Let me say at the very beginning of this article that I am not – in any way, shape or form – attempting to disparage Jews or Judaism; with whom we Christians share a number of historical and faith-based tenets. It is however, an examination of certain elements of faith and faithfulness. The real tragedy in all this being that the long-awaited Messiah many Jewish people still seek – has come – and been missed or rejected by them.
Having said that, I found it interesting that an article in the Indianapolis Star some time ago featured the “struggles” of a number of “Christian” women throughout its metropolitan area who, having married Jewish men are now committed to raising their children as Jews. Their struggle with the Christmas holiday was a focal point of part of the story; some partially resolving the issue by blending various practices of Christmas and Hanukkah in a unique sharing of cultures, others adhering strictly to the tenets of Judaism.
What struck me most from the outset were the virtually identical statements from every woman interviewed who confessed to rarely – if ever – attending church as adults; thereby removing some of the emotional barriers standing in the way of their marrying Jewish men and raising their children in the Jewish faith and culture. One in particular was quoted as saying that the gift of “spirituality” was what really mattered, the particulars of that achievement being less important. When asked about the concerns of her Christian family and friends, another declared, “I chose love over fear.” Obviously loving her family dearly but pointedly choosing to ignore the possibility of judgment from the “Christian” God even as she and many others embrace the love expressed through the Christian Gospel.
The irony is that fear is repeatedly portrayed as a beneficial emotion throughout the Hebrew scriptures – embraced by Jews and Christians alike – which is credited with instilling truth, wisdom and knowledge. (See Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7 & 15:33) And contrary to popular opinion, the New Testament teaching of Jesus and his followers has its origins in fear as well; the call to repentance from a life of sin and its consequences to one of a changed life through the application of mercy and grace being central to the gospel. Christ’s sacrificial act of love sparing us the punishment we all deserve, performed once for all (2 Corinthians 5:14), but applied only to those who acknowledge their need and respond to Christ’s call of, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Matthew 4:17 (See also John 3:16-18; Acts 2:38,17:30,31 & 26:20) Jesus specifically using the term fear recorded in Luke 12:5, describing it as a motivating factor in people’s desire to avoid hell; leading them to repentance and redemption.
Author John Selner notes in his book, ‘The Teaching of St. Augustine on Fear as a Religious Motive’, what would be considered by some as counter-cultural or even subversive elements of Christianity today. Augustine believing that human beings are designed to love, their struggle being to find the proper object for that love; which in his opinion was God. He further taught that there are four principle emotions that shape us as individuals in our pursuit of the ideals bound up in love. Desire, which attracts us to an object or being; joy, when we experience real love; fear, when we face the possibility of losing – or never attaining – the object of our desire; and grief, if that does indeed happen. Thus Augustine, and I believe much of scripture, teaches that fear is indeed one of several God-given emotions prompting us to genuine love and the expenditure of effort to realize it in its fullest.
That’s not to say that we should live in continual dread of losing our salvation, but at least part of what drives us to a relationship with God is fearing the dire consequences of living – and dying – outside His will. In fact, Paul encouraged the Philippians to, “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,…” so they could properly discern how to act according to His purposes. (Philippians 2:12) Does John then contradict Paul when he proclaims, “…perfect love drives out fear,…”? 1 John 4:18 No, rather he speaks to a different point in our salvation experience; possibly addressing the opposing emotion of despair. For God’s word, properly applied, brings us to a point of Godly sorrow, which leads to repentance, redemption and joy; whereas worldly sorrow wallows in despair and defeat. (2 Corinthians 7:10)
St. Augustine noted that, given the nature of human beings, fear generally comes before love; or is intrinsically connected to it – at least in the very beginning. Then, as we more fully comprehend God’s purposes – and understand the object of our love – fear stops being the primary reason we shun evil and refrain from offensive behavior as we desire to then actually please the object of our love. Fear losing its hold on our lives by the application of God’s word, the leading of the Holy Spirit and the experience of love expressed by us and for us. The raw fear of God being converted into awe-filled respect, possibly a fear of disappointing Him rather than being afraid of Him. Fear serving much the same purpose as pain, something none of us particularly enjoys nor wants to experience, but essential to our well-being! Warning us that something is wrong. If responded to appropriately, saving our lives.
A few of the specific benefits of fear listed in scripture being that it leads us to God with a singleness of mind. “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only…” Deuteronomy 6:13 (See also Exodus 20:5 & Deuteronomy 10:12) “The fear of the Lord (being) pure, enduring forever.” Psalm 19:9; instilling wisdom and knowledge of the Holy One (Proverbs 9:10); teaching us humility and the recognition of evil. (Proverbs 15:33 & 8:13) All these then causing us to recognize God as “a fountain of life” Proverbs 14:27 (See also Proverbs 10:27); shielding us from trouble while promoting contentment and peace of mind. (Proverbs 19:23) Conversely, rebellion and ignorance foster grave consequences indeed. (See Hebrews 6:4-6 &10:26-29. As well as 2 Peter 2:20,21)
Augustine summarized his point this way, “Perfect charity (or love) casts out fear. Therefore let fear be the beginning. Because the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Fear, as it were, prepares a place for (love). But when (love) begins to live in us, the fear which prepared a place for it is cast out.”1
Paul expressing his desire and understanding of love’s benefits thusly, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:9-11.
1Cited in Mark Galli’s book, Jesus Mean and Wild – Baker Books Publishing
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