The Fear of God, or God’s Fear?
Walking through the forest I saw something in the path ahead. Was it a snake? Turned out to be a knarled root. A little further on, a large, dark shape appeared. Was that a bear? It was a moss-covered boulder in the shadows. I brushed up against the brush—oh no! Ticks! I found nothing but a leaf and lichen on my sleeve.
Quite often my writing circles back around to fear.
Usually I intend to shine a light on “fearful faith” but also to expose our irrational fears of nature and the natural world. Some also appear to fear “too much thinking” or Reason itself. For them, faith is superior to sensible reasoning. Even among many with a more “liberal” faith, there can be “fall back” into phobias left over from more conservative teachings from childhood.
Biblical religion speaks of “the fear of the Lord,” usually translated as having “reverence” for God, though fear remains an essential element of faith. What we often see and hear suggests that the phrase has been misinterpreted. Actually the Lord is the one who is afraid. Or so it seems from his pious protectors and devoted defenders.
Some people speak of the Almighty Lord of the Universe as if the deity is trembling with fear and desperately in need of help and protection. So many are agitated and aggravated by the fact that a large number of people believe in a deity or deities who don’t need anything, while on the other hand we have large numbers who don’t believe in a deity at all. This really riles some folks, and often these are the ones who act as if their God needs them—like a weakling on the playground crying for a bodyguard to fight the bullies.
How impotent and insecure is that God?
It seems that He (we’ll refer to Him as male since most of His defenders do) is scared that the world is beating Him up. For one thing, He’s losing the fistfight against that devilish Secularism. By the way, have you ever noticed that those who believe the divine is feminine never seem to feel She needs any defending?
There’s a certain psychological consistency here. A strict reading of the Bible presents a very insecure deity obsessed with obedience, blood sacrifice and strange religious rituals. Unless, of course, we take the Prophets seriously, but how many actually did, or do? If the message of prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea was heeded, would the Abrahamic religions have evolved into what we see today? The Christian Church took the prophets’ message primarily as foretelling the coming of Christ (“They were talking about Christmas!”), missing the whole point of the prophetic tradition, where God needs no apologists or empty sacrificial rituals (like atonement) to manage the world. The God of the Prophets doesn’t seem to like Religion too much (Isaiah 58; Amos 5).
So the question stands: What is it that God is so afraid of?
These seem to be most dreaded by the divine:
His children losing faith; His name misused; His commands ignored; another God getting attention and worship; atheists tempting people to unbelief; secularism expelling Him from schools and stifling His power everywhere; afraid of His own outrage.
Why would God be so afraid? Many would scoff: “God isn’t afraid of anything! The scriptures say, ‘perfect love casts out fear’—‘God is love’ not a God of fear!” This may be hard to hear but it sure seems, from much of what we see and hear in the world of faith, that God is very fearful, therefore many of His followers are fearfully faithful and spread fear, even in the name of love, forgiveness, grace and all other more palatable teachings.
The central fear I hear is that God is horrified by disobedience. Like an angry parent, He is constantly expecting one of His children to mess up, so stands ready to punish with a slap, a “spiritual lesson” or … there’s always Hell.
Regarding more liberal/progressive religion, I find it curious that people of faith continue to pray, confess sins, take communion and even go to church. I’m not saying people shouldn’t do these things, I simply wonder what people get from them and what God gets from them. Is there fear, or at least apprehension or anxiety involved?
Sometimes there is an implication that God is quite easily “hurt.”
God seems very fragile and vulnerable to offense and sorrow. As we used to say in evangelical circles, our sin “hurts God’s heart.” WE were afraid we couldn’t always protect our Fearful Friend. What kind of psychological twist is that!
“No, you’ve got it all wrong,” I hear some respond. “It’s not about fear. We do all these things because God loves us and we want to show our love for Him. We’re His family, His partners.” But do you constantly ask someone who loves you to “be with me,” “make me happy” (“bless me”), “forgive me” or beg them to help people in need when they have the power to help? Do you feel compelled to thank them daily or tell them how awesome and adorable they are? Imagine doing that, then ask what most religious rituals are for.
I raise these questions for reflection, not to suggest shutting down prayer, faith or congregations. At the very least, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask ourselves what part fear may play in our beliefs.
Chris Highland, 2020