Fear (Pt. 2) — Our God is ‘To Be Feared’

One of the neglected names of God appears in Psalm 76:11 — maybe it is not one of the hyphenated names, but it is an accurate representation of His character and was a primary way that Israel identified the God that they worshipped.

 Psalm 76

In Judah God is known;
His name is great in Israel.
In Salem also is His tabernacle,
And His dwelling place in Zion.
There He broke the arrows of the bow,
The shield and sword of battle. Selah

You are more glorious and excellent
Than the mountains of prey.
The stouthearted were plundered;
They have sunk into their sleep;
And none of the mighty men have found the use of their hands.
At Your rebuke, O God of Jacob,
Both the chariot and horse were cast into a dead sleep.

You, Yourself, are to be feared;
And who may stand in Your presence
When once You are angry?
You caused judgment to be heard from heaven;
The earth feared and was still,
When God arose to judgment,
To deliver all the oppressed of the earth. Selah

10 Surely the wrath of man shall praise You;
With the remainder of wrath You shall gird Yourself.

11 Make vows to the Lord your God, and pay them;
Let all who are around Him bring presents to Him who ought to be feared.
12 He shall cut off the spirit of princes;
He is awesome to the kings of the earth.

And what is the main reason for fear before Him? He has the power over our eternal destiny. Others may harm us physically and temporarily, but He is the one who can destroy body and soul eternally (Matthew 10:28) Without this sobering reality, we can never fully appreciate the gift of grace we have been given.

Dropping My Guard

People like me often find ourselves in uncomfortable positions. By ‘people like me’ I mean those who fall closer to the honesty end of the honesty/kindness spectrum. As a Christian, I think that both qualities are essential — not just important, essential. Speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15)  is something we all should strive for — and for the vast majority of us, we only get half of it right, half of the time. Either we focus on other people’s reaction so much that we fail to tell the truth, or we tick people off by just being honest for honesty’s sake.

People like me — who value truth highly, who want to be honest, who want to be understood, much more than we want a hug or a compliment — can come off as unsympathetic and unfeeling. But I am writing this to try to illustrate for those on the other end of the spectrum that people like me have feelings too. Your empathy and sensitivity lies on the surface, and you often seem to look at me with questioning eyes, as though you wonder how I could be so callous as to say that. I’m going to try to explain, but you must believe me when I say that I have no incident or individual in mind when I write this. I am speaking from a composite experience over my 60 years of existence. It’s the feelings I want to convey, not any specific situation.

Let’s just start by saying that it’s hard to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. For extroverts, it can be a revelation to realize just how draining it can be for an introvert to spend the whole day schmoozing with clients, and introverts wonder why that guy is stir-crazy if he has to be alone for a few hours. Likewise, this honesty/kindness divide deserves some notice.

So here’s the thing. I’m about to bare my soul, put my real feelings out there, and invite you to judge me and tell me that my feelings are not valid. I get that all the time, but this is important enough for me to stick my chin out again. I feel like I’m climbing out on a limb and handing you the saw.

A big part of my frustration lies in the constant feeling I have that everyone else’s feelings matter, but mine don’t because I appear insensitive. I am constantly being called on to tone it down, be the grownup, and think of ‘where others are at’ and ‘what they can handle’ — the assumption being that I’m doing something wrong if I make anyone uncomfortable. But my plea is for you to try to understand that I am just as uncomfortable in your world as you are in mine. I know that you break out in a sweat when there is disagreement in a discussion. I see you sinking into your seat, wishing someone would just end this… So I usually back off and don’t say all that I think should be said. But for all your empathy, I don’t think you ever notice how uncomfortable I am in your cozy space.

I am dying a little inside every time I have to nod and smile when I don’t fully agree. When I speak, you smile and look like you are listening and then nicely ‘agree’ with me by saying just the opposite. I feel manipulated. I think well enough of you to believe that you are smart enough to know that we don’t actually agree, but for some reason, you are uncomfortable saying that you see things differently. Instead, you prefer to put me in a spot where you have been ‘nice’ and that makes me argumentative if I notice that we’re not saying the same thing and try to have a discussion.

When tension is running high in a group and there are issues, you are the first to try to smooth things over with kind words, food, or a nice social activity meant to bring us together and smooth over the tension. I truly appreciate your concern and initiative. I really mean that. I believe that you are following the Golden Rule and treating me as you would like to be treated, and I appreciate all your good intentions — and it makes me feel bad that I can’t respond ‘the right way.’ I just can’t feel really loved without being listened to, understood, and taken seriously, so just being nice and putting this behind us does not work for me. All that allows me to do is settle into a relationship that will never be unpleasant, but will only be as close as our shallow understanding of each other. I feel held at a distance and that I am not worth the effort to actually listen and understand. Maybe this is a ‘love language’ problem, and we all need to learn to show our love in ways that are meaningful to others. I’m not sure why ‘niceness’ has become the only recognized standard of love and sensitivity.

Sometimes you simply confuse me. You try to make people feel better all the time — and it doesn’t seem to bother you  if you have to bend the truth to do it. For example, you talk about how lazy you are to make a truly lazy person feel better, while you are probably one of the hardest working people I know. I see you think through something and make a good decision based on what you objectively believe is the best course of action — but as soon as there are tears, or outrage, or hurt silence, you back down. I look on wondering what you want me to do. Should I help you stick to your original resolve? Should I trust your new judgment and ignore what you said before? When I want to hold the line, I become the ‘bad cop.’

I wish you could understand my motives in places where I seem hard and inflexible. I wish you could understand my experience. I have gone through things myself. I know that escaping consequences only prolongs the problem. I know that hard truth is worth hearing because it brings deep comfort in the end. I know that healing a wound slightly, leaving a festering sore beneath the surface, only leads to complications that can be fatal. So when I want to lance the wound, my motivation is love, and I truly desire the best for that person. Yes, I can be too zealous — I need your help with my timing, tone of voice (sigh!), and priorities — but I want you to understand that sometimes I am not just being difficult and argumentative. At root, I have a deep desire to see lives change, relationships go deep, and people to be truly free.

 

INDICATIVE v. imperative

 

David Murray wrote this in his review of Sinclair Ferguson’s new book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification — “Ferguson focuses on passages that describe sanctification (the indicative) rather than command it (the imperative).” “This is not so much a ‘how to’ book as it is a ‘how God does it’ one.” His argument is that the New Testament is far more concerned with “shaping our understanding, so that a new life style emerges organically, than it is with techniques.” He is convinced that “a clear understanding of what the gospel is and how it works leads in turn to the development of new affections and a new lifestyle.”

There is something subtly disturbing about this take on sanctification. Indicative and imperative have become real buzzwords, at least in our church circles. The mantra is that indicatives must precede imperatives – and to that I can give a hearty ‘Amen!’ But more and more, it seems that the indicative has become the only aspect of any topic worth talking about, while bringing in an imperative is always met with the suspicion that you are somehow leaving out the over-riding indicative. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am all about the indicatives – salvation by faith, free grace, justification, being in Christ, and don’t forget the new creature that is the new us, and the Holy Spirit who empowers us. But I’m troubled that even after that foundation is laid, we are so reluctant to speak of imperatives. I fear that in recovering the essence of our life in Christ in the indicatives, we have systematically rooted out another just as essential aspect of our Christian life – the necessary fruit of obedience that flows from our position in Christ.

Indicatives and imperatives belong together, and in that order, but they can never be separated. Paul begins most of his epistles with doctrinal statements meant to cement our faith and motivate us to godly living, but Paul doesn’t just assume that if we know the doctrine (indicative), the practice (imperative) will follow. He spells it out – how we should live in the world, in our families, at work, in the church… And Jesus does the same. Consider this story from Mark 2.

And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Jesus first goes to the root of the problem and does that hard work of forgiving sins. This is the paralytic’s deepest need. But forgiveness is hard to see, and I would guess that the paralytic himself, along with Jesus’ critics, questioned his forgiveness and wondered how he could know that what Jesus said was really true. So to encourage the little sprout of faith, Jesus tells him to do something – something he is not able to do in his own power – get up and walk! Amazingly, he did it. And in ‘doing’ faith grew. As well intentioned as we may be in wanting to get the indicatives down first, we have to realize that sanctification is more like stairs than a helicopter ride to the high ground. The foundation is laid in our justification and forgiveness, but our faith grows incrementally with each step of obedience. If we wait to feel perfect assurance before we even try to act, we will never witness the power of God in us as we are enabled to do in His strength what we know is not in the realm of possibility in our own. The paralytic may never have walked if he sat there waiting to be assured about his forgiveness – but when Jesus said ‘walk’ he had the opportunity to see evidence that Jesus was who He said He was and could do what he said He could – Jesus could forgive sins – my sins.

The two big ‘I’ buzzwords – indicative and imperative – are relatively recent developments in the church. The distinction has always been there, of course. Without recognizing Christ’s work for us, it is meaningless to even attempt obedience. Without the new man created in us, walking in the Spirit is out of the question. Without the knowledge that the Body of Christ is one, how can we walk out the unity that visibly demonstrates God’s nature to the world?

But I have a problem with our current handling of this beautiful distinction. It is fashionable to lean so far to the indicative that we totally lose sight of the imperative, which drops off into obscurity or even oblivion. And this, I have concluded, is not by accident – seminarians are taught to always end with the ‘gospel,’ which usually means that you end on the note of what Christ did, not what we should do. The effect of this method is to reverse the order of the indicative-before-imperative model that we give so much lip service to. Our preaching paradigm is fighting our understanding of the relationship of faith (believing the indicatives) and works (carrying out the imperatives). So much preaching goes something like this: We run up on a command (imperative). We say, ‘Oh, but who could ever do that perfectly and in a manner worthy of salvation? No one! But thank God for Jesus who did it all for us, the unstated implication being that we don’t have to seriously try obedience – even if we in fact do have the foundational indicative prereqs – i.e. we are justified, have been made new creatures, are partakers of the divine nature, have the Holy Spirit indwelling us…

I have painted with a broad brush here, but I hope you see my dilemma. Where is there any real place for imperatives if we always rush to affirm the indicatives apart from any evidence of the power of God in our lives? Is there no room for asking God what we should do? Is there any room at all for ‘doing’ in the Christian life? I think so, but it is virtually impossible to talk about it without sounding ‘legalistic.’ The followup questions are always along the lines of ‘but that doesn’t save you, right?’ Of course our works can never save us, but why would someone who has been gloriously saved and forgiven of all his sins not want to do what pleases the one who gave everything for him? Do we believe that God the Father, who created us, and Jesus, the Son who died for us, are so peevish that nothing we could ever do would please them, and there is no point in trying? May it never be. If we believe that lie, we are far from acting like the sons we are.

Let’s not tear apart what God has joined together. When we accept the indicative, it changes us so that we want to obey the imperatives. When we are changed by the indicative, we have power to carry out the imperatives. When the indicatives really get ahold of our heart, we can only respond with abandon. Nothing matters but pleasing the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Join the conversation!

Here at Eye-Opening Faith, my hope is that the bits I share will provoke thought and conversation about faithful Christian living — honoring God by responding in faith to whatever life throws at us, whatever puzzling scripture catches our attention, and whatever unanswered questions plague us.

I have no special credentials other than a desire to truly be a friend of God and start to know His mind and heart. I am a mom of three grown children, teacher of English as a Second Language, and lover of the church. I ‘feel His pleasure’ when I am singing, having thoughts, making unexpected connections, and walking on the beach.