I was about to turn 16 years old and days away from getting my driver’s license. When I was a teenager, getting your driver’s license was the ultimate passport to freedom. With your license, you could go anywhere in town. You could go places with your friends, and better yet, you could go there without your parents.
I couldn’t wait.
A few days before I got my license, my dad took me out to dinner. We went to his favorite restaurant, Shoney’s on Memorial Parkway in Huntsville, and we sat in a corner booth. He began the conversation by telling me he was proud of me and how driving a car was a big responsibility.
Then, his face changed, and if my father had been serious before, now, he was intense. My father showed everything on his face. The muscles in his jaw would flex and his eyes would focus into a fierce glare if he was angry or very serious about his topic. The muscles in his jaw were jumping.
“Now, son. You’re getting into a new phase of your life. You’re becoming a man. You’ll be going places where I won’t be. You’ll be doing things I won’t see. You’ll be pressured by your friends to do some things, and some of those things, you know, are things I don’t want you to do.”
“And in that moment, you’ll have to make a decision. You’ll have to decide. Are you more afraid of your friends? Or are you more afraid of me?”
Then he leaned across the table, put his eyes directly on mine and said, “You’d better be more afraid of me.”
I’ve never forgotten that moment.
In fact, before my own sons turned 16, I told them the same thing.
And you know what? It worked. I remember a number of times when I avoided a probable catastrophe because I was more afraid of my dad than I was of all of my friends.
Fear is a necessary part of our lives. Being afraid keeps us out of a lot of dangerous situations. We learn to be afraid of bears and lions. We learn not to play in the street or go down dark alleys late at night. In a lot of ways, fear keeps us alive. People who have no fear, who lack the capacity to be afraid, are considered psychologically ill and a danger to themselves and others.
Fear used to be a big part of religion. The image of an all-powerful God slinging lightning bolts against rebellious unbelievers has been the center of more than one great sermon. Who can forget Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”? The picture of God toying with the lives of men and women the way a little boy taunts a spider dangling in its fragile web haunts me to this day.
In fact, preachers weren’t considered good preachers if they couldn’t hold their congregations over hell like marshmallows over a campfire. A good sermon always “put the fear of God” in the people.
Church growth experts, however, told us that preaching sermons filled with hell and judgment wasn’t a good way to attract new members and grow church budgets, so we changed our methodology. Robert Schuller, the well-known television pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in California, was famous for saying churches can’t be built preaching on theology.
So, churches changed their methodology. We preached on love and grace and coming as you are. Sinners were always welcome, and they could come without fear of judgment.
All of this was great. If you’re trying to sweep up the brokenness of your mess, hearing someone tell you Jesus loves you right where you are and you don’t have to put it all back together before you follow Him is the best news a person could ever hear.
But as Bonhoeffer warned us, if you emphasize grace without discipleship, you cheapen grace to the point of ineffectiveness. That’s where we are. The grace we preach doesn’t demand anything of us. Nothing is expected to change after you experience grace. Grace that doesn’t change us isn’t grace at all.
While I’m not sure I want to go back to hellfire and brimstone sermons, I do think the church needs to recover a healthy fear of God.
The Bible reminds us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Yes, I know the word “fear” can be interpreted as “awe” or “respect,” but I also know it means what it says. Sometimes, we need to remember we’re more afraid of God than we are anything or anyone else.
Standing in front of Pharaoh, Moses was more afraid of God than he was the Egyptian king.
David was more afraid of God than he was Goliath, and Elijah was more afraid of God than all those prophets of Baal.
Paul was more afraid of Jesus than he was Caesar.
For us, however, God is a fall back plan. If everything else in our lives fail, God will still love us. God is seen as a good friend who loves us just like we are. Someone who knows about our flaws but doesn’t bring them up.
The result has been a sloppiness and shallowness in Christian living to the point we can’t tell Christianity from the rest of the culture.
We would do well to recover a healthy fear and holy respect for God.
Jesus reminded us not to be afraid of the person who can kill the body but fear the One who can kill the soul.
In the living of these days, it may do us good to remember we serve a jealous and fearsome God whose word is a consuming fire. A God who is without equal and who will one day judge the nations.
In that moment, our fears will be cured by the most fearsome God of all. With that in mind, we’d better be more afraid of Him than anyone else.