“The fear of YHWH (the Lord) is the beginning of wisdom.”
Have you heard that one before? The Old Testament has a number of allusions to a powerful, mighty God — a God who inspires fear and reverence from trembling followers.
No matter what our spiritual beliefs, I firmly believe we should be constantly testing them: seeking to find the weak points, and searching earnestly to develop a more full, complete, and nuanced understanding of who God is.
Let’s face it. We’re afraid of fear.
I’m very aware that the Evangelical Protestant church I was raised in does not hold a particularly high view of God. We don’t fear God’s power. Some of us aren’t too big on respecting God as an authority figure. Instead, we’re all about Jesus as our best friend: our personal Lord and Savior, who loves us deeply, and wants us to experience a life of love, healing, and friendship with him.
Jesus is loving. That is 100% true. But only talking about faith as a warm hug, or the emotional high of experiencing the Holy Spirit personally, is like describing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but only talking about the peanut butter. It’s a key part of the sandwich — but it’s only 1/3 of the dish. You’re missing some other important ingredients that make a PB&J what it is.
Evangelicals, and most Protestants, actually, tend de-emphasizes God’s power — and the high amount of respect God deserves — as a way to combat the ways our world’s understanding of God’s power has been abused and used as a weapon of harm.
For centuries, power-hungry people have twisted religion — co-opting the life-changing devotion that faith in God inspires — and used it as their selfish tool to secure power through fear. (See: the crusades, any time we haven’t had separation of church and state, and plenty of other examples.)
Because of this, most of Protestant Christianity has lived in fear of the “fear of the Lord.” For people who have been abused by a misuse of religion, this fear can cut incredibly deep, and it takes a lot of growth, prayer, and time to heal those wounds.
But when those wounds are being healed, and the power that abuse can wield has been put in check, there is a time and place to stop eating peanut butter out of the jar, and learning to enjoy the whole sandwich.
This doesn’t mean we ignore the love of Jesus, but it prompts us to expand our view: to appreciate reverence for the unfathomable power of God Almighty — worthy of deep, deep reverence and awe of God’s astounding holiness and might.
Where I most often encounter the Holy Spirit
This past Friday, I was VERY excited to take Communion. Our physical world was feeling very uncertain, and I wanted desperately to feel connected to the greater Power outside of our present, earthly reality. Two summers ago, I wrestled through months of intense doubt and fear. It was awful, but ever since then — I have been feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit more than ever before. I’ve been a Christian almost all of my life, but it wasn’t until I worked through intense and crippling doubt that I began to feel the Holy Spirit show up in my day-to-day life somewhat regularly.
Most often, it happens during Communion — when Christians gather to eat bread and wine, remembering how Jesus’ flesh was broken and torn on a cross (as he slowly asphyxiated to death) and his blood ran down — all so he could crush the power of death and offer a new life (where death and pain have no power) to anyone willing to spend their life following him.
People more poetic than me say that during Communion, the walls between heaven and earth grow momentarily thin, and we experience God in ways we simply can’t outside of this confusing, beautiful Eucharistic mystery.
In the midst of my crisis of fear and anxiety, I felt God’s comfort more in Communion than in any other place. It’s, of course, important to note that the emotional high of feeling the Holy Spirit shouldn’t be our only indicator of God, especially because the line between human emotions and Holy Spirit guidance can be hard to discern. The Holy Spirit will often reinforce her (yeah, her — Google can explain it more if you’re interested) guidance with repeated prompting in unrelated circumstances, so we don’t have to play an uninformed spiritual guessing game.
I’ve experienced Communion as being a rare chance to tap into the emotional side of experiencing God. When I’m nervous or stressed, I relish the opportunities to have faith — which is so often characterized by patient waiting — include emotional experiences, since those make it feel more tangible.
I stepped into Communion in a state of deep anticipation and excitement. I was deeply seeking wisdom and guidance. I’d spend my morning praying, and practicing other spiritual disciplines. I knew my ears were much more open and unclogged than usual. I was in a prime spot to be able to hear the Spirit without my usual distractions cluttering the experience.
But I didn’t feel the sunny warmth I was expecting. Instead, as we read:
We do not presume to come to this, your table, oh merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your great mercies. We are not worthy to gather the crumbs under your table…
… I felt a sudden and gripping sense of anxiety.
Wait. Wait. Stop. Don’t keep going. We were speeding right along past and heading towards the part where we rip off a piece of bread — but I wasn’t ready for that yet.
I am not worthy. In that moment, I felt a supreme sense of I am not worthy. Like, who died and gave me the right to waltz in here and munch on Christ’s body and blood? Who said I somehow have access to partake in the deepest and greatest mystery our universe has ever known?
Jesus. Jesus died and gave me that right. That’s Christianity 101. I know this. But, I’ve heard it all so many times, I don’t really stop to think of how huge that really is. Like, what did I do to earn something so deeply powerful?
Nothing. I did nothing. That’s the point of God’s grace. I mean, I get it. I can recite this all back to you; I’ve been talking about it since I was 3. But I’m not used to sitting there, and having the deep weight of what it all means really sink in.
We do not presume to come to this, your table, oh merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your great mercies. We are not worthy to gather the crumbs under your table…Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your Son Jesus Christ [figuratively, in the faith tradition I was raised in], and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.
I felt a surge of anxiety. But I don’t think I would describe it as full fear. I have felt terrifying spiritual fear, but I have NOT felt confirmation yet that that sort of terrifying fear is from God. There are too many other manipulative forces in play.
This most recent anxiety — felt during Communion, after a morning of prayer and spiritual disciplines — wasn’t terrifying, and didn’t cut to my soul. I could call it fear, but it wasn’t the type of fear that we fear-adverse Protestants freak out about. I don’t mind feeling this Friday’s sort of fear. It’s not a terrifying fear. If anything, feeling it helped me better understand God, and experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in a new way.
And that whole experience was actually pretty freaking cool. I wouldn’t at all mind feeling it again, if that’s where I felt the Holy Spirit’s guiding.
Meeting angels sounds terrifying, but also amazing
Almost every time an angel visits someone in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are “Do not be afraid.” To be honest, coming face to face with a celestial being sounds pretty freaking scary. They’re not of this world, and they radiate an overwhelming burst of power and bright light — shocking us, overcoming our senses — temporarily paralyzing us with an encounter unlike anything we’ve experience on earth.
In the moment, you might feel deep fear, but you’ll walk away knowing you experienced something more powerful and unique than most people ever will in their lifetime.
Seeing as God and angels come from the same place — except God is GOD and angels are the errand runners and messengers — can you imagine what it would feel like to experience the searing brightness of power that the Creator of the Universe would have?
There’s a reason no one in the Bible could stand before God. Or why Moses’ face literally started radiating massive amounts of light after he returned from being in God’s direct presence. Think of the amount of power contained in a single being who is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient creator of all that was and all that will ever be. The sheer effect of experiencing that — even just a hint of it — is bound to inspire a bit of fear. Nothing about God is evil; God’s the antithesis of evil. But experiencing a bit of fear, under the circumstances, isn’t too far of a stretch.
For me, fear has (at least once) been a very good thing
I’ve also felt Spirit-guided fear back when I was a teenager. At that point, my anorexia was at it’s worst — and though I could tell that my disordered food habits weren’t normal, I didn’t realize I was sick, and I felt no need to change. At least, not until I felt deep fear. I distinctly remember finally making the connection that I was sick — really sick — and that if I didn’t start seriously changing both my mindset and my actions, I was going to do real, physical damage to my body. Damage that could have long-term consequences on my health.
That type of fear is an emotion that I can see the Holy Spirit using. And that fear is 100% for our good. I’d allowed myself to be slowly led down a dangerous path, and I was blind to the real, long-term damage I was inflicting on my body. Without fear, I never would have seen the need to stop hurting myself, turn and run in the opposite direction, and do everything I could to cut the eating disorder out of my life.
If there are times when we’re hurting ourselves, God’s use of fear to help us turn (the Greek word for “repentance” means “to turn”) from danger and harm — is something I have no problem with.
I have spend a lot of my spiritual life afraid of “the fear of Lord.” I don’t want to live like that anymore. Yes, spiritual opportunists can twist and warp the fear of God to very harmful and destructive ends. But that doesn’t make holy fear unequivocally bad.
The more we chase after God, trying to discover more and more ways to know God more — the more insight we’ll gain to understand the complexity of who God is.
We don’t have to fear “the fear of the Lord.” But we do need to have our eyes open, focus on prayer, and continually test our spiritual beliefs to make sure we’re not being led off course. Anything less puts us at risk of being tricked or misled. Thankfully, there are many ways to try, as best we can, to equip ourselves to fight against that.