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Fear Seeking Understanding: The Problem and Promise of Theophobia

William P. Brown 
Professor of Old Testament
Columbia Theological Seminary
Decatur, Georgia

For most Americans at this point and time, the words “fear” and “terror” form a natural, if not inseparable, pair.  Yet most of us in the first world do not know what it’s like to hear a knock on the door in the middle of the night that portends torture and disappearance.  We have not felt the sheer panic suffered in a dark basement as laser-guided bombs are exploding overhead.  We have not known the disorientating fear of fleeing home because of military conflict, as ancient suffered in Jeremiah’s day and as many in Darfur and Southern Lebanon have suffered today.  To be sure, some of us have suffered the rising waters of broken levees and lack of aid.  More and more students have had to flee classrooms or cower under school desks because of armed adults and children possessed by psychotic anger or grief.  But the rest of us read about such horrific events while continuing to live in relatively stable, secure, and comfortable surroundings.

Nevertheless, our comfort zones have been breached.  We live under a dark cloud of fear, but one that poses most immediately nothing more than inconvenience.  Fear has become color coded.  We stand in long lines at the airport and are deprived of hair gel.  Our current politics, as Scott Bader-Sayehas aptly noted, is driven by fear, particularly as our leaders blatantly use the national trauma of 9/11 and subsequent acts of terror (or attempted terror) for political gain.  In our country, fear has an insatiable appetite as billions upon billions of dollars are given to sustain and broaden our military might around the world.  Fear must be fought with fear, we are told.  Although we have the fear of superior military might on our side, we cannot live securely by strength of arms alone.  There is always a narrow gap or a weak link waiting to be exploited in the seemingly impenetrable armor that we don in the name of defense.  And so behind our imperial armor, we continue to sweat bullets.

With fear so rampant, what does it mean to fear God?  In Scott’s essay, confident trust and hope in God’s providence are the antidotes to fear, and rightly so.  But there is a missing step as one moves from fear of the stranger to trust in God.  The prophets and poets, the sages and law-givers of the Old Testament repeatedly prescribe the “fear of the Lord.”  To further the discussion, I want to focus on two contrasting biblical texts that deal with the fear of God, namely, Jeremiah 8:14-15 and Psalm 111.

The text from Jeremiah paints a horrific picture of panic in the face of military invasion, brought upon by God no less:

Why do we sit still?  Gather together, let us go into the fortified cities and perish there; for the LORD our God has doomed us to perish, and has given us poisoned water to drink, because we have sinned against the LORD.  We look for peace, but find no good, for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.  The snorting of their horses is heard from Dan; at the sound of the neighing of their stallions the whole land quakes.  They come and devour the land and all that fills it, the city and those who live in it.  See, I am letting snakes loose among you, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, says the LORD (NRSV)

Because of the climate of politicized fear in which we live, Jeremiah’s text comes like a punch to the gut.  “We look for peace, but find no good, for a time of healing, but only terror instead,” the people lament.  No politicizing here.  In the face of Babylonian onslaught, the rural residents of realize that they cannot “sit still.”  And so they flee to fortified cities, but not out of naïve hope for rescue.  Fatalism accompanies their every step.  Their flight is only for a temporary respite, a stay of execution, as an invading army begins its blitzkrieg from the north.  And then there are those “snakes on the plain” (cf. Num 21:4-9).  All from God.

Reading this text alone can afflict any one with theophobia, a case of the divine willies.  The first record of this condition is found way back when in the primordial garden.  As the Lord God casually strolled through the garden that fateful evening, Adam cowers in terror.  His fear has forced him into hiding.  “Where are you?” God asks non-threateningly.  Adam responds, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen 3:10).  And the tangible results of such fear?  A chain reaction of paralyzing vulnerability, blame, alienation, control, and subordination.  Not good.  I have often wondered whether things would have turned out differently in the garden if Adam had simply mustered his courage, stood up, and confessed his culpability, taking upon himself the responsibility of disobedience rather than blaming his spouse and God.  But then that would have meant overcoming his fear.

The text from Jeremiah acknowledges a certain kind of “fear of God,” of the God who unleashes unremitting destructive forces against an unrepentant, defiant people.  To be sure, it is terror with a purpose, for the appropriate response that Jeremiah identifies is not resistance but contrite repentance, not retaliation but confession.  But it remains a text of terror.

There is another side of fear according to Scripture that is, by contrast, eminently edifying.  This fear of God is teachable (Ps 34:11).  It has nothing to do with theophobia in the sense noted above.  But neither is such fear to be replaced simply with love and reverence, trust and hope.  It is a fear that relativizes all other fears.  After all, the injunction “do not fear” is the most common commandment in the Bible, occurring at least 75 times in the Old Testament alone.  And yet fear of God, “the fear of the Lord,” is nothing short of mandated.  “The Lord your God you shall fear,” intones Moses repeatedly on the plains of (Deut 6:13a).

According to Psalm 111, such fear is meant to be part of our faith and practice, fear expressed in praise and delight.

  1. Praise the LORD!
    I thank the LORD with whole heart,
    in the company of the upright, the congregation .2. Great are the works of the LORD,
    studied by all as their delight.

    3. Honor and majesty characterize his work,
    and his righteousness stands forever.

    4. He has won renown for his wonders.
    Gracious and merciful is the LORD

    5. Food he gives to those who fear him.
    He is ever mindful of his covenant.

    6. The power of his works he has shown to his people,
    by giving them the heritage of nations.

    7. The works of his hands are steadfast and just;
    trustworthy are all his precepts,

    8. Upheld forever and ever,
    to be fulfilled with faithfulness and integrity.

    9. Redemption he has sent his people;
    he has ordained his covenant forever.

    10. The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom;
    comprehension of the good is for all who fulfill them. (1)

    11. Praise of him endures forever. (2)

What kind of fear is claimed as the “beginning of wisdom”?  How does a God who is “gracious and merciful” and a provider of food inspire fear?  This is not fear in any conventional sense.  It is not a paralyzing fear, but a grateful fear.  Even more paradoxical, the later sages of ancient identified godly fear as a source of joy and delight (Sirach 1:11-20).  As Karl Barth himself noted in a sermon preached in the Prison of Basel in 1958, the fear of the Lord is “inspired with secret jubilation and is born of gratitude.” (3)

What kind of fear is claimed as the “beginning of wisdom”?How does a God who is “gracious and merciful” and a provider of food inspire fear?This is not fear in any conventional sense.It is not a paralyzing fear, but a grateful fear.Even more paradoxical, the later sages of ancient identified godly fear as a source of joy and delight (Sirach 1:11-20).As Karl Barth himself noted in a sermon preached in the Prison of Basel in 1958, the fear of the Lord is “inspired with secret jubilation and is born of gratitude.” (3)

This is a strange fear that nothing in English can quite capture in translation.  Reverence and even awe only dilute this kind of “fear” commended by the psalmist, and yet it is deemed the beginning point for appropriating wisdom and practicing worship, even for pursuing theological study (Ps 111:2).  Imagine that!  I doubt you’ll find the word “fear” used as a course objective in any course syllabus in theology or Bible.  Or, instead of passing the peace in worship, you say, “May the fear of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”  Strange indeed it would sound!

Nevertheless, this is “fear seeking understanding,” not much different from Augustine’s view of faith.  A fear that casts out all fears, a fear that dismantles the human reign of terror.  A fear rooted not in divine terror but in divine redemption.  Not the kind of fear that causes us to cower in God’s presence but impels us to obedience and responsibility, confession and conversion, to radical discipleship and hospitality (as Scott has well noted).  But we do all this not out of dread of punishment but out of awe of God’s great, redemptive, hospitable works.  These “great works” are not done by God to destroy but to redeem and to transform.

And so at the foot of the cross we tremble, and indeed we must.  We tremble not out of dread of punishment but out of the speechless wonder over the magnanimous love of God, of the God who willingly became the victim of terror, absorbing the violence and vengeance that we commit out of fear, and in so doing has conquered the dark side of theophobia, replacing it once and for all with righteous, enlivening, yes, even joyous fear.  No wonder Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome were, according to Mark, seized by fear as they fled from the empty tomb, because they had borne witness to God’s greatest work of all.

May the fear of the Lord be with you.

Questions for Reflection
1. On a purely visceral level, what do you associate with the biblical phrase “fear of the LORD”?
2. Has this essay changed your view of “Godly fear?” How so?
3. What does the biblical command to “fear” God have to do with the comparable command to “love” God?

(1) That is, fulfill God’s precepts mentioned in v. 7.
(2) Author’s translation.
(3) Karl Barth, “The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom,” Interpretation 14, 4 (1959): 438.