Monday, December 21, 2009

Fear and Forgiveness

Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let Your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with You there is forgiveness;
therefore You are feared.

Psalm 130:1-4

"With You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared."

What does that mean?

In our culture, forgiveness and fear are mutually exclusive, and fear of the Lord is something that people dodge, avoid and even deny.

So how do we make sense of a statement like this?

"With You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared."

The first thing we need to realize is something we miss all the time: The Christian life is not all about us. It is all about God. It is not about what we get, but about what He has given. It is not about where we stand in relation to our eternal destiny, but about where we stand with relation to our eternal God.

Man-centered theology is so prevalent that we embrace it even as we decry it. We hear the terms "man-centered theology" and "God-centered theology" and we know that God-centered must be better than man-centered. We might even say something about this. But we are so immersed in the man-centered that we cannot even imagine what God-centered is.

This may seem like a tangent, but bear with me: I think Disney's "Little Mermaid" movie is among the worst movies ever made. (Thematically, I mean; it has very cute music, which is a very dangerous thing, indeed.) It has the most destructive message I have ever seen in a movie, but it typifies the American attitude, an attitude that has sadly pervaded the church.

Think about it: Ariel's father gives her good instruction on how to live and be safe. Ariel is dissatisfied with all that her loving father has offered her and must have more (ummm... doesn't this sound a little like Eve in the garden of Eden?). She has been sternly warned not to go above sea level onto land, warned for her own good, by her father who loves her and does not want anything bad to happen to her.

Ariel heedlessly seeks her own way, selling her most precious gift, her lovely voice, to the sea witch, so she can pursue her lover. Why? Because she wants to. She wants her own way, and she takes it, breaking rules and disobeying all the way.

In the end, she gets herself into a terrible, deathly predicament. And what happens? Her father Triton appears and nearly dies while fighting to save her life (which, I remind you, is in danger precisely because she disobeyed her father). And after he saves her and appears Disney-esquely alive after seeming to be dead? She says, "O Papa, I am so sorry I disobeyed you! Will you please forgive me and take me home to the kingdom?" Oh no. Oh, heavens, no!

In the end, King Triton apologizes to his daughter because he was a mean father and did not give her her way. And she gets her way, along with everything she had demanded all along, and everyone lives happily ever after. I was literally spitting mad the first time (possibly the only time) I watched this movie. I never let my children watch it, although I expect that they saw it somewhere.

Sadly, this warped morality is exactly how many people see God and the Christian life. They think the Old Testament Law is like King Triton's rules for his daughters, mean and unreasonable (though possibly meant for good at the time). We are like Ariel, longing for freedom from rules and regulations. Jesus came and died for our sins so that we can have what they call "Freedom in Christ," and thereafter we are free to sin, because we have been forgiven, and God, something like King Triton at the end of "The Little Mermaid," is sorry that He ever placed such a burden as Old Testament Law on us.  Did you see that?  In the last sentence?  The supposition is that God is sorry.

With a paradigm like this, it's no wonder we can't understand a verse like, "But with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared."

Let's get something straight. Freedom in Christ does not mean freedom to sin. It means freedom from sin. It means that, because God sends His own Holy Spirit to live in the hearts of His children and empower them, we can live lives free from sin. Originally, in our fallen flesh, we had no power to live righteously.  However, after Jesus died for us and sent His Holy Spirit to live with us, to comfort, counsel and empower us, we do have the power, through Him, to live righteously. If you do not believe me, please read Romans 6. Yes, the whole chapter. I am not for pulling one verse or phrase out of context. Read Romans 6, because it teaches exactly what I am trying to say here, but it has the advantage of being the word of God.

And if you understand this, then you can start to understand what it means that "...with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared."

"With You there is forgiveness" puts the focus on God as the great Forgiver. The focus is not on the fact that we have escaped an unpleasant consequence. Grace doesn't mean God looking down and saying, "Awwww. I'll let you into heaven anyway, because I am Love and you are a cute little human." No! It is about God totally blasting away the stronghold of sin and hurling Satan into the depths so that we can be free forever. (See Revelation 12:10-12. Really, please read it.) God is mighty and full of grace and love and truth. He is the only one who can forgive us, because all of our sins are ultimately only against Him (see Psalm 51:4).

"Therefore You are feared" means, at the simplest level, that the forgiven one has been able to grasp something of the magnitude of what God has done and what this says about God, about who He is and the extent of His power and His might as well as His grace and His love.

I think corollary to grasping the extent of God's love comes a heartfelt love and appreciation that expresses itself in the desire to be pleasing to our God and Savior who has done such magnificent wonders for us. Who gave His own life for us.  And along with this deep desire to please God, because He is so unutterably wonderful, comes a fear of displeasing Him, a real fear. If we can begin to grasp how worthy God is of our lives being a living sacrifice for him (see Romans 12, yes the whole chapter), we fear letting Him down. This is not a paralyzing fear, because 2 Peter 1:3 tells us that His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness. Rather, it is a fear that drives us to the source of our righteousness and makes us utterly dependent on Him.  Being utterly dependent on our Lord is a very safe dependence to have, because He will never leave us nor forsake us. He promises, and He always keeps His promises.

Back to Psalm 51 (I mentioned it earlier, you should read that, too), the Psalmist cries out: "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me." Now, I do not think that God threatens to take His Holy Spirit away, but He does warn us that continual sin will grieve the Holy Spirit and quench our ability to utilize His power. (See Ephesians 4:29-32 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). So although God will not take back our salvation from us, we should live with a certain amount of fear at the effects that sin can have on our lives and particularly what sin can do to our relationship with Him.

We should indeed fear displeasing our great Forgiver and damaging our close fellowship with Him. Without Him, who can stand? Without Him where is hope? He is everything to us, and we need to apprehend the truth and live accordingly.

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