by Taylor Craig
Too often we think of fearing God as just meaning to respect Him—to appreciate His power and to remember that He will judge the world in righteousness. Obviously we’re not supposed to be quaking in our boots every time we pray, hoping He doesn’t smite us for daring to enter His presence. . . right? We’re supposed to enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise, to draw near in full assurance of faith. The demons fear God, but we love God, and perfect love casts out fear.
In modern usage, however, respect is something that we show everyone, and it is this fairly tame sense of the word that gets carried over into our relationship with God. Fifty years ago A. W. Tozer documented the loss of a sense of the majesty of God in the church, and looking around today, we could stand to hear his warning again. Indeed, this sense of God’s majesty is crucially important for the vitality of the church; as Tozer says, “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,” and later, “there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.” Indeed, as Proverbs says, “by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.” This above all other things we must get right, or else risk idolatry.
In a sense part of the problem is that we have become used to the Gospel. It doesn’t strike us with the power it once had; we don’t feel its grace as sharply or stand overwhelmed by the love we’ve been shown. I want to revisit some ideas and meditations that rekindle a fear of God that makes the Gospel that much more precious. Unless understood against its true background, the Gospel cannot pierce the heart the way it should. This background, however, isn’t all that comfortable.
One of the first things we must understand about God is that He is so high above us that words cannot convey it. His very name speaks to the depth of the gulf between the Maker and the made—I Am who I Am. He is, and we are not. He will be forever, and he has always been. The Lord is the eternal unchangeable, unchanging one. He is the immortal, invisible, God only wise, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, knows the place of a googol electrons, and the hundreds of thousands of hairs on the human head. He knows this world like the back of His hand because from His hand it sprung. At His command the sun stood still; at His voice creation leapt at once to sight; all the angel faces, all the hosts of light. He shines through every sunny day, every clear moon, every storm and every mountain because creation is but one big thumb print of its great Creator. And a thumb print only it is, for He alone dwells in light inaccessible. If He is infinite then He is far more than any of us can ever know. We see the edge of His robe, we catch His backside as He passes, we hear Him pass in the rustling grass, we are even bold enough to call Him Father, but all this is only seeing through a glass darkly. Even the brilliant displays of nature that make us bow in wonder are just His fingertips. Let us marvel that He has stooped to be known, for the gap between man and his Maker is more than between the potter and the clay. He is. We are not. He was. He is. He is to come. He knows. He loves. This is human language grasping after the ineffable—these words we use are mere analogies to the truth of His person. We must rather acknowledge that everything good and true in this world, even the concepts of goodness and truth, the concept of a concept, the nature of existence, is but the footprint of the Almighty.
Clouds and thick darkness surround Him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.
Fire goes before Him
and consumes His foes on every side.
His lightning lights up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim His righteousness,
and all peoples see His glory.
Greater than we can imagine, too beautiful for us to fathom.
He is. And we are not.
He has no need for us or anything else. Completely sovereign, free, unbound, unhindered. He is self-existing, the only one who can say that the very nature of being answers to Him alone. He precedes being. Black holes that devour galaxies are as nothing to Him, made simply for His enjoyment. Gravity suited his fancy one day. The idea of matter was chosen for His good purposes alone. When we envision a totally free God with absolutely no vestiges of our world, existing in eternity past with the love and fellowship of the Trinity, entirely satisfied and glorious, then we can see how small we are. Kneel and drink at this truth, the wellspring of humility, worship, and prayer.
Lord, Thou art. You were before all ages, and you will be forever. Yours are cattle on a thousand hills, yours every sparrow that falls, just as much as every galaxy and atom. Likewise to you also belongs every fiber of my being. Let my mind fix on these truths, truths of your greatness and my smallness, of your worth and my dependence, of my debt of awe that I must pay with every moment of my thinking, saying and doing. Let worship permeate my life, for anything else is as senseless as it is laughable. Let every action of all my days bespeak the knowledge that you are, to the abounding of my joy and your glory.
The centrality of the glory of God
As is fitting for the one before whose worth that of the whole universe is incomparable, the greatest virtue, even the purpose of creation, is that His worth and greatness be made manifest. There is nothing that He needs from creation, nothing that He lacks, and nothing other than Himself that creation can reflect (sin of course being the distortion of this reflection). In the biggest picture, our place is to know our place and to know His. To enthrone Him in all due majesty and splendor. This is the glory of God, and the highest end of man is to thus glorify God and delight in that glory. This is the point of everything—not the latest sports championship, not our careers, not even the progress of the human species.
The Bible overflows with delight in the glory of God, and the Lord does not hesitate to make it his chief aim. The heavens declare the glory of God—what higher message to proclaim? The knowledge of the glory of God shall one day cover the earth as the waters cover the sea—what other truth could fulfill all history? Creation is designed as a temple filled by the one whose glory fills the heavens, and the new creation is lit by the glory of the one who reigns forever and ever. “The king there in his beauty without a veil is seen. It were a well spent journey though seven deaths lay between.”
The glory of God must be our concern before all else—before even our own salvation. We pray that He be glorified in our lives, in our suffering, in our deaths if He wills. As we bow before His will in qualifying our prayers, we bow before His worth in letting Him make of us what He will if it makes Him known. This is even His attitude—He says towards Israel, “It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.” This is the preface to the beloved passage concerning the giving of the new heart and the Spirit in Ezekiel 36.
Salvation hinges on God’s love for His people, but more deeply than this it rests fully on the fact that the greatness of God must be known. It is not, at rock bottom, for our sakes. Christ endured the cross for the joy set before Him—the joy of bringing many sons to glory, that they might rightly play their part in this grand theater of the glory of God and find therein their greatest joy. The Father is, in the final account, more important than the bride to the Son.
Dearest, most precious Lord, allow us to taste Your goodness anew, that we may be ever more certain of Your surpassing worth. Let us thus judge the knowledge of Your beauty to be our dearest possession, the pursuit of further knowledge our greatest joy, and spreading this knowledge our greatest duty. Let us judge our lives and pursuits as naught compared to this. Let us love your glory.
God’s holiness and justice
Another thing we must understand about the Lord Almighty is that He is unfathomably Holy. This word is often defined as “set apart,” which is its most literal definition. When applied to God though, I think we must take it to mean something more along the lines of exalted and unapproachable in power, majesty, and goodness. God is not so much Other as He is Above. He is not just different but Transcendent. His Holiness is wrapped up in the infinite superlatives that describe God. His infinite splendor is awesome. His infinite power is awful, in the old sense of the word. He is the one before whom the cherubim and seraphim, beings themselves indescribable in beauty and power, hide their faces as they worship without ceasing.
The attitude of Isaiah is all too fitting: I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
In prayer we ought to enter the throne room of God with full knowledge that our lives do not evaporate under his gaze only because of His mercy. We worship only by His grace. We stand ever as ants on the edge of the furnace of His radiance. We cannot pretend to have any rights before Him, not even our own autonomy. He is owed all. Recognizing this is the ground of the fear of God.
God is dangerous to us not just because of His greatness, but also because of His goodness. As CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion.” God’s zeal for justice involves a hatred not just for wickedness, but for the wicked themselves, an act which is all too easily and often glossed over (and far too often is). He hates all evildoers. He hated Edom, destroyed their countryside and ruthlessly thwarted their attempts to rebuild. Judgment is not a theme from which the Bible shrinks; it is a cause for rejoicing and worship and a means by which God is glorified on the earth. The idea that God cannot look on evil is not a fundamentalist myth; it is a quote from Habakkuk 1:13. Evil is so antithetical to the presence of God that all wickedness that enters His presence will be dreadfully punished. This is the belief that prompts Habakkuk’s question, and it is the answer that God promises (1:5ff, 2:7-8).
Oh Great God, of Highest heaven, let us see Thee high and lifted up, infinitely set apart, vast and great beyond my comprehension. Let this vision root in me a humility that will prove indomitable against all the whisperings of my pride. Be exalted in my life, and let me sing holy holy holy with every action and intention through all my days.
What are we to make of God’s love?
This brings us finally to a discussion of the Love of our holy, awful, glorious and very untame yet very good God. None of these attributes of God may be denied in affirming that He is love, and somehow they must not be allowed to encroach on what we mean when we say that God is love. In His justice, He must hate the evildoer, and yet from His overflowing loving He sends his rain on the just and the unjust. Both His grace and His judgment show forth His glory. The tension must remain. We must not think we can describe the entirety of God’s wonderful resolution of justice and mercy in the cross in a few words. We must allow both to stand uncompromised, both flowing from the core of God’s being, seemingly at odds with each other sometimes from a human perspective but not creating a conflict in the divine mind. Human emotions and attitudes are sometimes complex enough that we talk about how we both love and hate someone. Though God is not this whimsical, we can thus perhaps fathom that the hatred of the wicked and yet the love which births saving grace may not be a contradiction in terms, even if formulating a clear and tensionless resolution is beyond us.
But in this tension lies the beauty of the Gospel. Sin is not tolerated for even a moment, but is rather judged in its fullness. We who were once enemies of God in the fullest sense of that word, hostile to Him and hated by Him, have been brought near because He who hated us has pursued us. The wrath we were under was not some abstract Justice—it is the same hatred for evil in which God’s power working in us for our sanctification is rooted. This doesn’t have to make perfect sense to us—the cross is after all foolishness to the world —but it should bring us to more of an awe at God’s love. The Gospel is not rooted in the inherent worth of man that is diminished but not destroyed by sin, but rather in the seemingly reckless desire of a Holy God to create value where none existed—in the hearts of His enemies. This crushes our pride and bows our hearts in worship. The God of the cross was not blind to our sin, nor indifferent, but disgusted. Yet somehow he was still moved to speak life and health into us while we were still flailing about in our blood. He delights in the work of His love, the transformation from worms who are not men to a spotless bride clothed in radiant splendor, adorned with pearls and great jewels and gold like transparent glass. He rejoices to bring home despised rebels. This does not minimize his previous attitude towards them, but rather magnifies the greatness of His love. If terror at God’s holiness doesn’t grip us when we consider our sin, then the thought of deep reconciliation cannot strike us the way it ought to.
Above all, grace must never be made automatic. If legalism makes grace into a grace earned which cannot be grace, then moral libertarianism makes grace into an automatic grace which is no longer grace. To accept grace without fearing God is to make grace into something owed us, and grace and justice cannot be conflated except to the destruction of both.
Grace that sits easily with us, grace without tension, grace that does not demand of us our lives, is not grace. The book of Hebrews is full of this tension—we are to approach the throne of grace with boldness, all the while knowing that our God is a consuming fire. This boldness is simply fear and trembling that has met Christ. It is still fear and trembling, for it cannot quite wrap its head around the change of events manifested in the Gospel, but it heard the King beckon us in and it dare not disobey. It is not boldness without fear, but a boldness that knows fear and knows that it is now a borrowed life that is being lived. Grace presumed upon is grace spat upon; to be known and felt as grace, it must be grasped tightly and preciously, but not as our own. It must be held loosely enough that it is not intermingled with our identity, but is so loved that we would rather leave ourselves than lose it. This is why salvation must always include new creation. This is why the believers now live only by Christ in us. The nexus of the Christian life, indeed of the entire church and new creation, is Christ died and risen.
So let us leave ourselves and live for Him. Let us marvel continually that the God who dwells in light unapproachable has come down to us in order that we might be raised to Him, and let us worship Him. Let us kneel before the unchanging and unchangeable, eternal and ancient, all-knowing and omnipresent one who laid aside His riches that we who were poor might become rich. Let us praise the Sun of righteousness who immersed Himself in darkness that He might die for the lovers of darkness on a day when the clouds covered the sun, and who now bids us come out of that darkness into His glorious light. Think not that you were not once His enemies. Think not that you had any intrinsic worth before Him. He has no reason to value anything unless He decides to make it precious to Himself. Think not your negotiations with Him rest anything on what you bring to the table or what you want to get out of it. Think not that love negates wrath. Rather wonder. Wonder that God cares anything for the affairs of earthlings. Wonder that you are given life from one moment to the next. Wonder that your bread is provided, that you can enjoy the beauty of God revealed in creation and in friendships. And wonder most of all that God became Man, that God bore our condemnation that sin may be destroyed, that He who is the life died that the dead might live. Wonder and gape, full of awe, knowing that you stand on holy ground before a consuming fire, yet are not destroyed because you are loved. Worship there in the splendor of holiness, with both boldness and fear, rejoicing and hushed silence, love and trembling. This is faith that knows what grace is. This is faith that knows it has been saved by the unfathomable grace of a Holy God.