February 4, 2011
by Patrick Lafferty
Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Cairo is aflame over who is best suited to lead Egypt.
Washington D.C. is apoplectic over the alleged irreducible complexity of the recent health-care legislation.
And Dallas sits stranded, now for three days, under a quarter inch of ice. The world would smirk—if it cared to look—at how debilitated we become by something so slight. (I suspect the entourages of the two teams engaged in a little sporting event here this weekend do.)
My family and I have sought to redeem the time with hot cocoa and Lego-building. And by reliving Peter Jackson's retelling of Tolkien's epic trilogy, the Lord of the Rings (skipping through some of the hairier moments for the sake of the tenderer souls of our brood).
I'm heartened by how it's provoked thoughtful questions from my children: Why does the ring tempt everyone it touches? Why must it be destroyed? Why is Sauron so bent on dominating Middle Earth? Though the plot exists in a fanciful world, their questions reveal the relevance of the story to this one. More than merely excite the senses and stimulate our imagination, Tolkien's tale has much to teach. My viewing of it this uncommonly frigid week taught me something about the wisdom the Spirit of God gives, as Pete explored last Sunday.
The Psalmist intones the wisdom of fearing the Lord. To know Him is to fear Him, a notion well attested throughout the Scriptures. Proverbs puts it most succinctly, saying such fear is the foundation of all wisdom (3:5–6).
But we also know that our communion with God entails love for Him. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might," Moses proclaims (Deut 6:5). Jesus calls this the greatest commandment we might ever obey (Mt 22:36–37).
So which is it? Fear the Lord or love Him? How can we do both? Doesn't one preclude the other? Or might wisdom help us to see where those two ostensibly contrasting responses converge? Before we answer the question, let's review the nature of wisdom.
Wisdom is the ability to take multiple strands of truth and apply them to a given circumstance, specifying a response that might be inappropriate in another setting. Proverbs 26 perhaps illustrates best wisdom's supple application of truth: "Answer not the fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." Some fools are best called to account, some are best left to themselves; and wisdom discerns the difference. Like the concert pianist who places just the right application of tempo, tone, color, and volume to a given passage, so the wise man places just the right emphasis on a particular truth as the moment warrants.
Back to our original question of whether it is fitting to fear the Lord or love Him. Clearly the Scripture admonishes both, so there must be a coherence between them that our initial sense of them misses. But to add to our conundrum, what shall we make of Paul's dismissal of fear for those who are in Christ: "…you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'" (Rom 8:15)? Or consider John's even more succinct chastisement of fear: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). In these two passages alone, fear and love seem irreconcilably opposed. Is Scripture trying to pass off a contradiction as mere paradox? Here's where Tolkien's Gandalf illustrated for me what the Spirit's wisdom seeks to untangle about loving and fearing God.
The central character of Tolkien's sprawling story is a simple ring with great power, forged by an evil figure, Sauron, who means to dominate the whole world with it. Bilbo, an aged Hobbit who'd found the ring of power in the story preceding the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is planning to depart his homeland, the Shire, and has decided to bestow the ring to his young nephew, Frodo. Both are aloof to the true identity of the ring.
But before Bilbo departs, the ring's ineffable allure leads him to rethink his decision to part from it. At the moment of decision, with Gandalf watching, Bilbo begins to show an obsessive attachment to the ring—so much so that he lashes out, as if demonically-possessed, when Gandalf insists Bilbo keep to his earlier commitment. In a mixture of anger and concern, Gandalf bellows, "Bilbo Baggins, do not take me for a conjurer of cheap tricks. I'm not trying to rob you. I am trying to help you." Bilbo cowers in fear at Gandalf's fury, and then rushes into the wizard's embrace with a confidence in his love. He feared offending Gandalf's love, not losing it. Knowing Gandalf's love was true, he respected Gandalf's discipline all the more. Fear and love were not contradictory but rather complementary dimensions of the same appreciation for someone.
The Spirit makes us wise by helping us see how fear and love for God are inseverable. Neither Paul nor John dismisses fear in itself—only a fear that assumes God's love is rescinded by His chastisements. Obversely, neither would Paul or John uphold a confidence in God's love without also sustaining our reasons for fearing His displeasure of sin.
Have you ever feared the Lord? It's our fear of offending Him that confirms our implicit love for Him.
Have you only feared Him? Unqualified fear bespeaks an ignorance of His love demonstrated in Christ.
The absence of fear or love makes for a cold heart only the Spirit of God can warm.