So a couple years ago I had the idea that I would write a book. In typical fashion for myself I never finished it. In fact I only got a chapter done. Just for fun I thought I’d post it here. The main idea of the book, in fact the title, was going to be Ground Christianity. A way of living out the Christian life in the real world so to speak. The first chapter was on fear and love. Hope you enjoy!
CHAPTER 1: THE FURIOUS LOVE OF GOD
“… and as I passed the fire I did not know whether it was hell or the furious love of God”
From G.K. Chesterton’s essay “The Diabolist”
“Mighty God how I fear you, and I long to be near you…”
From the song “The Reckoning” by Andrew Peterson
I remember the fear.
I was young. Probably around 7 years old. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, shaking and crying. It was late at night… usually between 11pm and 1am. I couldn’t feel it. I was told that once I made this decision everything would be different. Everything would be ok.
I was not ok.
Depending on the time my dad would sometimes be sitting out in the living room watching television after having arrived home from his 2nd shift job at General Motors on the assembly line. My dad is and always has been a hard working man, short, with a muscular build and a stern face, but a comical side that often betrays him to the point of laughing uncontrollably at an inappropriately timed joke. My dad would often wake me up late at night with his riotous laughter at a joke from a late night talk show host, that is if I wasn’t already awake struggling with fear. My dad isn’t afraid of anything, or at least if he is, he’s never let on. So when the fear hit me and the anxiety and panic ensued I went to my dad.
Stumbling down the dark hallway and into the dimly lit living room I’d stand in the living room just behind the couch until my dad noticed me or heard my whimpering. The general conversation would go something like…
“Ricky… what’s wrong buddy?”
“I don’t want to go to hell daddy… I can’t tell if I’m saved… How do you know?”
“Have you prayed and asked Jesus into your heart?”
“Yes, but I just don’t know if anything happened… I can’t feel anything.”
“You’re saved and you have nothing to fear buddy. Go back to bed ok. Things will be better in the morning.”
With that my dad would give me a hug, do his best to comfort me and send me back to bed.
The power of fear. My dad had underestimated it. We all have. We all do.
A year or so before the late nights and the fear and trembling I was in a Sunday school class at the baptist church I grew up in. My family was pretty consistently in about the 10th pew from the back on the far right side every Sunday. I was young enough at this point not to have to sit in the adult services. One particular Sunday I remember the teacher talking about hell and what a horrible place it was and that by simply accepting Jesus into my heart I could be saved from hell. It seemed like a simple solution.
Hell is bad. Jesus is good. Say a prayer and you’re all set.
So when the teacher said, “would any of you like to accept Jesus into your hearts? Raise your hands if you would and Ms. Smith will take you into the other room to lead you through the prayer.” (I can’t remember actual names so let’s just go with Ms. Smith for now)… I raised my hand and went into the other room. Ms. Smith said to repeat after her and then began the prayer…
“Dear Jesus, I know I’m a sinner. I believe that you died on the cross and by believing in you I can be forgiven and have eternal life. Please come into my heart and be my Savior.”
I repeated the prayer and that was that. We walked back into the other room and life went on. Sort of… The thought of hell terrified me still, and I couldn’t shake it. I was told when I said the prayer that the Holy Spirit would fill me and I would be changed. I couldn’t feel any marked difference. I went home and over the next few years I must have said that prayer over 10,000 times, although it grew more desperate over time. “Please Jesus! Please come into my heart… I don’t want to go to hell! I’m sorry. Please forgive me!” Over and over again I said this prayer. I was scared to death.
Should we be drawing people to God by scaring them to death? Let’s go beyond that… Once a person has made the decision to follow Christ with their lives should we be trying to keep Christians “in line” by using fear?
A popular topic the Christian community right now is evangelism. Now don’t hear me wrong, evangelism is incredibly important. People need to hear the word preached. Christians need to be taking the Word to the world. The last thing Jesus Christ said to his followers before ascending to Heaven was to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) But the way it is being preached right now comes across very works oriented. In a nutshell, “if you aren’t out saving people on a regular basis then you may not be saved, and you know where unsaved people go right?”
Don’t we have any better ways to communicate the saving work of Christ? Do we have to resort to terrifying people to get them to come to Jesus, and to ensure that they stay there?
Fear was used as the singular motivating factor to drive me to God. I was not given a healthy, grounded view. One that spoke to both the fear of the Lord as well as to His amazing love for me. I grew to think God was constantly watching me and waiting for me to mess up. He was not a loving father. He had become a dictator in my life.
How do we achieve this balanced view of fear versus love? A couple thoughts come to mind. First a story…
When I was around 13 I had a brand new basketball hoop in the driveway. Everyday during the summer I’d get up early and play basketball for hours, but first I’d have to move our GMC Safari minivan off the court. My parents had begun allowing me to grab the keys to the van and back it off the cement court myself. One day the van was parked on the side of the court closest to the basketball hoop and as I backed the van up, for whatever reason, I had decided not to shut the door to the van. So as I was backing the van off the cement with the door wide open, it caught on the basketball hoop and bent in ways that it was not mechanically designed or engineered to bend. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Tommy Boy” with Chris Farley, picture the part in the movie where he backs up Richards car at the gas pump and bends the door completely backwards. That is exactly what I did to my parents van.
Like I said earlier, my dad had a stern face and I had grown to fear my father in a somewhat unhealthy way. I don’t know why that was. He never really gave me reason to fear him that badly. By all counts he was an amazing father to me. I, however, was convinced that he was going to kill me. So after realizing what I had done and having no way to fix it really I shut the van off, ran inside and hid in my room. My mother noticed the door and came into my room to ask me what happened. I was a blubbering mess. I was terrified of what I had done and how my father was going to react. I was certain this was going to be some sort of horribly painful punishment or torture. My mother simply said, “well you’ll have to talk with your father when he gets home.” It was about 10am and at this point in life dad was working first shift so he’d be home around 5pm. I stayed in my room the entire day hunkered down in bed crying. I was terrified. I was ashamed. I knew I deserved whatever punishment he would give me.
I heard my dad step in the door just after 5pm. He had noticed the van door as he passed it in the driveway. With my door closed I could hear him walk into the house and in a very shocked voice ask, “what happened the van door?” I heard my mom talking quietly with him, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. After she had finished saying whatever she had to say I heard my dad simply say, “ok”, and then I heard a sound that sent chills down my spine… He was walking towards my room.
I expected the door to crash open and for him to charge in pointing his finger and yelling all sorts of obscenities, and after the verbal lashing I fully expected some sort of physical punishment. Again, I had no reason to think this. My father had never been anything but loving with me. I got a spanking here and there as a young child, but nothing more really. I simply feared my father because he was my father and I didn’t want to disappoint him.
Much to my surprise my dad knocked on the door and asked if he could come in. I contemplated saying no, but thought that may be really pushing my luck. He opened the door, walked in, and sat down calmly on the bed next to me. He didn’t say anything for a few seconds. Then he simply said, “Son, I know you didn’t mean to do that. It’s ok.” I began to tell him through tears how sorry I was and how it was an accident and I’d help pay for it… to which he said, “It’s ok son… I forgive you.” He placed his strong arms around me and gave me a huge hug. I’ve never breathed a bigger sigh of relief.
I learned something that day about my father’s love for me. I was more important to him than that van.
Love and Fear
What we miss is this view that yes our Father in Heaven is to be feared because He is God almighty, but His love for us is a furious love that would go through hell to save us and be with us. Literal hell.
Jesus told a story once about a son who decided he wanted nothing to do with his father anymore and asked for his share of the inheritance so that he could get out of there and go be his own man. This was the equivalent of telling his father that he wished he was dead and wanted nothing to do with him. But because the father loved the son he fulfilled the sons request and gave him what he wanted. The son took the inheritance and left without looking back. He ran as far as he could and began to live the good life with the inheritance his father had given him. Drinking and woman and wild living… sex, drugs, and ancient Jewish rock-n-roll… or whatever type of music the kids listened to back then… Quickly though he wasted it all and ran out of money to live on. The only work he could find was to go work for a local pig farmer and feed his pigs. Since he had no money he couldn’t afford to buy much food and he grew hungry. In what has to have been his darkest moment he starts contemplating eating the food he is feeding the pigs. Suddenly he has an awakening and realizes that back at his fathers estate there are all sorts of servants and people there that are fed well and taken care of. He decides that asking forgiveness of his father is his only chance at survival and he begins the trek back home. All the way home he’s rehearsing exactly what he’s going to say. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” He has the speech ready and he means every word of it.
As the young man comes over a hill, the father, who is apparently watching for him, spots him off in the distance. Without hesitation the father runs out to meet the son and before the son can even get out his apology the father throws his arms around him. His son has returned and he’s overjoyed. They embrace for a moment and the son attempts to deliver the apology, but the father doesn’t even acknowledge it. The father sees that the son is sorry in the very action of his return and he welcomes the son back no questions asked and throws a huge party. So while the son was fearful that the father may not accept him back, and at the very best would hire him as a servant, the father actually surprises him and brings him back with honor and a huge party. The love of the father calms the fearful, repentant son. Read the whole story in Luke 15.
We see this type of interaction over and over again in the scriptures. An individual encountering God is struck with absolute terror, but then God steps forth to comfort them. Look at Isaiah 6 when Isaiah the prophet has a vision of the throne room of God and he falls on his face realizing he is a sinful man, and then an angel comforts him so that he won’t fear. In Luke 1, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is terrified when the angel Gabriel shows up to tell her that she will become pregnant and give birth to the savior of the world. Gabriel comforts her though by saying, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.” In Matthew 17, Jesus takes a few of his key disciples up on a mountain side where he is transfigured and it says “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light”, and then they hear a voice from heaven. Struck with fear the disciples all fall on their faces, but then Jesus gently touches each of them and says, “Get up. Do not be afraid.” The apostle John in Revelation 1 is in exile on Patmos and has a vision of Jesus in all His glory and the word says he “fell at his feet as though dead.” Jesus again comes to John, places his hand on him and comforts him and says, “Do not be afraid..”
Freedom In Love
1 John 4:13-18 speaks to love and fear when it says…
This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
So while fear is a natural reaction to the very real presence of the Father, we see that His desire is to calm our hearts and express His unimaginable love for us, His children. The first step is still repentance. We all need to repent. Just like the son who walked away from his father, once he realized what he had done he turned, or repented, of his actions and lifestyle and came back to his father seeking forgiveness. But he didn’t return out of fear. He returned because he was sorry for what he had done and he longed to be back with his father. There was some fear in not knowing how his father would respond, but there was also a strange draw back to his father. He may have feared his response, but he longed to be back with him. If this story and the story about my own father are among the best we have, how could we possibly think these stories of flesh born men would trump the all loving Heavenly Father? How could men out love God? As it says in the verse from 1 John 4, “God is love”.
Once we can sit in this realization that our Heavenly Father loves us beyond what we can comprehend, and we can let that truth seep into our bones, a new found freedom will begin to take root deep within us. The freedom of a child who understands that their father is not to be trifled with, but who also understands that their father loves them furiously and would do anything for them.