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We Worship What We Fear

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.

 

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2013 in Life

 

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Do Not Fear

My wife and I have a tradition of celebrating a “Jesse Tree” as part of our Christmas season. Each night, we read a passage from the Bible which refers to a member in the family line of Jesus Christ (Jesse was the father of King David) or a significant event of the work of God in the salvation of the humanity. My wife made ornaments which represent each of these readings and we add one to our Christmas tree each night.

A few nights ago, we were reading about the giving of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy. A lot of people are familiar with all of the “Thou shalt not” statements, but there is a little preface which really caught our attention.

Moses says this to the people of Israel: “I was standing between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain” (Deut 5:5).

God wanted to speak to the people from a mountain, and there was fire and other severe weather accompanying His presence there. The people were afraid to go into the presence of God, so they asked Moses to go for them, and promised to do whatever he said when he came back from listening to God (Exodus 19:16-19; 20:18-21).

The people were afraid, and that fear kept them from coming into the presence of God.

“Do not fear” (or “fear not” or “do not be afraid”) is perhaps one of the most repeated phrases in the Bible–from God’s interactions with Abraham (Gen 15:1) to His final appearance (Rev 1:17). Nearly every angelic encounter is accompanied by these words, and the words come up in the Christmas story as well, when both Joseph (Matt 1:20) and Mary (Luke 1:30) are informed of God’s plan, and also when the shepherds are accosted out in the fields (Luke 2:10).

In each case, there is a warning: fear will cause you to miss God. If the shepherds cowered in fright out in the fields, put their fingers in their ears trying to ignore the angels’ message, they would have missed out on the Savior in a manger. If Joseph had given into fear, he would have abandoned Mary and missed out on raising the Son of God.

The people of Israel, at the foot of the mountain with their leader Moses, gave in to fear and missed out on a face-to-face meeting with the God of the Universe. They were afraid, and gave up their right to personally engage with God, instead choosing to use an intermediary. And so it continued, for generations, centuries, and millennia…most Hebrew people only experiencing God through the words of someone else.

Christmas is about God coming to have an encounter with us. He’s not afraid; He didn’t remain far off. He came to be here, to be near.

And now it’s our turn to respond. Will we tremble at the thought of relating to God? Will we fear judgment, condemnation, uncertainty, life change, ridicule and seek instead to remain at a distance from Him? Or will we, like the shepherds, overcome our fear and proclaim, “Let us go and see this thing which has happened”?

 

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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