God desires our love, but I don’t think I would oppose love and obedience. Jesus told his followers that love would prompt their obedience, essentially, that obedience demonstrates love. When we obey, even in fear of punishment, we demonstrate our love. When I was a child, I obeyed my parents sometimes out of fear, but it was not only fear of punishment; it was fear of disappointing them. It is this fear that I see as the flip side of love. Every love prompts us to hold on to something dear to us, so every love involves us in the fear of losing something precious. Part of loving God is cherishing his good opinion. The flip side of that love is fear of losing his approval.

You wrote that “it is in the submission of ourselves, our desires, and our self interest to God that we best show our love to him.” I do not think that is correct. It seems that you are saying that we demonstrate our love most by sacrifice. Yet when King Saul disobeyed God and chose to sacrifice part of his plunder to God rather than totally destroying everything as God had commanded, Samuel told him, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” In one sense, of course, his obedience demanded greater sacrifice. He did not disobey because he wanted to keep the plunder for himself; it was because he feared the grumbling of his men more than the wrath of God. He hoped to please his men by letting them keep the plunder while appeasing God’s wrath with religious observances. In so doing, he showed contempt for God by valuing his men’s approval more than God’s. That is why Samuel was so outraged and announced that Saul’s kingdom would be torn from him and given to someone else. If you are talking about this greater sacrifice, then I think you are right, but in that case, I don’t see how you can separate it from obedience. The greatest sacrifice is obedience because obedience requires the subjugation of our own desires and reason to the superior design and goodness of God.

I think you are also correct when you say that fear does not motivate love. I agree. My claim goes the other way round. Love motivates fear. Where there is no love, there is no fear. Even the most basic and elemental fears, such as fear of imminent danger, arise from a love of security and safety. Our problem is not fear, but inordinate fear arising out of inordinate love. When we love something—anything—more than we love God, then our loves and fears are out of order, and we fall into all kinds of snares that trap us in sin. That’s why the first of the Ten Commandments is to have no other gods before the Lord. If he is preeminent, then everything else in life falls into place. It’s also why the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Such love engenders a perfectly healthy and appropriate fear of God.

God is awesome. His power is unlimited. We need only look to nature to grasp something of the magnificence of his power. The first time Belinda saw the Grand Canyon, she wept to see its immensity and beauty. Yet the Grand Canyon is little more than a surface scratch on an ordinary planet in a vast universe. There is an appropriate fear of such grandeur, but even that also is a flip side to the love of our own significance.

So if love causes fear, how can it also be that perfect love drives out fear? It’s clear from the context that John is talking about the fear of punishment. Perfect love frees us from the fear of punishment. It also frees us from the fear of disappointing God because love overwhelms fear. Fear is swallowed up in love.

Chad replied:

I think that we must disagree on the definition of Love. When I speak of love, I am talking about a conscious devotion and submission to something other than oneself. This is not the same as infatuation and I would definitely not refer to a “love of security” as love. The reason I don’t include these more basic definitions of love is because to love oneself is the basic human condition. Not only is it human, but it is the way of everything in this world. Every living creature has a survival instinct, and many of the more advanced creatures are capable of feeling and reacting to fear. I hold to my statement that selfishness is all that is required for fear.

As for obedience, I did not mean to oppose obedience and love. However I think one is a symptom and the other the disease. When I say God does not desire our obedience, I mean that God does not ultimately desire our obedience. He desires our obedience because he desires our Love (as previously defined). Obedience comes through submission, through giving up oneself. Had King Saul truly submitted himself—his desires, and his self interest—he would have had no problem with obedience. It would have been his only available course of action. Indeed, it would have been the desire of his heart.

It’s not that love and obedience are opposite. It is that while obedience can be gained by love, it can also be gained by fear (as you first mentioned in your blog). However, this is my experience of obedience that is gained by fear: it is half-assed. I see it all the time in the soldiers under me. If they are given a task they do not wish to complete, they may not moan or gripe. Instead they do the minimum. They fulfill the letter and only the letter of the orders they are given. As I understand it, Jesus urged us to look to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. This type of obedience can only come from someone who is acting out of something more than fear.

Feel free to join the conversation.
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