Fear of Punishment II

All of this talk of parenting and punishment got me to thinking about why we obey God. A friend of mine asked if I obeyed the tenets of my faith because I was afraid of punishment (either of burning in hell or being otherwise “smited”). On the flip side, am I obedient strictly because of the possible privileges (either eternity in heaven or otherwise getting rewarded)?

I suppose in our capitalist way of thinking, reward and punishment isn’t a bad motivation for why we do things. The downside is that this places us only a hop, skip, and an apostasy from the prosperity gospel that has infected Christianity.

Ultimately, it paints a rather sad way to live. Fear of punishment is no way to establish and maintain a relationship. It’s the kind of “love me … or else!” mentality of an abusive parent, a relationship build on fear which is quite the opposite of love. I do think there is a fearful element to God, one built of awe and majesty, of the transcendent and a fear of losing that which is precious.

Part of me wonders if this “fear of punishment” mentality stems from the fact of the Gospel message having been reduced to a legal transaction (Christ’s sacrifice balancing the scales of cosmic justice) or presented at Christ sparing us from the hands of an angry God (leading to a get your own butt into heaven, save yourself sort of salvation).

So why should I be obedient? Why should I love God? Is it a matter of “because I said so” (the oldest of parental justifications)? Do we love God because he first loved us, thus we have a debt to love him? Do we also love him because it is in our best interest to do so? Is any of this the kind of love we want to build a relationship on? Do we love God because it is the natural response for all that he has done for us?

Someone want to jump in here and save me from my spiraling thoughts?*

*This is one of those times when my faith is pretty simple: I love God because … he’s God. I love my parents not because I’m scared of them or want into their will, but because they’re my parents. They first loved me and love tends to reciprocate. It’s not a matter of debt or obligation. God’s law is relational, Him stepping into my life to guide and protect. Obedience sustains the relationship. It’s love in practice.

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We’ve been going through The Lord’s Prayer lately and I got stuck on the first line: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” (Matthew 6:9). Which means I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea lately and what exactly the idea behind this means.

Alongside the idea of what it means to “fear the Lord” is respecting His name/title. The idea isn’t something brand new to us and how we live. We know there are lines we shouldn’t cross, especially depending on who we’re dealing with and the title/office they may hold. It’s analogous to many of us having employers that we also call friends. We may have a more casual relationship, but there are lines we don’t cross out of respect. For others, it may be similar to relationships with our parents when we get to that friendship point. They still have the authority, title, office of parent that demands honor. For me, I have two close friends who are also my pastors.

“I am who I am . This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” –Exodus 3:14

The name of the Lord. Yahweh. The “I AM”. He defines His name for us: “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”” (Exodus 34:5-7)

“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” –Exodus 20:7

All of the pontificating about cussing (in part one and part two) aside, taking the Lord’s name in vain is an entirely different issue. Names have power. To call someone by name is to assume a more intimate relationship with them (thus part of my issue with kids calling me by my first name). A name can define one’s character and attributes, who He is and what He is like.

The words still ring in my head: “hallowed be your name.” Treat the name as holy, meaning set apart. Honor it, exalt it. Magnify it. Glorify it. To do anything less is to profane it and we profane so easily. To profane is to take that which is high and trample it underfoot. To trivialize it (like when we swear, especially falsely, by his name, Lev 19:12, Matthew 5:33-37).

We like to hide from the exalted, from thinking too highly of things. It’s easier to be petty and trivial. Long gone are the days when His name was considered so sacred that to write it, the instrument used to write it out was destroyed. Boils down to how casual we are with “high things.” We forget that we enter into dangerous territory when dealing with the wholly other and it points to our loss of reverence. At the same time, we have to balance that fear against the reality of the intimate territory, Him personally concerned with me, that a relationship with Him means.

We are careless and casual with our speech, unaware of what we evoke with our words. I keep saying “we”, but this is more a simple reminder to myself.

I wanted to add this comment I received from my friend, Rob Rolfingsmeyer:

Hallowed be thy name, a Rob perspective:

Remember that the Hebrews in the Older Covenant had a great respect for the Name of G-d. The tetragrammaton was hardly ever used, just in case it was said wrong or said out of place. The equivalant would be to me referring to your wife constantly with the b-word or (God forbid) the c-word. Whereas nowadays, I wouldn’t take much offense to my friends calling me a bitch every once in awhile, I definitely would take it to heart and want to whup some ass if someone called my wife that. The name usually denotes the character of the person referred to. And just like w/ Roman names, if someone of a lower class than you called you by your Praenomen, you would take offense because it is not their place to call you such a thing.

Words have power, then as they do now. Names were the greatest sort of power, just think of Jacob asking for the name of the “angel” who wrestled with him. If the angel had given him his name, then Jacob would have been on an equal footing with the angel or worse, would have had “power” over him. These are just some of the reasons why the Hebrews were so uptight about using the Name of God. Heshem was usually good enough. It’s like referring to someone as “that dude” or “that guy”. You don’t want to offend the person you are talking about by f-ing up their name.

When Jesus is saying that God’s name is hallowed, he is speaking truth. The very name of God holds power in it, and the thing that should be even more frightening is the fact that God is allowing people to be friends with him by revealing his name. Even saying Heshem is a big step. It’s like Abba is a big step. God is your friend and cohort and you can even have his name. But the thing with “hallowed” is that you better not “fraggle” with it. You need to understand that in this relationship there needs to be a healthy respect going on. It is a reminder that he is above everything and before everything and you need to respect that and keep that in the forefront of your brain. Prayer is a conversation so show your respect for who God is to you first and foremost before you move on.

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Horror and the Fear of the Lord

Have you written on the topic of the fear of God Himself related to horror? … As a teen I read a lot of King’s storytelling, thought some was trash and some powerful. More mysterious and powerful was H.P. Lovecraft of which I read some in undergrad … I believe a great creative mind from a true biblical paradigm could do horror.

We are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), yet we’ve rather lost the idea of what it means to have a fear of the Lord. To our modern minds, we have difficulty reconciling the ideas that if Jesus Christ is perfect love, then there is nothing to fear of the Most High (I think I understand the reasoning, if you look at salvation as a “legal transaction, with Christ taking the penalty for our sins onto Himself thus we have no judgment to fear). Or, because of the God is love/love casts out all fear (seeming) dichotomy, that somehow you can’t have faith and fear at the same time. I don’t believe that to be true. In fact, I want to look at the relationship between horror and a fear of the Lord.

At the root of what it means to “do” horror is the idea of fear. Part of the cathartic experience of horror is out exorcizing of some of the things that scare us, that shadow of fear that we live our lives under. Ultimately, horror is about the fear of death and horror is excited by the reality of evil. We fear for our lives and the lives of those we love. We live in fear of good being consumed by evil. Frankly, evil should be feared. Even with the full reality of Christ, we still live with the consequences of evil all around us. A mother killing her children. Religious fanatics blowing up buildings. We seek a context of understanding for that which makes no sense. A lot of what horror attempts to do is make sense of evil. Evil is irrational and uncontrollable; true acts of evil are so irrational that conspiracy theories make sense.

Matt Cardin, in the preface of his horror collection Divinations of the Deep, posits that “the deep”, the primordial chaos, can reveal much about God, ourselves, and the true nature of our reality.

“We encounter the deep, so they say, in the dark mysteries of life: in horror, pain, nightmare, disillusionment, and death, in places where light and reason seem to be absent, or to have only a precarious foothold; at the seams of the universe where sometimes a thread comes unraveled and a ray of darkness shines through, and the light does not overcome it. To seek such glimpses and to ask such questions is always dangerous, however, because we can never know in advance what form the answers will take.”

So it struck me the other day that maybe we’re too quick to sing I Stand in Awe of You in our worship times. We may sing it, but we don’t believe it. For one, we’ve lost our ability to be awed. Secondly, we’ve forgotten that God is a dangerous terror. We want a God we can control and understand. By losing the idea of what it means to have a fear of the Lord, we end up trivializing God. Fear and love are connected because when we lose the fear, we lose love. I’m speaking of a healthy fear, one rooted in how important that object is to us, how much the object of our fear/love means to us as well as how little we can control them; and how much we fear life without them.

Even though fear and love are interlinked in both the Old and New Testament, fear is often overlooked or undermined in much contemporary Christian spirituality. Evangelicals assume that fear is the opposite of love. They rarely consider that fear is the complement of love. Godly fear that complements love is not simply terror or a sense of profound awe. Fear arises from the perceived inability to control an existential object. For example, we fear a lion when no cage exists between the animal and ourselves. Without the bars of a cage, the lion is beyond our control.

We often sense, if not experience, and existential terror. A gnawing emptiness that claws at our souls. A darkness, the deep, that threatens to suck the joy for all aspects of our lives, that can lead to a spiraling sourness to life that makes us want to crawl into bed and never get out. Some philosophers call this a “God-sized hole” that we try to fill with all manner of distraction, from the pursuit of materialism and the trappings of success to family and relationships.

Yet the terror, the ache in our soul, remains.

Even should we turn to God, we sometimes find our spiritual walks dissatisfied, as if somewhere along the path we missed, or lost, something vital. Maybe that sense of “terror” or awe of seeking a relationship with something larger than we can conceive of with our finite minds, something beyond our measure and control. And we need to cling to it, working out our salvation in fear and trembling.

We must maintain and nurture a “delightful terror” and “trembling fascination” toward God. God is the ultimate existentially relevant object over which we have no control. God is absolute in this regard; there is no other reality more existentially relevant to our lives – no reality over which we have less control. For this reason, we must fear God in order to truly love God. We cannot control God, therefore we must fear God.

And live in light of that fear.