Fear vs Love

Rev. Jonathan Edwards, a leader of the Great A...

Jonathan Edwards whose sermon 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' portrays a God who by his sovereign and arbitrary will may throw the whole world into hell's burning torment for eternity(Image from Wikipedia)

I confess I have always had a problem with the images of God handed down to me from my ex-Methodist parents. While it was abundantly clear they believed in a gracious, loving, always forgiving God who would give what was dearest to his heart in order to rescue us filthy, rotten sinners, there was still a generous dose of an angry and sovereign God who must be feared–or at least what-he-could-do-to-you-if-he-wanted-to needed to instill a “healthy” amount of respect, awe and–yes–fear into your being.

Jonathan Edwards‘ famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God comes to mind. In that notable example of puritan theology, Edwards notes this about humanity:

“They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell. And the reason why they do not go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as he is with many miserable creatures now tormented in hell, who there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath. Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.”

The conclusion of this sermon was said to have people screaming, crying out, trembling and writhing in despair:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.”

May I state without any reservation: THIS IS NOT THE GOD I KNOW OR LOVE.

If Grace is true (and we believe it is), then it is true for everyone and in any generation. If Jesus’ words are to believed, then God loves with no conditions, generously, and at a level far beyond human ability to love or even comprehend.

I don’t believe God ever intended his creatures to fear him. We are not, never have been, or ever will be like a loathsome spider in his sight. He does not nor will he hold us over the burning flames in order to incite in us repentance, respect, worship or fear. Rather, as we become aware of his perfect love, fear disappears. Scripture itself testifies that “perfect love casts out fear.”

The following meditation from StillSpeaking says it briefly yet beautifully.

I would suggest that what often passes for pleasing God is really a fearful effort to appease God. To appease is “to calm or pacify, especially by granting demands.” If your God is a demanding, exacting, and punishing God, to be feared more than loved, then you may feel compelled to give this God what he/she demands–or else.

But if your God is to be loved much more than feared, then what you desire to give this God is the gift of your very best. This makes for a rapturous relationship with God, which is better for our hearts. In climates of religious justifications for hate and violence on all sides, it is time to begin taking poetic license with this verse of scripture and re-writing it altogether. I know some will want to keep qualifying the word “fear” in this verse to mean devotion, awe, wonder, and even love. But why not just go there from the get go: drop the word, drop the notion, drop the theology.

Let me personalize it a little bit. The last thing I want is for my sons, Lucas and Aaron, to fear me. I don’t ever want them to experience me as a frightful parent. If anything, I want to be a forgiving father. I want for them the joy of being in a loving relationship with their dad who is ecstatically pleased that they don’t ever have to fear him, but instead can feel and trust the unconditional love he will forever have for them. I think this would go a long way in shaping the foundation of their happiness.

O God, carry us into a relationship beyond fear and demands into a rapturous relationship of love and joy with you. Amen. (Reflection by Felix Carrion from StillSpeaking)



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