Is That The Right Verb?

Ps 130:3-4

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    that you may be feared.

The last word of this passage has been giving me pause. Is that the right verb? Our gut level intuitions would think that our response to God’s forgiveness would be something else. “With you there is forgiveness that you may be…honored; loved; thanked; praised; glorified; delighted in.” Feared? How is fear connected to forgiveness? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? We would think that forgiveness would not produce fear, but trust; perhaps even entitlement (at least, that’s how it works with little children. I’m always astounded at how quickly they feel entitled to forgiveness).

One reason for our cognitive dissonance is that we associate fear with danger and intimidation, with the end result being some kind of self-preserving response–fight or flight. This isn’t what the author is talking about. It is not intimidation, but rather awe. This is the kind of fear that actually unhooks us from our sense of self. We aren’t interested in ourselves at all. In this sense, it is actually closer to surprise or shock.

Let’s go to the courtroom metaphor that the psalmist puts us in. The iniquities have been counted against us. If the case against us is clear and incontrovertible–the arguments apodictic, the witnesses called, the prosecution rested, the verdict established–then what we expect is sentencing and execution. But instead we hear a pardon and sentence to joyful bliss. What? Can that even happen? That shock, that surprise–that awe–is what is called fear in the Bible. And yet it is not without an element of unease. If God can do this, what could he not do? He cannot be predicted or controlled. He is utterly beyond anything we can manage. We cannot figure him out or reduce him to a set of truths or principles. As C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, “He is not a tame lion.”

Through this week, I have been reflecting on how quickly and easily I can give up on being surprised. My tendency is toward optimization–managing all the wheels of life so that as many plates as possible will spin on their own, or if I can’t have that, spin with the least inconvenience to myself. I want things controllable and predictable, easy and tensionless. And I want God to bless my management. The trouble is that I am not his boss and my goals are often at odds with his economy. He hasn’t made me a manager, but a child.

Children have awe and wonder and trust. They are flexible enough in their minds to accept the unpredictable. The world is bigger than they are and they are at peace with that because someone else who is bigger than they are will give them what they need. In this sense, we aren’t supposed to grow up. In our better moments, we trust our Father to take care of things, but our trust only extends as far as our puny imaginations. And this is nothing new. As Jeff mentioned in a recent sermon, the children of Israel trusted until they were caught between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. Unlike children, they could not imagine the Lord parting the sea and turning the most successful cavalry into the least successful navy. Conversely, when Babylon was pounding on the gates of Jerusalem, most of the prophets were thumping the tub of God’s miraculous deliverance in the past to keep their hopes alive. They couldn’t imagine that deliverance would come through exile in a foreign nation as Jeremiah had said. Again, when James and John asked if they could be Jesus’ prime minister and secretary of state, they were confident he would be executing a military coup to usher in the era of his reign. And as he was being executed before their eyes by the very government he was “supposed to” destroy, they could not imagine that he was actually demonstrating his rule over all governments, human or otherwise.

For some reason when we read these stories a thousand times, we forget that our Father was blowing the lid off his people’s expectations. Instead of doing this for us, they are simply predictable plot twists in stories we struggle to keep fresh and relevant. And then that is how we look at our own lives. Plot twists, the unexpected, the unplanned, the outside-of-my-control painful circumstances in our own stories become places of unrest and insecurity. But what if our story wasn’t a different one than what we find in the Bible? What if that not-so-tame lion whom Jesus calls our Father is up to something outside the box, something incomprehensible and nevertheless good? In biblical terms, we don’t want to fear him. My friends, my prayer for us is that we become like children with a wild and open imagination, and simple trust. To fear the Lord is to be surprised, to be astounded, to be taken aback at how much larger he is than our thoughts of him and at the same time to know that he is our Father. He is not a tame lion, but he is good. How is he doing what you least expect in your life right now?

Grace & Peace

Josh Wilder