This discussion of “fear” takes place in the context of a larger concern of Pohill’s work, a preparation for suffering. The basic proposition is that “holy fear” will prepare us for suffering. Before we consider his understanding of fear, it would be well to consider something of how the concept of godly fear interacts with the problem of suffering. What makes this particularly interesting is something I heard recently of a pastor who faith was challenged by truly heart breaking instance of suffering.
Now I am not “picking on” this pastor. This concept that faith is challenged by suffering is an interesting idea. For faith to be challenged, something contrary to the faith must occur. For example, my faith in gravity would challenged by suddenly floating rather than sinking to the ground.
Thus, for suffering to challenge faith would entail a preceding belief that life would be without suffering.
Such a faith cannot be found in the Bible. The Bible is replete with precisely the opposition promise. There is an answer for suffering, but there is no promise that we will not suffer.
However, we have an implicit sort of faith that we will be exempted from trouble (and perhaps that is a modern affliction). I sympathize with such a conflict, having experienced it myself. This implicit belief is something that seems quite natural to us: if there is a God, then will exempt me (perhaps others) from suffering. It is a version of the argument if God is good and all powerful then why is there evil? When the evil is suffered by someone else, it is an abstract philosophical question. When it is suffered by me, it is a real issue.
However, it is good to note how this is problem of suffering is nuanced in the Scripture. Scripture directly confronts the concept that suffering causes us to question God, but it does not do so in the context of saying that we will not suffer. Consider Psalm 13:
Psalm 13:1–2 (ESV)
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
His suffering causes him to question: Not God’s existence, but God’s absence: how long will I suffer in this way?
The extended question of Job is not whether God is, but what sort of God there is.
Pohill makes this observation:
Holy fear looks upon sin as an evil much greater than any suffering: suffering is opposite to the creature, but sin is opposite to the infinite God; it is a rebellion to his sovereignty, a contradiction to his holiness, a provocation to his justice;
When we suffer, we are brought to a question because we are personally crossed. Suffering is against us as a creature. The existence of God (which is what the modern, crisis of faith amounts to: If there is a God, then why should I suffer?) does not come into view. The creature being crossed does not prove or disprove God. Perhaps the issue for one in the position of Psalm 13 is “Is God good?” or “Does God care about me?” The question is not, Is there a God?
Fear of God puts God’s evaluation of the circumstance above my own. It is not what I intend or desire or expect. In fact, my own expectations are the cause of much human sorrow. Much of my suffering comes not merely from the event itself, but the fact that the event challenges my own belief about how the world is supposed to be. To that extent, we could say that suffering is good because suffering forces me to have a more realistic understanding of the world (all is vanity, in this world you will have sorrow). It also forces me to not set my expectations upon ease within the current world, but rather hope for the world to come.
James puts conflict at the feet of human desire. Genesis 3 puts original sin at the heart of human desire. Fear answers suffering by grounding us in the consideration of God’s valuation.
Fear is an interesting idea in this case: because it is “fear” which drives me to a different understanding of myself as a creature and God’s work in this world. (And thus, perhaps suffering is necessary to cause me to realize that I am a creature living at the sufferance and upon the grace of God; indeed all creatures live upon the sufferance and grace of God, because we are all contingent.)
Suffering does not raise the question of God’s existence, when the starting place is the fear of God based upon God’s holiness.
Now, this is not to deny suffering; nor does this answer the question of the ground for a “holy fear.”