Unafraid: The Fear of the Lord?

“Come in, the waters’ fine.”  As a kid I heard this phrase many times in various forms.  Swimming lessons where we had to tread water for 15 minutes or so in the deep end.  The diving board.  The high diving board.  The cliff.  The lake with water skis attached.  In all cases, I had to be coaxed.  I feared the water in these situations.

We have a funny relationship with water.  When in the form of a stream coming from a super soaker, or contained in a water balloon, or directed by a hose nozzle, or perhaps a bucket being thrown in our direction, we fear it enough to run from it.  When the rain comes we shriek as if being eaten by acid showers.  If you’re like me, you are captivated by the power and grandeur of the ocean yet fear it and it’s bigger-than-me contents.

We are born of water, and we are made up of water so much that if it were taken out, we would die.  We can’t live too many days without water.  When we are dehydrated, we struggle to live.  No water, no life.

The idea of fearing God is not uncommon in the Bible and in the faith.  The writer or Proverbs said that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  For some, fearing God seems a contradiction – wasn’t the message of Jesus that we are deeply loved by God?  Why should we then fear God?

As Hamilton points out in his book, Unafraid, there are two ways to understand the word fear.  First, fear can describe being terrified and scared-to-death of God.  This rendering is commonly used in churches that use this type of fear to frighten potential converts into embracing the faith.  Verses supporting this approach exist in the Bible, because fear was used to manipulate people during the time when the Bible was first written and experienced.  Our human nature is always on alert for a threat, too, which predisposes us toward being motivated by fear.  So, even today, terror is effective in getting a reaction, and in some cases a reaction of submission to God.

On the whole, however, this was not Jesus’ approach with people.  He didn’t use fear to gain followers.  Rather, he used love and grace.  Following Jesus was always an invitation.  Jesus did use extremely strong language to admonish religious leaders who were abusing their role resulting in hurting those they were called to care for.  But for everybody else, Jesus was graceful, and represented God as one who was deeply loving and with humanity toward their wellbeing.  He personified God and showcased the power of God through miracles that defied logic.  People were in awe of what God was doing through Jesus.

Experiencing awe and reverence is the other way to understand the intended purpose of the word fear.  This type of fear wins people to reverence instead of demanding it.  We are drawn to such experiences and are left with a “hush”.  Certain experiences seem to draw this from us across the broad spectrum of humanity.  Standing before the ocean.  Or a mountain range.  Or a thunderstorm.  Or a baby’s birth.  Or in the midst of new love.  Or _______.  We are left in a hush. 

In the biblical witness, water was a means of commanding fear of the Lord in terms of awe.  Creation itself was born from the waters of chaos.  The Great Flood wiped out all who didn’t heed God’s message.  The sea was parted, allowing Israel to walk on dry ground.  Water came gushing out of a rock while the Israelites were in the desert.  Water cleansed the enemy leader of leprosy.  Water carried the fish that swallowed Jonah.  Jesus walked on water, buoyed by the Spirit.  Jesus turned water to wine.  Jesus calmed the storm that caused the water to become violent.  Jesus met the Samaritan woman at a well where she came to fetch water at the wrong time of day.  Jesus was baptized – dunked – in water and called his followers to do the same.  And more…  Water was a key component toward the fear of the Lord. 

I wonder if we should be thinking about faith using water as a metaphor.  I think we sometimes fear God in the scared-to-death sort of way.  I think we are more prone to such fear when we’ve done something that we believe offends God deeply enough to warrant retribution.  God is holding a super soaker and water balloons and the nozzle and a bucket of water – all trained on us if we don’t’ shape up.

But I wonder if that’s not particularly healthy in light of Jesus.  Maybe we should think of God in other ways.  In a deeply personal way, I wonder what might happen if we drank of God as intentionally as we drink water.  Maybe our faith is dehydrated because we have not drawn of God in our lives.

I wonder if our experience of God would be different if we could begin seeing God as present as the water all around us.   Because water is all around us and within us all of the time.  In the air we breathe.  In every living thing.  What if we could begin imagining God being present everywhere and in every living thing – how would that change our sense of God’s closeness?  How would it impact the way we see other people?  How would it affect our stewardship of creation?  How would it create a sense of awe in us at the pervasiveness of the presence of God?

This week, I encourage you to think about how little you think about water, how comfortable you are taking it for granted and not recognizing its presence everywhere.  Think about fears you have associated with water.  Think also about when and how you long for water. How are these related to your faith experience?  How is your attitude toward water similar or different to your attitude toward God and faith?