Updated: Nov 29, 2020
When I grew up, I was afraid of God. I wasn’t afraid all the time, but I was when I was a child and naughty. As a teenager, I knew there were sinful things I was doing, or tempted to do that would anger or disappoint God. I also knew God took sin seriously, even if I always didn’t.
But, back in those days, I thought like most people, as long as my virtues outweighed my sin, I’d be alright. On a scale of 1-10, I thought I was a 7 and if God graded on the curve, I thought I could make the cut!
But I still had some fear. Of course, I was taught that Jesus forgave every sin of every true believer, but I was also taught about the Judgment. So I knew, someday, in this life or the next, there would be consequences for my sin – not hell, but some unpleasant punishment that I knew I deserved or some ill-defined reward that I would miss out on.
Unfortunately, as I’ve matured in my faith, I’ve lost some of that fear and you may have as well. Martin Luther struggled understanding what it meant to fear God, until he distinguished between what he called servile fear and filial fear.
Servile fear is the kind of fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber has for his tormentor. It is that dreadful anxiety that is felt because his/her torturer has no mercy or guilt that limits what they are about to do to their prisoner.
Filial fear refers to the fear a child has for their parents. Luther was thinking of a child’s love and respect for their father or mother who they know loves them, and who that child desperately wants to please. That includes the fear of a reasonable punishment, if it’s rightly deserved. While that child doesn’t always like the rules of the house, that child trusts the rule-givers. He/she has no servile fear of punishment, but wants desperately to please that child’s source of security and love.
I like Luther’s distinction. I believe that what is meant by this verse, “The fear of the Lord, is the beginning of wisdom.” On the other hand, it is also true that God can be frightening to some. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:31
Application In this Lenten Season, I’ve decided to spend more time dwelling on both the love of God and the filial fear of God in my own life. As a result, I’m spending more time on confession and meditating on how my sin hurts the God I adore.
Jesus famously said in John 15, “If you love me, you will obey me.” I cannot say I love God, unless I’m intentional about obeying him. There are times I’ve forgotten that and have lost my fear of disappointing God. Shame on me.
So as we approach Easter, Jesus didn’t just die for our sin – he died to make it possible for us to be born into the family of God. And as in every healthy family, there ought to be both generous love and fair and just consequences for our behavior.
Do you trust your Father enough to obey him?
How following Jesus works in real life.
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