Disdain for the Essential: Thoughts on how our culture shapes the way we live with God
As I child I didn’t know the first names of the adults in my life. My parents’ friends were not Norris and Grace, they were Mr. and Mrs. Friesen. Our pastor was not Dennis, he was Pastor Miller. Through subtle practices like this, and less subtle reminders, we were taught that there was a proper respect we should have for adults. Don’t fear, my point here is not to advocate the necessity of children using titles with adults. My aim is to reflect on our current cultural location and how this permeates and shapes the ways we relate to God.
We live in a society that seems to have lost the ability to have proper respect for anyone or anything. (I say “proper” respect not as a means of scolding us, but as a means of indicating that there is such a thing as improper respect.) The leader of our country is used as a punching bag. It hardly matters if that person is a Democrat or Republican. The only thing that changes is who is doing the punching. Those who disagree with the President do not stop at disagreeing with his policies but move on to demonizing him and aiming venom-filled barbs at his character and his family. There is a way to respect someone while disagreeing with him/her.
Even those who agree with the President don’t seem to respect him so much as lick their chops as they imagine what he can do for them. Their devotion is driven less by respect than the belief that he will do their bidding. I’ll leave the example of our President here as it is not my purpose to consider the proper respect for that specific office/person. I only use the President as an example of a person or position for which there used to be respect, even in disagreement, where now there is not.
We live in a time and place where a healthy understanding and practice of respect has been largely lost. This is one of the brush strokes of the picture I want to paint, but there is another.
I assumed my first pastoral position as a twenty-six year old seminary student. I knew everything. I had the answers to the problems our church was facing. I knew the deficiencies of the approach of the church leadership. I knew enough to veil my arrogance behind a veneer of humility, but the veneer was thin. There were ways our Senior Pastor and elders were leading the church that I knew were wrong. I assumed it was my responsibility to push against these missteps and help them see the light. My supposed knowledge and insight ran wild and refused to be tamed.
In the years since then I have matured, some. I have learned that I am not always right. I am learning that there are times to submit to others even when I think I am. In our culture of rampant individualism—the worship of self—it is increasingly inconceivable to imagine willingly bowing the knee to anyone or anything but self. It is a great act of discipline and humility to submit our will to another. One in which we have become clumsy.
Proper respect. Willing submission. To these I’d like to add one more stroke.
Before my sophomore year in high school I joined a band of fifteen adolescents and a couple brave adults on a camping and canoeing trip to the boundary waters of Canada. I had no idea what I was in for. As I sat in the pounding rain on the back side of an isolated island with my friend Casey, all I wanted to do was to go home. It felt unsafe. No means of communication. Wild and untamed. Who knew what could happen? The trip was uncomfortable, but it was necessary. We paddled until we were sore, and then some. We jumped off a cliff into the waters below. We shared with a vulnerability that seemed unattainable in the context of home. On the whole that trip was not safe. I felt exposed and vulnerable. But it was good. I lived those days with a healthy fear of the land and the water. I understood my smallness and that sense of smallness seemed to inspire growth. When things are great and untamed there is a sense of fear that is right, necessary, and beneficial.
This is not where I live on a regular basis. The world may be dangerous, but I live in a place founded on the bedrock of safety and comfort. Aspects of life that do not sit well on these foundations are not tolerated. I propel my children into this safety and comfort without much thought. I seldom experience a proper sense of fear—or awe—because I have positioned myself to avoid it. There are those who experience the other side of this. They live with fear daily. Real fear that their children will be taken, their homes burned, their jobs lost, or the well-being threatened in some other way. They do not experience the safety and comfort I thoughtlessly inhabit, but their experience could not rightly be called proper fear (or awe) either. It is a fear of what is inhibiting and evil, not challenging and good.
Proper respect. Willing submission. Awe. Ways of being we have jettisoned and forgotten.
All of this works to profoundly impact the way we live with and relate to God. Certainly the Bible speaks of the character of a right relationship with God in many ways—friends, parent and child, master and servant, forgiver and forgiven, husband and wife. It is natural that a relationship with an infinite God would be deep and complex in ways that are difficult to categorize or sum up. I am not attempting to remove these in favor of proper respect, willing submission, and awe, but to highlight a significant component of a right relationship with God for which we have lost capacity. The Scriptures and nature itself proclaim a God who is great and majestic in ways beyond our full understanding. Ways that should inspire proper respect, willing submission, and awe. These are things we have consciously and unconsciously taught ourselves to despise.
“When the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” Exodus 14:31
“12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?” Deuteronomy 10:12-13
The consequences of our loss of ability to rightly fear (awe) God are substantial. Right fear is a foundation of trust. Surely love is another foundation of trust, but we embrace the latter while dismissing the former. We talk about trusting God, and falter. There is not one reason for this, but one of the reasons must be that we have given up proper respect, willing submission, and awe—removing an essential component that leads to trusting him. When the Israelites feared the Lord they put their trust in him. God called Israel to fear him, which would lead to obedience, which would lead to their good. We do not trust God unless he seems to be doing our bidding.
“You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!” Psalm 22:23
Our current situation also leads to a decreased willingness and ability to worship God. It is natural that we would struggle to worship someone we see as an equal, or even an underling. Worship is a stream that flows from proper respect, willing submission, and awe. Yes, it flows from love, adoration, and gratitude as well. The truth of the latter does not negate the former. Failure to properly fear the Lord leaves us struggling to worship him, and we should not be shocked by this.
Do a search of “fear” and “Lord” in the Bible. Read through these passages. As you do you will find a robust picture emerging in which the fear of the Lord and the experience of his love, protection, healing, hope, and joy are deeply interwoven. In my life and the lives of those with whom I seek to live following Jesus, I often sense a deficit in willingness to trust God, ability to worship him sincerely, and experience of his love, protection, healing, hope, and joy. I do not mean to over-simplify, but I am convicted that a proper fear of the Lord contributes to all of these.
We live in a society that will erode our concept of proper respect, willing submission, and awe. For those who desire to live a life with God, they must be cultivated.