Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The frightening voice of God

After the Hebrews had been freed from slavery in Egypt, they received commandments from God which would constitute the basis of their ethics and life lived together as the people of God. But the presentation of these laws was accompanied by various terrifying natural phenomena, fittingly so given the immensity of the God with whom they were now to deal, and this scared most of them. We read in Exodus 20:
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (vv. 18-19).
They feared for their lives, because the power of God as demonstrated through these natural phenomena was so great. The effect of the reception of God's law was that they drew away from him! Rather than approaching him in fear and trembling and trying by every means to come to know him from up close, so to speak, they instead drew back. This was because of their sinfulness. A person whose heart is bent on evil cannot draw near to God, because he senses something too foreign to himself, too much unlike him.

Why did God show himself in this way? Why not take a softer approach? This is a question that comes up often when reading the bible, at least for persons with "bleeding hearts" such as myself. But Moses explains for us why this is so:
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (v. 20).
In other words, God had to frighten them first because he wanted to keep them from sinning. The God with whom they are now inextricably tied is not to be trifled with. They ought to take this new covenant seriously, because he has freed them from slavery and has important plans to be accomplished through them. What they are entering into now is not a game, by any means. And in light of their spiritual immaturity, God must present himself in a frightening light, seeking to keep them from sin through fear if not from love.

Of course, as I've commented in a recent post, it would be a mistake to think that anger, wrath, and punishment are on a par with mercy, goodness, and love as regards the nature of God's character. In other words, the divine nature is not an irreducible duality between opposing impulses and tendencies, some of them of favorable to mankind and others of them not. This way lies Marcionism if a person cannot stomach the contradiction for too long. On the contrary, as Origen suggests in his anti-Marcionite polemics in various places, God's justice is aimed at good: he punishes for the sake of bringing the sinner to repentance and restoring him to life, not simply for destruction's sake. In the same way, in the present context we can understand that God's threatening self-presentation before the Hebrew people is aimed at keeping them from sin. His goal is to bring them to spiritual maturity and to love, but in a way that is accommodated to their current maturity and adequate to the task.

Catherine of Siena
But people who have advanced in the spiritual life quickly recognize that this kind of state is meant for beginners, not for the mature. A life of perpetual fear of God's punishment speaks more of spiritual immaturity than of genuine pious religiosity. Catherine of Siena, in her Dialogue, writes about persons who try to abstain from sin out of fear of hell, but who do not love God nor their neighbors:
They have arisen with servile fear from the vomit of mortal sin, but, if they do not arise with love of virtue, servile fear alone is not sufficient to give eternal life. But love with holy fear is sufficient, because the law is founded in love and holy fear. The old law was the law of fear, that was given by Me to Moses, by which law they who committed sin suffered the penalty of it. The new law is the law of love, given by the Word of My only-begotten Son, and is founded in love alone. The new law does not break the old law, but rather fulfills it, as said My Truth, 'I come not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it' (source).
This passage was striking to me when I first read Catherine's Dialogue. Efforts to avoid sin out of fear of damnation will not save anyone; the person who tried so hard to keep from evident and obvious sin because he feared the punishments of hell will find them at last, because he did not love. Indeed, love of God and love of neighbor are the summary of the Law which they tried to keep. Because they do not love God -- and how can they love God, if they are deathly afraid of him? -- they did not even begin to keep the Law.

Along this same line of thought, consider the following tremendous affirmation from Anthony the Great:
Abba Anthony said, "I no longer fear God but I love him, for perfect love casts out fear [1 John 4:18]" (Apophthegmata Patrum Anthony §32).
It is true that the beginning of wisdom and knowledge is the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7; 9:10). But this is the beginning of these. On the contrary, the greatest commandment of all is the commandment to love the Lord with absolutely everything that we have within us, and this cannot be mixed with fear. As the apostle wrote, and as Anthony recited for us, perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). So it is evident that fear functions as a beginning and a pedagogue, the aim of which is to lead to spiritual maturity and love of God.

I draw the following conclusion: when we come across frightful expressions of anger and threats from God in the scriptures, we should understand this language as being accommodated to the immaturity of sinners, aimed at bringing them to repentance from sin but by no means as being adequately addressed to everyone at every stage of the Christian life. And in principle, I should not need to be threatened to be motivated to holiness of life. If that is the case, if I can only be brought to righteousness through threats and through the warnings of punishment, then I am still immature and a far way away from truly loving God.

No comments: