Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Fear of the Lord is Not...


On Sunday, I began what I believe will be a series called God’s Secret.” The title was inspired in part by my Weekend Update last week (I told you the sermon was a secret because I didn’t know what I would be preaching yet!) but ultimately, I chose that title because of what it says in Psalm 25:14, The secret of the Lord is for those who fear Him, And He will make them know His covenant.” I tied that back in to Proverbs 9:10, which tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and we spent the rest of the morning talking about wisdom.

But for this post, I want to back up a bit and talk a bit more about the Fear of the Lord. We’re all familiar with the phrase, and I’ve preached about it several times over the last few years. But the Fear of the Lord is one of those subjects that can be easily misunderstood. To a modern ear, it sounds like one of those “old timey” Christianese phrases. When it’s spoken, we nod in knowing agreement… but it has this almost nebulous sense about it. We have an understanding that the “fear” in question is really a deep respect or reverence (which I blogged about back in July), but we also have a sense that there’s more to it, we just can’t quite articulate it.

And we’re right, there IS something more to it. But not everything that we’ve associated with the Fear of the Lord is true. So since the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, it seems wise to spend a few moments here talking about what the fear of the Lord is NOT.

1. The Fear of the Lord is NOT the fear of losing your salvation.

As a pastor, I’ve counseled people who have been virtually crippled by this fear, and it breaks my heart. They’ve been taught to fear committing the unpardonable sin, and they’re secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) convinced that they’ve already committed it. Or perhaps they believe they’re saved, but just barely, and one wrong move could be the end for them. But the fear of the Lord doesn’t mean that we’re afraid He will smite us at the first hint of a mis-step.

The fear of losing our salvation is a form of worry - worrying that we haven’t done enough, that we’re not worthy. So let me put an end to that fear right now: I can assure you that no matter how much good or how much not-so-good you have done, you are absolutely, positively, undeniably, 100%, without a doubt, never ever going to earn your place in heaven!

The price of admission to heaven is very steep. It’s beyond our ability to pay. But thank God, it is not left to us to pay the price. If that were even possible, there would have been no need for Jesus to come! So why did Jesus come?

To understand salvation, we have to understand what we need to be saved from. When Adam and Eve sinned, they received the penalty of eternal death within themselves - separation from God forever. There was no way they could return to the garden of perfection with the stain of rebellion on their soul. Something eternal had died inside them and no matter how good they tried to be, they couldn’t undo what had been done. They had died spiritually, and physical life became but a hologram of what life could have been.

So Jesus came to restore eternal life, which is fellowship with God (John 17:3). In John 10:10 He said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” He accomplished this by giving His life a ransom for many (Mat 20:28) and bringing about justification and righteousness for all who believe (Rom 5:18-19; 3:21-24; Gal 2:16). The good news is He did it without our help! We weren’t good enough to be saved, we were bad enough! We simply received the gift given - not by works, not by being good, not by trying harder, but by faith.

But what about the issue of “blaspheming the Holy Spirit?” I don’t believe this is a sin that a Christian is capable of committing! But rather than dive into that here, I encourage you to read something my father wrote on the subject on his blog. I believe it will really help you process this.

One last thing - can a Christian lose their salvation? I honestly don’t believe so. Salvation is not something that can misplaced like keys or glasses. Salvation is not something we find - that would give us credit! The truth is God finds us and causes us to be born again! He changes our nature and makes us a new creation, not an improved version of ourselves but a whole new person! God doesn’t temporarily give you eternal life! For a fuller treatment on this I recommend the God Questions article at http://www.gotquestions.org/Christian-lose-salvation.html. But always remember this - nothing can separate you from God’s love (Rom 8:38-39) and nothing can take you from God’s hand (John 10:28-29).

2. The Fear of the Lord is NOT something you can measure externally.

There was a time when “God-fearing people” were expected to dress a certain way. Even today there are some faith-based cultures with very distinctive dress codes: the Amish, orthodox Jews, even some Holiness Christians. The problem with external standards is that it’s far too easy for us in our humanness to turn them inside out. We turn an effect into a cause, taking a response to God’s presence and making it a requirement for acceptance in a community of believers.

If we have a healthy fear of God, it will influence the choices we make, and many of those choices are things that will be visible to an outside observer. That’s not a bad thing. As ambassadors of Christ, we need to be conscious of the fact that we are not just out there representing ourselves. What we wear, what we do, and how we carry ourselves are more than just a matter of personality. We’re sending a message with the choices we make.

The problem with using external things as a measure of our Fear of the Lord is that it’s so easy to look the part without having the proper heart to back it up. Sometimes we’ll do “good” things not because we believe that they’re the right thing to do, but because we want to be accepted. We want others to believe that our spiritual life is in order, so we learn to put on a front. The Fear of the Lord is a heart thing. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Sam 16:7b)

So this is a deeply personal matter and we should never allow our response to the fear of the Lord be the basis for judging others. Paul said it this way, “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Rom 14:4-5 NASB) He went on in verse 22 of the same chapter to say “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.”

Since the Fear of the Lord is a heart matter we should each guard our own heart diligently, both for what comes in and what goes out. Let us ask the Lord for personal convictions and guidelines for wise living, and live from them to please Him. That is how the Fear of the Lord works out in our individual lives.

3. The Fear of the Lord is NOT about being scared… period.

When you were younger, did anyone ever tell you that God is watching you… usually in a stern voice and accompanied by “the look” that you believed could see right through you? What they probably wanted was for you to mind your behavior. Or if you happened to be the son of a preacher... it might have been spoken in such a way as to make you believe that God had already filled your parents in on what the you’d done. ;)

While it’s humorous to look back on those childhood experiences, there are some believers who see God this way. They live afraid of a God who is constantly watching and keeping track of our failures. And it’s true, God is indeed watching us. He does know when we fall short. But He’s not watching us so that He can condemn us. 1 Chron 16:9a says, “The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” That’s a powerfully encouraging reminder that God loves you and is cheering for you to do well!

The danger of being afraid of God:

There are people in this world who want nothing more than to make others afraid of them. Unhealthy fear can be used to control others, to manipulate them by holding the threat of harm over their heads. It could be a schoolyard bully or a cold blooded dictator, an abusive spouse or an overstepping spiritual leader. Our natural human tendency is to shrink back from things we’re afraid of. Most of us try to avoid the things we fear.

I’ve got important news for you. God is not a terrorist! That kind of fear is not the Fear of the Lord.

If you’ve experienced abuse in a relationship, especially with a parent or spouse, that can leave scars that never completely go away. And because the family on earth was designed to be a representation of God’s love for us, these scars can skew our view of God and our relationship with him.

If you’ve ever experienced abuse in a church situation, what you’ve seen is a human being exploiting their spiritual leadership for power or personal gain. I’ve heard of “pastors” who threaten their flock with loss of God’s blessing or protection if they don’t do what the “pastor” asks. And I put “pastor” in quotation marks because that kind of individual is a poor caricature of the shepherd that God has called pastors to be. These experiences also leave scars.

It is possible to be a believer, but still fear God in an unhealthy way. If you’re scared of God, you can still love him, but not want to get too close. The Fear of the Lord is not about keeping your distance. In fact, the genuine, positive fear of the Lord actually motivates us to draw near to the Lord, to seek his approval, to be comforted in His Presence. (I love the comparison in Ps 131:2 of the believer to the weaned child that rests against his mother - not seeking nourishment or needing anything other than just to be close to mom!)

There is no hammer in heaven. God’s not waiting to strike us with a heavenly fly-swatter! Perfect love casts out fear of punishment. 1 John 4:18 says “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”

Maybe you read the words of that verse and think, “Well, that’s just wonderful. Not only am I afraid, but I’m not perfected in love. Now what?” How do we overcome fear and become perfected in love?

Fortunately, God gives us the answer in the preceding verse. I like how the New Living Translation puts it, so let’s look at 1 John 4:17 and 18 from the NLT: “And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.”

That’s a beautiful passage. Live in God, and your love will grow more perfect. And perfect love casts out unhealthy fear.

David wrote in Psalm 119:9 “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever.” There is a purity about the proper fear and reverence of the Lord. If what you’re feeling about God isn’t pure and clean, then that’s not the fear of the Lord! Let God’s perfect love cleanse you from being afraid. You don’t have to be scared of the fear of the Lord. :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

We Need To Be Reminded

The title picture of this week’s blog is fuzzy and a bit faded. It was taken 30 years ago and to most people it’s just an old photograph. But for one of my staff members, it’s a picture taken by her father. It’s part of the backdrop of her childhood. And on the right hand side in the distance, although the angle and the picture quality makes it look like one building - that’s the twin towers of World Trade Center.

This past Sunday, we paused to remember the victims and heroes of 9/11/01. The dramatic reading that we presented was based on something that the Skit Guys did for the 10th anniversary, but re-worked by our Creative Team Leader (and contributor of the photo above), Jenni Baier. In case you missed it, here’s what we read:
Reader 1:          15 years ago this morning, many of us were going about our normal, busy routines.
Reader 2:          But this day turned out to be anything but normal.
Reader 3:          And when we heard the news, it shocked us out of our routines.
Reader 4:          “For the waves of death encompassed me; The torrents of destruction overwhelmed me;” (2 Sam 22:5)
Reader 1:          We stood in disbelief.
Reader 2:          We wept.
Reader 3:          We cried out to God.
Reader 4:          “In my distress I called upon the Lord, Yes, I cried to my God; And from His temple He heard my voice, And my cry for help came into His ears.” (2 Sam 22:7)
Reader 1:          15 years ago, we came together in unity. We set aside political differences.
Reader 2:          We crossed denominational lines.
Reader 3:          And we prayed together.
Reader 4:          “Should evil come upon us, the sword, or judgment,
or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before You (for Your name is in this house) and cry to You in our distress, and You will hear and deliver us.” (2 Chronicles 20:9)
Reader 1:          15 years later, our hearts still ache for those who lost loved ones, civilians who were just showing up for work.
Reader 2:          Firefighters and other first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to save others.
Reader 3:          And soldiers who, in subsequent years, have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
Reader 4:          “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Ps 34:18)
Reader 1:          We still question aloud, “Why?”
Reader 2:          We still fear the unknown.
Reader 3:          And there are still many things we do not understand.
Reader 4:          “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.  All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” (1 Cor 13:12 NLT)
Reader 1:          15 years ago, we were reminded of how fragile and temporary our lives can be.
Reader 2:          But we also learned that some things can never be taken from us by force.
Reader 3:          And 15 years later, that’s what we’re still holding on to.
Reader 4:          “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13 NLT)
Reader 1:          15 years later, we take these moments to remember.
Reader 2:          We pray for continued healing in our land.
Reader 3:          Our faith remains strong and our hope lies in God
Reader 1:          For we may have been down... but we are not out.
Reader 2:          We will have faith.
Reader 3:          We will have hope.
Reader 4:          And the greatest of these... is love.
In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, one phrase in particular became strongly associated with imagery from that day: Never Forget. 15 years ago, it seemed almost silly to suggest that anyone could ever forget. I know that many of you feel the same way. How could we NOT remember? But 15 years later… we are already becoming forgetful.

In preparation for our 9/11 remembrance, I asked Jenni to come up with some ideas and see what other churches were planning since 9/11 was a Sunday this year. She belongs to a few Facebook groups for church creatives, and one of them had posted a poll about 9/11. More than half of those who responded said it would be “business as usual” and that they didn’t plan to do anything different. In another group, someone responded to a similar post by saying, “What did you do for [Insert other tragedy here]?” Others didn’t seem to see any value in taking time out of a Sunday service to remember 9/11.
There is something disappointing and sad about that – but it’s also very understandable. As human beings, we’re prone to forget what isn’t right in front of us. We find it easy to dismiss that which doesn’t touch us directly. That doesn’t mean that what’s in front of us isn’t important, but it does mean that we need to make some extra effort sometimes to keep things in proper perspective.
This is nothing new. We have always been a forgetful people.

In the Old Testament, Israel became enslaved in Egypt (Ex 1:11) and God heard their cries (Ex 3:7) and sent Moses. After a spectacular and supernatural deliverance from Egypt, God gave the Ten Commandments and the great Sh’ma (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”). He specifically instructed the Israelites to go out of their way to remember these things and to teach their children (Deut 6:4-9) so they would not forget.
God knows that no matter how amazing, life-altering, or impactful the event, our memories will fade, especially when things are going well for us. In Deut 6:10-12, God tells Israel that they will come into the promised land, and it will be WONDERFUL. But in verse 12, He adds a warning. He tells them that good things are heading thier way, but once they come, “watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt…”
And Israel did serve the Lord for a time. But after Joshua died, Judges 2:10-11 says “All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel. Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals.”
So much of the Old Testament tells the story of a repeating cycle: Hardship leading to repentance, which brings about deliverance and peace, which leads to complacency and forgetfulness, which leads to hardship which leads to…
The bottom line is, we must choose to remember. We must work at remembering.

We must choose to remember painful events in our history as a nation. As the saying goes, those who cannot (or will not) remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
We must choose to remember and live by the tenets of our faith and explain to our children why they are important.  

We live in a world where so many things compete for our attention… and they’re not all bad things. But we must choose to remember and make time for what is important to us.

What are you determined to Never Forget?

Earlier this month, I shared in my Town Talk Guest Pastor column that we need to be deliberate and purposeful in remembering the flood victims in south Louisiana, and I rejoiced in the fact that so many local churches in this area are stepping up in creative and practical ways. But as time passes, it will be easier and easier for those of us who weren’t directly impacted to forget that the needs there are still great. (Incidentally, I am bringing a crew to Baton Rouge this Saturday to hang drywall. Contact me if you’re interested!)

Some “Never Forget” moments, like 9/11, are national. Some, like the flooding in South Louisiana, are more regional. And some are very personal.

Here’s a personal example. Before adopting our two youngest children from South America, my wife and I had three beautiful daughters. As they grew up I became increasingly aware of my awesome responsibility as a father to help shape them and their view of men. I came up with a way to daily remind myself of that responsibility - I gave each of my daughters a necklace with a heart-shaped locket that has a keyhole in the middle, and I put the “keys to their hearts” on a necklace that I wear every day. It was a daily reminder to never forget my obligation and calling. It was also a great joy to present my new son-in-law with the key to my daughter’s heart on their wedding day! But I still wear those keys every day to remind me to never forget.


What are your “Never Forget” stories? I’d love it if you’d share them with me in the comments.