There are several words and phrases in the Bible that we don't quite understand, sentences we are still parsing more than 2000 years later. Meanings we're trying to uncover. Messages that we're trying to make fit our paradigm. One of the most confusing is the idea of man's "fear of the Lord."
Because we all know we're not supposed to be afraid of God, and yet that word....fear...it's hard to quite wrap our heads around. It must mean awe, we say. The awe of the Lord. It must mean appreciation or worship or deference. It must mean that recognition that God is so much bigger than us. Yes...that word translated fear must simply mean respect. Man should live in respect of the Lord.
They couldn't have meant fear.
...They totally meant fear.
I feel like I do a lot of writing about fear, and maybe I do. (A quick run through my tags, and you can kind of see a pattern here.) It's not that I intend to be so fear-focused; it's that there's such a fine line between fear and faith. And looking around, it's easy to see that the opposite of faith is not doubt; it's fear. Fear is what keeps us from becoming what it is that God created us to be. Fear is what holds us back when God calls us to step forward. And I think I've mentioned this before - there are more commands in the Bible to "not be afraid" than anything else. A popular meme says there are 365 such commands, one for each day of the year. (You're on your own on Leap Day.)
I dare argue, however, that fear may be something holy. Or perhaps that holy feels like fear. I was a psychology undergrad for a few years (which makes me an expert on everything, thank you very much) and one of the cool technologies we have today in the field of psychology is the ability to image the brain in motion. To see it thinking, in blasts of color on a screen. Not that I'm all about figuring things out, but I still think this is particularly neat. We can see, for instance, a brain that processes junk food in the same way it processes crack cocaine. We can see a brain respond to the winter season the same way it does to depression. And I think if we were to put this to a study, I'm fairly confident of this, we would find that the brain processes holy in the same way it processes fear.
(Someone with the fancy machine, please draw this one up!)
There's been a great deal of holy happening in my life lately. A ton of cool moments that can be described as nothing but God. And yet, as these moments started unfolding, what I felt most profoundly was fear, albeit a holy fear. I could go from having this intense sensation of fear to a deep worship and back again in the blink of an eye. I could go from absolute awe at the presence of God to an unexplainable fear in a matter of seconds, then back again to worship because holy had to be the thing. In a one-on-one with one of my supervisors in the chaplain education program, we once started talking about this very thing. She always said that I looked like I was absolutely enjoying myself, and I was. I told her about the stillness in my spirit, the joy in my heart, the smile on my face. I told her what it was like to leave the hospital and suddenly be aware of how powerfully the presence of God had shown up that day. What it meant to get in my car at the end of a shift and hear worship on the radio and understand it on a level I could never put words to. Then I looked her in the eye and added, "But...even after nine years of Post-Traumatic Stress, after almost a decade of terrible flashbacks and horrid nightmares...I don't even know how to say this...I am the most scared today that I have ever been in my life." She didn't know what to make of that; neither did I.
But as time wears on and that seeming conflict of holy and fear continues to rage in my heart, I think I'm starting to figure it out. I think...they're the very same thing. It is the holy that feels like fear.
Think about all of the holy moments in your life. Think about the way the divine presence sort of catches in your heart, makes everything inside you skip a beat. Think about that elongated second that requires a response. Think about those moments, and I think you'll start to see the holy-fear correlation. Because these holy moments initiate the classic fear response: fight or flight.
That's the struggle many people have with faith. They come to a point where God is undeniably holy and perfectly present in their lives, however fleeting that moment may feel, and that fight or flight kicks in. I think we've all had that moment. It's the moment that led Moses to argue with God - no, I can't do it, I'm not Your man - and the moment that led Jonah into the whale. It's the fight, the refusal, the denial...and it's the escape, it's the hiding, it's the run. Very rare is the man who simply says, "Alright, cool. Let's go." A holy moment sparks this fight or flight in us the very same way our deepest fears do.
It might be easy, then, to say that perhaps holiness is one of our deepest fears. Maybe it is. I don't know. We could certainly rationalize that one out and come up with a plausible answer in either direction. I don't know that that's the point. I don't know that it matters whether holiness is our fear or not. What I think is important is that we understand that it simply may be that we process holiness in the same way as fear.
I think God understood that. I think that's why He constantly reminds His people, "Do not be afraid." It's not fear He was fighting against; it was holy He was trying to preserve. I think He comes, knowing that holy feels like fear and inviting His people to just wait a second. To hold onto that moment. To not be pressured into a fight or flight, but to take a moment for what might be faith. You see, that is the third option in response to this feeling. Not to argue. Not to run. But just to believe.
Most of us forget we have that choice.
We're a people who want to dive into fear, to shine light in the darkness. We think if we can just get down deep enough, we can uncover the "truth" and that will eliminate our fear. The thing about fear is that you can never understand it from the inside. The further you dive into fear, the more wholly lost you become until you're not sure what you're afraid of, or why, but that fear comes to define you. You have to step out of fear, or at least stand up to it, if you ever hope to overcome it.
Faith, however, requires that you dive into it. It beckons you to go deeper. It invites you into the depths of the unknown and all it takes is a moment.
You blink your eyes in fear, and the object of your fear grows larger. Blink your eyes in faith and the world opens up. Have I mentioned that it's a fine line?
And I think this is why we have all of these Bible authors talking about such a thing as the fear of the Lord. It's not that they were being metaphorical. It's not that our translations are slightly off. It's not that we're supposed to make that into some milder word, like respect or awe or even wonder. It's that, to an aching heart, there is just not a better word. Fear is what holy feels like. All these men, the authors of their time, the players in God's story were living in the holy of the Lord and they wanted people to embrace it. They wanted people to understand it was a good way to live.
It is a good way to live. My heart hasn't settled on fear or faith. I'd like to say it's faith but there are moments that the overwhelming feeling of fear catches me. It is still true that today, I am more afraid than I have ever been in my entire life, but my life is also more holy than it has ever been. I am one blink away from opening up this world before me, one split second from seeing what lies beyond. But I am also one blink away from seeing my insecurities magnified, my worst nightmares expanded. It takes a great deal of conscious effort, on any given day, to figure out if what is going on is hair-raising or simply holy. More often than not, it is both.
I'd like to see the studies. I'd be interested to find out if what my heart tells me is true, if the piece of the brain that processes fear is the very same one that holds onto holy. I think it is. And I'm glad there are men of God who have come before me who knew this, though they probably struggled themselves over the words, and shared with us the glory of living in the fear of the Lord (which may be nothing more than the holy). But I am most glad for a God who, having woven this all together, takes every chance to remind a man not to be afraid.
That it doesn't have to be a fear response. It doesn't come down to fight or flight. There is another option. That option is faith.