On July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards delivered a sermon to people gathered at a church in Enfield, Ct. It was entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In it, Edwards used vivid imagery to depict the hell that he believed awaited every human being on the planet who did not choose to change their life and follow Jesus Christ. It is said that the people of that church were crying out, “How may we be saved?” as they clung to the pillars of the church fearing that the ground was about to open up and swallow them into a fiery, eternal punishment. That sermon has been used as a model for evangelical ‘revival’ type sermons ever since. The hope being that people would be ‘scared saved.’
A couple of days ago I read the account of Jesus’ transfiguration, or metamorphosis, in the Gospel according to Matthew. Three of his followers, Peter, James and John were with him. As Jesus’ appearance changed, the three guys were amazed and basically said, “Wow! This is so cool!” Then, a cloud covered them and they heard a voice saying, “This is My Son. I love him and am very pleased with him. You listen to him!” At this, they fell on their faces because they were terrified. I’m thinking they probably needed to change their Depends. The story ends with Jesus touching them and saying, “Get up and don’t be afraid.” It seems an encounter with the Divine is a rather frightening event. Throughout the Scriptures there are examples of times when humans came face to face with God’s Presence They fell down before God, quaking in their sandals. And, they invariably heard the words “Don’t be afraid.”
Why is it that so many people today are afraid of God? Why do so many leaders in the Christian Church continue to invoke fear in those who are entrusted to their care, (À la Edwards)?
The Problem Revisited
I was talking with someone recently who told me how she had experienced panic attacks because of the manner in which God was presented to her. I could tell that her fear was real…and, it was debilitating. These people she listened to continually portrayed God as filled with righteous wrath and ready to push the ‘smite’ button on the celestial Macintosh. (Yeah, I’m pretty sure God uses a Mac. Why else would God have commissioned Steve Jobs to upgrade Moses’ tablets?) They talk about the “fear of the Lord” in terms that cause anxiety. They want people to be afraid. They seem to feel that by invoking fear, an incredibly potent emotion, people will be motivated to change and be “saved.” I’m pretty sure that they honestly think that they are doing people a favor by scaring them. But, seriously, who wants to follow a Cosmic Terrorist? God’s voice continues to say, “Don’t be afraid.”
I’m sorry, but that is not what God wants people to experience. Brian McClaren wrote in his book, Naked Spirituality, that the fear of the Lord “doesn’t mean the kind of spiritual terrorism to which many people are subjected in fire-and-brimstone sermons and God-as-Terminator theology.” Fear of God has to do with reverence. In the prayer that Jesus taught his followers are the words, “Our Father in heaven, may Your name be revered.” There is a tension between God as Transcendent Creator and Abba who holds us close enough to hear the Divine heartbeat. This tension can drive us to our knees, awestruck by God’s presence. It can fill us with unspeakable joy. People filled with reverence like this aren’t paralyzed with fear. They are empowered to welcome the reign of God into the world through love and justice. They’re not concerned that God will stomp on them. They realize that God loves them. And, as a result, they love God. John the Elder wrote, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love,” (emphasis mine). It is God’s desire that the seed of love that is planted in our hearts grow and mature. As love grows, we learn that we are God’s beloved. Our identity is no longer ‘sinner,’ but we are, like Jesus, ‘transformed’ into ‘Saint.’ In loving reverence we hear God’s loving voice say, “Get up! Don’t be afraid.”