According to some anthropologists, religion is a human universal. Wherever there are people, there are thoughts of the realm of the unseen, attempts to explain, survive, and control forces which exist in parallel to our material reality.
Some would argue that at the root of all of those notions is the human feeling of fear. That which we cannot grasp, do not understand, that which can impact our lives in ways that we cannot avoid gives birth to feelings of fear in us. We are worried about how things will turn out. We are intimidated that we may become the victims of the capriciousness of the cosmos.
And so we fear.
That sense of fear leads us to worship, to honor that which has power over us, to seek to placate the force(s) which may inflict harm upon us.
How does this notion align with the Christian sense of worship?
We read in the Bible that we are to “fear God.” We often explain that sense of “fear” as meaning “reverence,” encouraging one another that we are not to live in terror of God but rather to honor Him as supreme in the management of His universe.
But the word that we read is “fear.” There are many encouragements to “fear not” as well, statements pushing us toward freedom from being bound by inappropriate intimidation.
While fear usually has a negative connotation, I think there is one sense in which, anthropologically speaking, it’s right on: we worship what we fear.
In realizing our own limitations and helplessness, anything that we perceive as having power over us becomes a source of fear. And our mechanism to deal with that fear is worship.
As we gaze upon God, the degree of our limitations and helplessness should be readily apparent. He is the Creator, Master, Judge, King…and we are not. He holds all things in His hands, which includes us, our families, our possessions, the breath in our lungs. Nobody can stand against His decrees. The cosmos itself bows to His whims.
As Christians, we want to be people who worship God rightly. We recount and celebrate His goodness, grace, salvation, and blessings…we seek to stir up gratitude within ourselves, hoping to overflow in praise, and worship.
But I wonder how we’re doing with considering fear as a foundational element of our relationship with God.
We do have a God that is good; He is not a despot bent on the exploitation of all for His own self-aggrandizement. But He is a “tyrant” in the original sense of that word–“an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution.” Should we tremble before Him?
Currently, my thinking about how to appropriately fear–and thus, worship–God is centering on this idea: the confrontation of our own limitations in the light of God’s grandeur should lead us to a place of desperation. We can do nothing for ourselves. The world is complex, full of ugliness that is far outside of our control. We are hopeless…except that there is One who can manage it all, who can straighten it out, who sees through the complexity. If He doesn’t act, we are lost…but if He does, then life can be far better than we could imagine.
In desperation, we cry out to God, asking Him to be who He is, to exert His character as the Sovereign of the Universe, who is unlimited in power, goodness, and blessing, who is the absolute standard for Justice and Righteousness. We acknowledge His worth because we are in desperate need for Him to manifest His character and presence among us; without His activity, we sit weak and helpless amidst a world that brings suffering and confusion.
Everybody is afraid of something, and we worship whatever it is that we fear.
In a sense, I am afraid that God will not act, that He will not show Himself, that He will not speak to His people. And so, I am moved to worship–to plead with God that this not be so: crying out to Him to act and reveal and speak…this is the only remedy to prevent my fears from being fulfilled.