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The Fear of God. (AND SNOW!!!!!!!) (Ed Watson, SHH '13)

My fear of God is a fear of what I might be asked to do. Currently I would say that I am called to be here, and this has meant me living half a world away from the friends and family who mean the whole world to me. I know I’ll be back home in the summer, and I know I’ll be back home in a few years. At the moment, answering God’s call is easy for me: I am happy, fulfilled, and comfortable. There will almost certainly come a time when this is not the case.

So, we had a bit of snow over the weekend. 35 inches in New Haven. Was pretty awesome. Winter Storm Nemo hit on Friday, and it snowed solidly for about 24 hours. When we woke up on Saturday everything was solid white: we only saw the road outside our house three days later. The traffic lights were still running, but they were somewhat forlorn in the absence of any traffic. By Sunday there were a lot of people out walking, soaking up the fact that the snow was nowhere near gone: people were snowboarding down one of New Haven’s main streets.

One of the most wonderful things was being able to see the places no one had walked: I went up to Farnham Gardens to find the snow completely undisturbed (and up to my waist), so just sat on the top of a submerged bench and admired the pristine beauty of it. Then completely wrecked it by tramping through it all and pretending to be an Arctic explorer. Otherwise, school’s been shut all week: there are still unploughed side streets and the busses won’t run. It’s given my plenty of time to write, and I’m sure everyone will be pleased to know that the next great philosophical treatise of our time is going well.

It is of course now Lent. Not sure what I’m giving up, but I think I will actually try and do something particular this time round. My thinking over the week has been divided between writing and fear. Fear pops up a lot in life and language, and I’ve been trying to figure out where it fits into the particular version of the Christian life we’re trying to live here.

There’s a lot of fear in the world: apparently almost all advertising is based on exploiting it, it runs through most political discourse, and of course it infiltrates a large number of the choices we make. We’re afraid of things that might happen, we’re afraid of things that might not happen; we’re afraid of the things we might be, we’re afraid of the way we might look. The most prevalent form of fear in my experience, both in and out of school, is a fear of failure: this particular fear is so crippling that it can literally paralyse us as we try to face up to the seemingly insurmountable challenges in front of us.

I’ve come to believe that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of anything except God. Put in particular terms, this seems obvious: if God is omnipotent and omnipresent then everything that occurs does so because he wills it, therefore God is the cause of all things, including all the things that give us fear. This isn’t a good way of looking at it: there are senses in which it is true to say of God that he is omnipotent and omnipresent, but they are not the senses which lead to questions of rocks that can’t be lifted, nor are they the senses which lead logically to the conclusion that all things happen because of God. There is, however, another way of looking at it.

There are two sets of things we might fear as Christians: those things which are the will of God, and those that aren’t. The first includes things I fear such as losing my parents and my sister, losing friends, the things that the world might throw at my students. I am afraid of freak accidents and the intrinsically meaningless suffering they entail. But I can’t shake the feeling that as a Christian I should not fear these things, the reason being that belief in God necessitates the view that they are never final.

It might be seen as controversial to say that things occur which are not the will of God: after all, we’re constantly having to grapple with these misapplied concepts of omnipotence. But it doesn’t follow from the belief that God is at the heart of all things that all things follow from the heart of God. Rather, to say that God is at the heart of all things means that there is never a state of affairs in where the only option is death: there is nothing, no matter how horrific, out of which good cannot come, and redemption is not possible.

Things occur that are not the will of God: we suffer needlessly, we commit needless evil. But from that suffering we can take strength, from our own fallen nature we can take understanding, and from both we can do our utmost to ensure that others no longer have to endure what we endured or go through what we put others through. Nor does it matter how fallen we are: there is no human state of being that completely prohibits the doing of good. Obviously we might still fear the moment itself: it is natural to fear pain. But to allow that fear to govern our actions, and so to live in fear, is to see pain as the end point: and this does not make sense.

We should not fear suffering, because suffering can be defeated through Christ. We should not fear our own failure, because we can never fall beyond the reach of God.’ These are Christian ways of overcoming fear, and it is because I hold these things to be true that I do not think it consistent for me to both have faith in God and fear those things in the world which are not the will of God.

What then of God himself? Well: God is to be feared.

There are several things God is not to be feared for: punishment is one. I try remain silent on the doctrine of heaven and hell because I do not think there is much interesting to say about it: I will say, however, that the idea that God metes out wrathful and eternal vengeance on sinners does not fit with what was written above. It is true to say, from a view of faith, that distance from God can feel like punishment: it feels like deliberate pain, and it feels like God is allowing us to be overcome by suffering. But it only feels like this: a better way to put it is simply to say that distance from God necessarily entails suffering, and that responsibility for that distance lies on the human end, not the divine. We are not distant because we are punished; we do not suffer because we are punished; people do not die in natural disasters because God is meting out his judgement on our sinful nature.

How then is God to be feared, if not as the rod? He is to be feared because his will might not be our will: he is to be feared because he might ask us to give up everything we hold dear in his name.

This obviously fits well into the theme of Lent: it is a period where we cease doing certain things that cloud our vision so that we can try and focus our lives towards God. Ash Wednesday is the day we accept our own mortality, try to overcome our fear of death, and so see the path to life (or something like that). But the fear that God might ask us to give up everything runs deeper than a fear that God might want is to stay off Facebook till Easter.

At the heart of our particular version of the Christian life is the idea that we are trying to live out responses to God’s call. This is a call to do God’s will, bring love into the world, yada yada yada. The fear is that responding to this call might force us to give up things we love; that answering might require us to give up our own happiness, our own dreams, our own expectations of what our lives should be. The fear is that we might not be able to do this.

My fear of God is a fear of what I might be asked to do. Currently I would say that I am called to be here, and this has meant me living half a world away from the friends and family who mean the whole world to me. I know I’ll be back home in the summer, and I know I’ll be back home in a few years. At the moment, answering God’s call is easy for me: I am happy, fulfilled, and comfortable. There will almost certainly come a time when this is not the case. I am afraid of what would happen if I felt called to live a life such that I never saw my family again: I am also afraid that I would say no.

God is to be feared because of what he demands: he demands the subjugation of the self to the service of others. Unlike the previous, I do not think this fear can be fully exorcised: we cannot reason away the fear of this sort of self denial, through thought or through faith. Instead, it must be faced, and overcome. A part of doing this is to give up fear of all else: a Christian need not fear anything in the world. Rather, focus on God as the sole object of fear, and work to get to the point where you can face that fear: work to get to the point where if you hear the call, you will be able to answer.

In summation: the only correct object of Christian fear is God.

(This might seem a bit of a bleak note to end on, so one final (only slightly) cheerier reflection: if the thing you’re most afraid is also what you believe to be the source of all goodness, hope, and love, then you could be doing a lot worse.)

(P.S. I hope none of the above implies the complete abandonment of some sense of reason or use of critical faculties: if you hear a voice calling you to kill an innocent, for example, you are definitely within your rights to assume that it’s not God talking to you.)

Ed's post and more of his writing can be seen here at his blog...

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