The Healing Fire of the Fear of God
I'm starting to walk my students through The Inferno this week, which is always kind of a weird experience. Christians don't talk much about hell these days, so stepping out of a confident, 21st century culture into a 14th century allegory that takes strange stabs at eternal punishment can feel more bizarre than threatening.
Though it's had quite an impact on Western perceptions of hell, I never take Dante's hell too seriously. We can learn a lot more about medieval culture from this work than we can learn about orthodox theology.
However, in the first two cantos, Dante meets three creatures that I always find fascinating: a spotted leopard, a lion, and a wolf. Critics have spent quite a bit of energy over the centuries trying to understand how these particular animals fit into Dante's message. (Do they stand for deception, violence, and lust, for example?)
My best guess is that they are derived from Jeremiah 5:6, a verse in which an allegorical lion, wolf, and leopard are predicted to attack the people of God after they have lost their fear of Him.
Jeremiah 5 is a fascinating chapter, and if you aren't familiar with it, I think it's worth your time to spend a moment looking it over. Here we find God's people stubbornly refusing to submit to Him.
God wants His people to be in communion with Him, so Jeremiah is asked to run back and forth through this disobedient city, looking for a single person who does what is right and who loves truth, so that God might pardon her. But alas, there is nobody--not one man in Jerusalem who loves what is right and true.
Like a good parent, God has already tried gentler means to discipline his rebels (v3), though they refused to listen. They hardened themselves to every appeal, closed their ears, turned their faces away.
Jeremiah pleads with God to have one more shot at convincing Jerusalem to return. He makes excuses for them saying, "They are just ignorant. They just don't know!" But as he attempts his best persuasions, he also finds that these people are not simply uninformed, they are also defiant. They don't want what God has to offer.
God zooms out and gives us a bigger context at this point. He shows us how He has poured out blessings upon these people. They've lived in abundance until they are fat and comfortable, but no good gift will satisfy them. In their luxury, they only give in to even more indulgence. They take whatever they want at all costs, just because they want it.
The language God uses here reminds me of a broken-hearted parent. Since the people have refused gentle discipline, abundance, and direct appeal, He must now be severe with them.
His people don't take Him seriously--they think He won't won't address their rebellion. How wrong they are. God says He is going to bring another nation in to take them over. This nation is going to do terrible things that finally break the pride and defiance of Jerusalem. Their resources and their children will be ravished. The physical security that has made them feel too confident for too long will be obliterated.
A stone heart that refuses to be softened can only be shattered, so God says this process is going to hurt, and it's going to hurt badly. However, even in all of this devastation, God is merciful. He's going to take them to the breaking point and hope that at last, they finally might listen.
When the people cry out, "Why? Why has God allowed this?" He has an answer ready for them.
"Do you not fear me?"
"Do you not tremble before me?"
God will then appeal to His power over all of nature, a wild and magnificent world that is compliant to His rule, save the hearts of His favorite creation of all--his dear sons and daughters. They refuse to comply because they do not want His company or His guidance: "The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?"
His people love false comforts. They love false assurance that supports their indulgence, and they are willing to trade truth to keep pleasure at all costs. This is a nation that has lost its fear of God.
We can learn something about the tendencies of the human soul in passages like this. As moderns and as humanists, I think we tend to have an almost instant repulsion at the idea of fearing a higher power. It's not just the atheists who do this--most of the Christians I know are far more comfortable talking about grace than fear. And when we do talk about punishment for sin, we tend to be quite mathematical and unemotional about it. Fear is rarely involved. Instead, we speak in terms of justice.
Debates held between Christians and atheists often assume that truth is an independent entity, achieved by brain power and proofs. (I will never forget a conversation I once had with a Calvinist scholar who finally admitted that Limited Atonement was not verifiable by exegesis. "Logic demands it," he said, and from that point onward, I was no longer intimidated by hard-core Reformed theology.)
A theology that worships logic, that trusts it above all else, is essentially Greek, not Christian. For though God has given us reason as a tool that is generally reliable, Truth is ultimately a person and not a principle. That realization alone should humble us. The secular philosophists, as well, have admitted that even the most intense rationalism or empiricism is dependent upon presuppositions that depend upon a sort of faith. We are boxed in, limited in what we can verify.
Jesus says Truth is alive, which means that fear of Truth is a living exchange. When the object of fear is an untamed, animate Holiness, fear serves as a purifying fire. It serves as a compass. It serves as a confession booth. It serves as a hospital.
Interestingly, the Bible contains commands to both fear and lay aside fear, which provides a bit of a paradox. Yet this duality makes more sense to me the longer I live and see the natural inclinations of humans.
When I see people making terrible, impulsive decisions out of panic, I ask God for joy and for courage in Christ instead of the terror of depending upon fleshly solutions. Conversely, when I see people living out of smug confidence while warnings all around us call for humility, I ask God for the gift of fear to cleanse and reorient. So at different times in the same week, I find myself urging the timid to hold up their chins (for the Lord is gentle and present) while urging the haughty to be afraid (for the Lord is a burning fire). Even as a simple human being, these are my impulses, so would not a complex God have even more complexity?
Today I am thinking about the brazen audacity of our time, exercised by both those who openly reject God and by those religious leaders who try to commandeer God to serve their pet political purposes. Because these people remind me so much of the Jerusalem of Jeremiah 5, I find myself letting go of my appeals for grace and resigning to whatever God wills, admitting to Him that if Fear of the Lord is His last resort, so be it.
We have not listened to abundance. We have not listened to light discipline. We have not listened to direct appeal. Maybe healing will require something more severe.
My generation has grown up in talk of grace upon grace -- grace without a glimpse of judgment-- grace that is expected like a rich girl's new birthday pony. We toss our heads and lick the icing off the Bread of Life, dip our fingers in the sauce of God's generosity, and grow indulgent, fat, and proud.
So while to the timid, I say, "Be not afraid," to those who are quick to seek human remedies for two horrific Presidential candidates, quick to promote the lesser of two evils, quick to strategize and maneuver the forces of religion and culture so that we might save ourselves, I call out for a return to holy fear.
We have before us the essence of what we are. These two leaders manifest our national traits, and we are right to fear being left to the embodiment of our weakness. We are right to carry the sense that such narratives can't end well. We are right to respond with sorrow and confession to a prophet crying out in our midst.
Amid all the pleading for this vote or for that vote, we are wise to be humbled first by what we see, wise to confess, wise to be small before a great God and admit that we cannot save ourselves from this disaster.
I have been afraid many times the past few months, but I have mostly been afraid of the wrong things. How good it is to return to the fear that heals, because a healthy fear of God protects me from every self-destructive mistake I am inclined to make. It burns away my excuses. It burns away every lesser fear that would harm and distort my true heart.
When I drop my face in the intimate, living fear, in the awe that the presence of a true God evokes, He is never severe with me. Instead He lifts my chin and reminds me that My Dear and Holy Giant loves me with an everlasting love, that no one who comes to Him with humility will be cast out, that a bruised reed He will not break.
Because I have a High Priest who empathizes with my weaknesses, I can admit them openly. Naming them allows me to step through healing fear into the boldness of a beloved daughter who is invited to bask in the radiant light of the throne of her Father's grace.