Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Semi-Random Musings (11)

“Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.”

To treat a medical condition helpfully, a doctor must first be an accurate diagnostician. If a physician fails to correctly discern the root cause of the problem, nothing he prescribes is likely to solve it. If he fails to correctly assess the current progress of an affliction, he may offer a solution that would have been helpful two weeks ago but will do nothing useful now. And if he fails to note the attendant risks associated with the problem, he may contract a communicable disease himself and spread it instead of restraining it.

A single approach to sin in the lives of others will not do. Some sins are infectious; others are merely repulsive. Some sinners need a sharp rebuke, others gentleness.

A good spiritual diagnostician knows that cleaning up an infection without treating the underlying cause is a recipe for future catastrophe.

And of course the most dangerous spiritual physician is the quack who doesn’t recognize his own deficient credentials. A mote in the eye is uncomfortable, but someone else’s blundering finger is no improvement.

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“They shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.”

I’m uncomfortable with familiar evangelical gloss that the “fear of God” is best understood as “reverential awe” or some such. I accept that some Christians have a wholly understandable reluctance to present neophytes and seekers with a God who reliably reduces his supplicants to huddled masses of quivering Jell-O®. However, our not liking it doesn’t mean we can reasonably reject imagery the Bible presents us with repeatedly.

Sometimes, yes, biblical fear means reverence. But other times it means … fear. Real, serious, shaking-in-your-boots-like-a-little-girl fear. When we are dealing with the Creator, Sustainer and Judge of the universe, that hardly seems out of line.

The way the word is used in the Old Testament bears this out. When the fear of the Lord fell upon all the kingdoms of the lands that were around Judah and they made no war against Jehoshaphat, it was because they recognized the historic God of Israel was with this particular Judean king in a unique way, and if they misbehaved themselves they would in all likelihood end up as dead as all the others who had defied him. “Reverence” seems an inadequate term to describe that state of mind.

Fear and Good Things

Fear and goodness may seem a strange combination, but goodness is not the only appealing quality ascribed to God that we find wrapped up in a package with a certain sort of rather intense anxiety.

The psalmist says, “With you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Curious. Jehoshaphat himself associated the fear of the Lord with God’s justice and impartiality. Job connects the fear of God with his ability to make peace. Isaiah puts the terror of the Lord together with his splendor.

Perhaps the most fearful element of approaching a good, forgiving, just, impartial, peace-making and splendid God is this: that he is uniquely the source of all these good things.

Only God Can Forgive Sins

For example, there is no genuine goodness in humanity that is not attributable to God-likeness. He is the living definition of goodness, and apart from him there is none to be found. That’s scary.

Likewise forgiveness: even the Jews recognized that a claim to be able to forgive sins was a claim to deity. ONLY God can truly and ultimately forgive. If God will not forgive you, you will not find forgiveness anywhere else in the universe. If you choose to remain the object of God’s wrath, there is nowhere in all the cosmos you can hide. That’s terrifying.

Again, apart from God, justice is a fantasy. “Social justice”, for instance, is not justice in any sense of the word: it arbitrarily strip-mines the assets of one undeserving segment of society and reassigns them to others equally undeserving. When we do find justice in this world, we have not found anything original to man; we have simply found the rare authority who takes his occasional cue from Heaven. Only God is truly just. That’s a good reason to fear.

The Court of Last Resort

The fear of God is occasioned not just by his power and splendor but by the knowledge that he is the court of very last resort. It is God alone who is truly and essentially good, forgiving, impartial and splendid. It is God alone who can ever bring peace to mankind. He is the final word, the end of every discussion, the great Silencer of the human tongue.

One day, having sought a willful and illusory sort of “good” for centuries across the entire face of the planet, and having found it counterfeit, inadequate or entirely absent, the people of Israel will return the Lord in fear, fully aware that they have no other place to turn.

Christians may find it preferable to learn from example than from hard personal experience.

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