The Word of God tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Many in the Church today want to water that down to “reverential awe”, insisting that fear and faith are incompatible, and that “perfect love casts out fear.”
I have many times experienced “reverential awe.” It is, in my understanding, a natural component of worship. When I begin to focus on God – His greatness, His power, His glory, His majesty, His beauty, His awesomeness – I simply can’t help but be overawed by Him.
Often I am reminded of the apostle John. During Jesus’ earthly life, John was “the beloved disciple”, the one who was closest to Him. It was John that sat next to Jesus at the last supper, reclining against Him in a gesture of intimate friendship. Yet when that same John saw the glorified Christ in his Patmos vision, his immediate reaction was to fall on his face in worship.
I have joked many times that, being the person I am, when I finally get to heaven I will probably burst through the gates like an excited schoolgirl yelling “Hey Daddy! I’m home!” That may be true, but everything in me knows that, as intimate and tender as my relationship with the Lord has been here on earth, when I see Him as He is I, like John, will be flat on my face.
That reverential awe is a vital part of our Christian experience. It lifts us above the circumstances that surround us, and reminds us that we serve a God who is bigger than anything that the world, the flesh or the devil can throw at us. It reminds us that God is not our servant, a push-button vending machine that will give us anything we ask for; nor is He some kind of doting grandfather who will ignore our sin and simply pat us on the head and smile when we do wrong. He is the King of the universe, and it is good for us to encounter Him as such on a regular basis.
However, as important and as wonderful as that reverential awe is, it is not “the fear of the Lord.” As I said, I have experienced reverential awe many times, and I expect to experience it many times more before I go home. I have experienced the fear of the Lord only once, and I will never forget it for all eternity.
Let me emphasize that I am not “afraid” of God. I have an absolutely open and honest relationship with Him. If I am upset about something, I tell Him – often in far-from-gracious terms. Yes, I generally end up having to repent later, but I don’t see the point of pretending to be ok with something if I’m not. After all, He already knows what is going on in my heart anyway. If I were to slip into religious mode and tell Him that I accept His will when I am really not yet prepared to, I’m sure He would clip me across the back of the head and tell me to stop lying to Him. God is big enough to handle my grumbles – and even the occasional flat-out temper tantrum – and He knows that my heart for Him means that I will always yield to Him after I have done the dummy-spit.
Once, though, I pushed the envelope just a tiny fraction too far. I can’t remember what it was about, or even what I said to Him, but I know I stepped over the line. As I did, I heard the Lord utter an almost audible “Oh, is that right?” Then, for the briefest moment, He pulled back the corner of the mantle of His grace that covers me, and I caught the tiniest glimpse of what it feels like to stand stark naked before the righteousness and judgment of the holy – and angry – God. What I experienced in that fleeting instant was not reverential awe. It was sheer, stark, unadulterated, mind-numbing terror.
Did the experience change my relationship with God to one of fear rather than faith? No, if anything it made my faith stronger as I marvel at the protection and covering provided for me by the blood of Jesus. Did I lose the intimacy that I had with Father? No, if anything I am closer to Him, knowing that His love means that I don’t have to experience that terror – in infinitely greater measure – for all eternity. I delight in the closeness and tenderness of my relationship with Him more than ever, but I know with greater certainty than I ever did that my relationship with Him exists only within the covering of His grace. It is by His grace alone that I am able to stand in His presence, and I love Him all the more for extending that grace to me. I certainly never want to venture outside of that covering! Do I still yell at God from time to time? Most definitely – but I now understand that there is a line past which intimacy becomes impudence and a tantrum becomes treason, and it is my most sincere prayer that I will never cross it again.
I pray that every Christian would experience the reverential awe of God many times in their lives; but also that every Christian would, at least once, truly experience the fear of the Lord. If they did, the depth of relationship with God throughout the Body of Christ would be greatly increased.