There is a sort of paradox which lies at the heart of the Christian’s apprehension of God. We are told to love God and trust God. But we are also told to fear God. Psalm 2 contains the strange command:
Psalm 2:11 (ESV)
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
How is that possible: fear and trembling are quite different than the command to rejoice. But this paradox of joy and fear, coming near and trembling is a basic theme of the Scripture:
Isaiah 66:1–2 (ESV)
The Humble and Contrite in Spirit
66 Thus says the LORD:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is the place of my rest?
2 All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things came to be,
declares the LORD.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word.
How then do we desire that we fear? Augustine helps provide some information here:
Because human desires must be transformed and reoriented in order to long for God rightly, desire for God, according to Augustine, does not provide an unambiguous sense of pleasure, at least not while we are still on our earthly pilgrimage. For Augustine, the cultivation of the desire for God and the commitment to a process of reorientation to God do not immediately produce unadulterated joy. God does not promptly ravish the soul with exquisite bliss and comfort. Imaging the beauty and truth of God as a light that attracts the soul, Augustine writes: “What is the light which shines right through me and strikes my heart without hurting? It fills me with terror and burning love: with terror in so far as I am utterly other than it, with burning love in that I am akin to it.”19 The terror is due to the perception of the dissimilarity of the soul and the holy God, coupled with the recognition that God is drawing the soul into a potentially painful process of transformation. The exhilaration of seeking the eternal is qualified by the bittersweet disclosure of God’s difference from the unworthy soul.20 A kind of fear arises as one becomes aware of one’s need for God and one’s own insufficiency. Although Augustine often describes God as the soul’s true source and destination, he also portrays divinity and humanity as being two sides of a chasm. God’s immeasurable magnitude can appear so vast that it intimidates the soul. At the same time that it intimidates, the phenomenon of desire for God contains within it the extravagant prospect that the soul, though unlike God, has the possibility to become (in some respects) like God. This transformation into godliness necessarily involves the daunting imperative to reorient one’s life away from lesser attachments and to become a new creature, defined by one central love. Consequently, the desire for God both promises absolute fulfillment but also requires the renunciation of cherished aspects of the old worldly self.
Barrett, Lee C.. Eros and Self-Emptying (Kierkegaard as a Christian Thinker) (pp. 74-75). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition. (Incidentally, this has been a fascinating book so far. If you have any interest in Augustine or Kierkegaard, it is well worth the time.) This fear reminds me of the line in Rilke, Beauty is beginning of terror.
Thomas Watson explains that there are two types of fear:
There is a twofold fear.
1. A filial fear; when a man fears to displease God; when he fears lest he should not hold out, this is a good fear; ‘Blessed is he that fears alway;’ if Peter had feared his own heart, and said, Lord Jesus, I fear I shall forsake thee, Lord strengthen me, doubtless Christ would have kept him from falling.
2. There is a cowardly fear; when a man fears danger more than sin; when he is afraid to be good, this fear is an enemy to suffering. God proclaimed that those who were fearful should not go to the wars, Deut. 20:8. The fearful are unfit to fight in Christ’s wars; a man possessed with fear, doth not consult what is best, but what is safest. If he may save his estate, he will snare his conscience, Prov. 29:25. ‘In the fear of man there is a snare.’ Fear made Peter deny Christ; Abraham equivocate, David feign himself mad; fear will put men upon indirect courses, making them study rather compliance than conscience. Fear makes sin appear little, and suffering great, the fearful man sees double, he looks upon the cross through his perspective twice as big as it is; fear argues sordidness of spirit, it will put one upon things most ignoble and unworthy; a fearful man will vote against his conscience; fear infeebles, it is like the cutting off Samson’s locks; fear melts away the courage, Josh. 5:1. ‘Their hearts melt because of you;’ and when a man’s strength is gone, he is very unfit to carry Christ’s cross; fear is the root of apostasy. Spira’s fear made him abjure and recant his religion; fear doth one more hurt than the adversary; it is not so much an enemy without the castle, as a traitor within indangers it; it is not so much sufferings without, as traitorous fear within which undoes a man; a fearful man is versed in no posture so much as in retreating; oh take heed of this, be afraid of this fear, Luke 12:4. ‘Fear not them that can kill the body.’ Persecutors can but kill that body which must shortly die; the fearful are set in the fore-front of them that shall go to hell, Rev. 21:8. Let us get the fear of God into our hearts; as one wedge drives out another, so the fear of God will drive out all other base fear.
Thomas Watson, “Discourses upon Christ’s Sermon on the Mount,” in Discourses on Important and Interesting Subjects, Being the Select Works of the Rev. Thomas Watson, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; Glasgow: Blackie, Fullarton, & Co.; A. Fullarton & Co., 1829), 368–370. I agree with Watson, but I think he misses something which the quotation on Augustine grasps: There is an ontological basis of fear. There is a fear sprung from the utter otherness of God.
When the disciples are in the boat and Jesus calms the storm, they wonder what sort of man this is. The otherness of Jesus causes them to fear. They were not afraid that Jesus was going to hurt them; he had just saved their lives. They were afraid of his mere presence.
This helps understand Paul’s line that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” We need an ontological transformation to be able to bear we are going.
The Great Divorce has a seen which captures some of this matter. When the insubstantial beings from hell come to heaven even the grass is too substantial, too real to bear:
As the solid people came nearer still I noticed that they were moving with order and determination as though each of them had marked his man in our shadowy company. ‘There are going to be affecting scenes,’ I said to myself. ‘Perhaps it would not be right to look on.’ With that, I sidled away on some vague pretext of doing a little exploring. A grove of huge cedars to my right seemed attractive and I entered it. Walking proved difficult. The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen. A bird ran across in front of me and I envied
Lewis, C. S.. The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 25). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. If the mere grass will overwhelm our feet, what would the sight of the King do to our sight? And how utterly dangerous and other is God to us now.