I have a great-uncle who has a way of commanding attention and tells scads of groovy stories. At one family get together the topic of child rearing came up. As can be likely with a mixing of the older generation and the new, there were different opinions about what should be expected from children. After listening for a bit, my great-uncle began sharing his experience with the Inuit in far Northern Canada.
“You want to know how the children there see parents?” he asked. “Pretty much like gods.” He suddenly had everyone’s attention.
“While I was with them after a hunt,” he went on, “one of the children started acting up. The father simply looked in that child’s direction, and when the child saw ‘the look’ it was as if the judgment of God had rested down upon its head. The child froze. There was no need for yelling or threats. There was a sense of imparted terror.” The implication was that the child was totally petrified with a “fear” for the father.
I often wonder about the fear of God and how it relates to our upbringing. How can fear be good? Yet we’re told in Scripture there is a good kind of fear. But what does God think is the good kind? And what will this fear do? It’s the beginning of wisdom, we are told. So it seems this fear is more than just a response to being in a relationship with some gigantic cosmic force who is continually on the edge of smiting us. We are told there is a certain fear connected with wisdom. And this wisdom is for our benefit, too, isn’t it? Thus the fear has two parts.
My parents, thank God, portrayed our heavenly Father in terms of ideal parenthood: that is, as love personified by goodness and compassion. Someone who always had time for me and was drawing me into a better version of myself. Thus for me, “the fear of God” wasn’t some feudal obligation that I, the groveling worm, owed my liege Lord (i.e., God), but something I would want to have. Not only because it was right, but because it was good for me in the long run. This God was someone who saw the best in me and was determined to relate to me in ways I could grasp if I would avail myself of them.
This is not to say God is a teddy bear—the idea of God should incite a good deal of awe—but “fear” is owed God in the right way. Nor is it to say that my parents—my father especially—didn’t have expectations from his rural farm family. But as I grew, this respect became more meaningful. Rather than living in a sense of terror, I became better for it. I matured, and became responsible for the freedoms maturity allows. I learned to endure consequences, but also to be forgiven. I learned to live in relationship with other people whom I depended on and who depended on me.
It’s best to stay in touch with both sides of an issue. A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality, not just a piece of it. (The Message)
Grasp both sides of things and keep the two in balance; for anyone who fears God won’t give in to the extremes. (The Voice)
Employing the above wording—which, for me, anyway, sheds a different light on “the fear of God”—we see this fear we are concerned with also brings with it reasonability and rationality. In other words, a person who fears God will have a decent enough understanding of reality to know what is good and will not fall into extremes.
But what kind of extremes? Can we include political extremes? How about socioeconomic extremes? Perhaps moral extremes? Maybe even environmental ideological extremes? After all, these constructs do have a healthy middle ground requiring a good grasp of rationality; an extreme in any of them will lead to more damage than good. Whether this is a view on how we are to view the environment—Chesterton calls nature our sister, not mother, because both humans and nature were created by God—or economic practices or whatever. “A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality.”
We all know too much or too little of a good thing can be bad, whatever it is. This is why many people eschew Puritanism as well as extreme liberalism; the far right or the far left; overemphasis on judgment or overemphasis on mercy. Plus the concept of having a good grasp of reality goes farther than mere tolerance. To tolerate something, after all, is to still prefer it didn’t exist, but you put up with it. Now, dealing responsibly with all of reality and staying in touch with both sides of an issue means something different from just tolerating a thing unliked. Where toleration means merely restraining oneself and putting up with something outside a comfort zone, dealing responsibly means humbly holding multiple perspectives in view and considering the value of all; dealing responsibly implies understanding the whole issue and therefore having more compassion, not just more willpower.
In fact, it means avoiding the pendulum swing altogether since the middle is known. I once heard an author present the idea of avoiding extremes in terms of cultivating hospitality: practicing generosity for people and opinions on both sides of an issue. For only when both sides of a topic are given space can we meaningfully interact with the array of ideas present. This is not the same thing as being mediocre or refusing to take a side; it is approaching life with humility.
So the next time I hear we need more of the fear of the Lord, I will remember this “fear” is larger than I previously thought. At least a whole lot larger than some poor kid being terror-stricken by “the look” they get from a parent in a position of power. That kind of fear might mean obedience, but it doesn’t cover “the fear of the Lord.”