Q. What does "fearing God" really mean? Is there a way to understand the balance between his approachability and his holiness?
A. With one brief query, you've touched on an enigma that's stymied the smartest theologians since the beginning of recorded history.
Many people see God as either a lion, a harsh disciplinarian who's bent on squeezing the joy out of their lives, or a lamb, a mushy-hearted Santa figure who indulges them and overlooks their errors.
The terms lion and lamb, by themselves, are caricatures of who God is. Only when considered in tandem do these words become relatively accurate depictions of God's character. Our Creator-Redeemer is both perfectly righteous and perfectly accessible. He's the Lion of Judah and the Lamb who was slain. He's the King of Kings; he deserves our complete obeisance and awed reverence (a better definition of "fearing" God). Yet he's so compassionate, we can launch ourselves into his arms with the assurance he'll catch us in his embrace.
This divine dichotomy admittedly is mystifying. Author and theologian J.I. Packer once said, "We have a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and let God be wiser than man." In other words, subjecting our heavenly Father to human logic is like trying to shove an elephant under a Playschool microscope!
What Does God Say About This?
Fortunately, Scripture illustrates both God's accessibility and awesomeness. My favorite instances involve the apostle John. In the first setting, John hangs with Jesus at their last Passover meal, where Jesus announces one of their group will betray him. John literally leans against the Messiah's chest: "One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, 'Ask him which one he means'" (John 13:23-25).
Now that's what I call close! John has such an intimate relationship with Jesus that John's able to squeeze against him. But in Revelation 1:12-17a, John describes a very different encounter with his glorified Savior:
"I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead."
John doesn't get all touchy-feely with Jesus here; instead, John collapses to the floor in a faint. Seeing the Messiah in all his supernatural glory is simply too much for John's mental hard drive to process!
How Does This Affect Me?
Once, as a girl riding around town with my dad, I saw a boy in a Mustang zoom past with a cuss word and an obscene gesture. Dad didn't say anything. But at the next red light, he put our truck in park, walked over to the offender's car, and gave the teen a lecture about appropriate behavior. That young man quickly became apologetic, and several nearby drivers started clapping.
I thought, Wow, my dad won't put up with anyone acting like a jerk around him! He'll stand up for what's right! Newfound respect for my father suddenly surged through me. Yet the next moment, when Dad put the truck into drive, placed his arm around my skinny shoulders, and drew me closer, he was my daddy. I could lean back and feel safe.
To a much greater extent, our heavenly Father's both righteous and loving. He's altogether worthy of worship, yet safe enough for us to lean on him.
Lisa Harper has a Masters in Theology with an emphasis in biblical studies from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. She's a sought-after speaker and has written several books, including Holding Out for a Hero: A New Spin on Hebrews (Tyndale) and What the Bible Is All About for Women: A Book of Devotions (Regal). Visit her at www.lisaharper.net.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.