Recently on a drive through a small, suburban town, I saw the following message on a church sign: “Afraid of burning? Apply Son-screen.” I’ve seen similar messages to this one; “How will you spend eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?” “Life is Hard. Afterlife is Harder!” “WARNING: Exposure to the Son may prevent burning!” While there may be a pithy cleverness to some of these church slogans, I am bothered by the use of fear as a primary motivator for entering into a relationship with God. Why would anyone “scare” people into relationship with God? Can a true relationship be formed on the basis of fear?
Of course, the narratives of the Bible are replete with admonitions to fear the Lord. Even those unfamiliar with Christianity are likely to have some acquaintance with the familiar Proverb: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7). But the fear of God is quite different from being afraid. Actually, the fear of the Lord is a component of faith; it arises from knowledge of God and from within the context of relationship with God. The fear of the Lord is reverence for God, and it reminds us of our place and our standing before that God. We are finite and fallen. God is infinite and holy. Fear is simply another name for the wonder, reverence, and praise we owe to God our Creator.
Now, perhaps these church billboards have a hint of this understanding in their message, but sadly, the result for those reading these kinds of messages is fear, or revulsion. If the only motivation to turn to God is to avoid punishment, how is that any kind of relationship? Perhaps this message results when there is confusion between the justice of God and punishment. Often, we want to punish others, or we have misplaced the desire to see others punished for a sense of justice. In contrast, the desire for justice is the desire to see things put right, made right by God. As Jesus prayed, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a prayer for God’s justice to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Rather than making people fell afraid and focusing on all that is fearfully wrong, there is also the exhortation to proclaim all that God has set right in Jesus Christ: “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
Interestingly enough, more than any other command in Scripture, we are commanded to ‘fear not,’ and ‘do not be afraid.’(1) In fact, there are 366 commands (one for every day of the year and for Leap Year) to not be afraid. In Jesus’s teaching and message, he reserved his warnings of judgment for those who considered themselves in the “right” with God—those who defined their righteousness by their own merits. Jesus never used fear as a motivation for following him. Rather, for those on the outside looking in, Jesus extended hospitality and welcome. Indeed, in his message announcing “the kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” Jesus extends an invitation, not an ultimatum driven by fear. It is an invitation to enter into the kingdom by following him—his way, his life. Those who follow Jesus today can extend the same invitation to others who are seeking: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Perhaps understanding proper fear gives new insight to the words written in John’s first letter. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:16-19). Author Scott Bader-Saye comments that fear twists virtue into vice.(2) Fear motivated by a lack of love pursues punishment. When anyone is detached from love, fear-filled messages are sent. But when the proclamation centers on the God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ fear is replaced by love; a love freely offered to others, by the God who has first loved us.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Lloyd Ogilvie cited in John Ortberg, If You Want To Walk on Water You Have to Get Out of The Boat (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 118.
(2) Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 48-49.