Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
—Psalm 130:1-4 (ESV)
I found myself, upon reading this psalm (along with Psalms 131 and 134) to my older girls this evening, explaining to them the whole concept of the fear of the Lord. It’s rather a difficult one, especially for an eight-year-old and a five-year-old, since obviously I don’t want them to go around terrified of God—and yet, they need to understand this. I need to understand this. I’m sure there are many who could do a much better job than I did, but here (more or less) is what I told them.
- Awe. A couple years ago at Thanksgiving, we took a trip through Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon. The kids absolutely loved it. I reminded them of how they’d felt looking out across those great canyons—including the element of fear of what would happen if they fell in. In the same way, only far, far more so, God is great and glorious and beautiful—and not safe.
- Holiness. Our God is a consuming fire, as Deuteronomy and Hebrews tell us; if we as we are, unholy, impure, and frail, were to enter his presence, we would burn like moths in a flame. There’s a reason Isaiah was terrified at even just a vision of the holiness of God: it’s more than we can bear.
- Wrath. Along with this goes the wrath of God against sin, which is the mainspring of his judgment on sin, which we have richly earned for the waywardness of our hearts—even the best of us. God is the one who cannot and will not tolerate sin, and the judge of all the earth; we should feel in our bones the truth that we deserve only his judgment.
- Discipline. To be sure, you might well say that those who are in Christ have been given instead his grace, and that is true; and yet, our sin still deserves his wrath, and just because we have received grace does not mean we’ve been given a “get out of punishment free” card. Rather the contrary: “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.” As Hebrews notes, discipline is painful rather than pleasant, even though it brings good fruit.
- The untamed God. We cannot control God; we cannot make him do what we want, or keep him from doing what we do not want, and we cannot ensure that he will only ask us to do what we want to do and feel comfortable doing. As Mr. Beaver says of Aslan, God is good, but he isn’t safe—and there is nothing less safe than surrendering control to him that he may call us and lead us where and as he will. (Not that our control is ever anything more than an illusion anyway, but it’s an illusion to which we cling desperately for all that.) We fear what he may do to us, and where he may take us; we fear the loss of all we’ve ever known and wanted—and quite reasonably so, for God may indeed require all that of us and more, even to the point of asking us to lay down our lives in his service. Of course, he promises to give us a far better life in exchange, but that’s an unknown quantity, and we fear the unknown.
As we are, we could not bear the full presence of God; we could not even survive a glimpse of his face. In Jesus Christ, he has made a way for us to enter his presence, he has opened a way for us through the veil—but he is still the Lord of the Universe and the Creator of all that is, his glory is still a light to blast our eyes out the backs of our skulls and his holiness is still a fire that would burn us beyond even the memory of ash; if he has made it safe for us to come to him, it’s not because he himself is safe or because we are somehow worthy to stand in his presence, but rather because he paid the price in himself for us to do so.
Even with all that Christ has done for us, it remains true that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom—because the beginning of wisdom is not to take God lightly, or to take his grace for granted.