Now that the truth is out about belly buttons and preachers, it seems appropriate to write from that same spirit of honesty. As always, the views expressed here are my own and not that of my parishes. Thank you for “listening” with me, whether we agree or disagree.
For as long as I can remember, on the way to my grandparents’ house lived an “Old Testament Prophet.” Throughout the front yard were large signs with quips from the books between Genesis and Malachi about fire, hell, wickedness, and an all-caps command to “REPENT!” Occasionally, the prophet would venture into the New Testament and add something Jesus said about violence or carrying a sword. In the hundreds of trips we made on that highway, I do not recall ever seeing the prophet. For all we knew, the owner of these calls to penitence could have been a prophetess. Mom and Dad liked to slow down to see which verse he/she had taken out of context and posted along the rural highway. But I wanted to speed by. The yard described a God who scared, and the Jesus I knew was one who calmed my fears.
Fear has a powerful impact on us. Our emotions, our beliefs, and our physical bodies all feel its effects. Unfortunately, even though we may not have signs in our front yard, the Church sometimes uses an approach similar to “the Old Testament prophet” to scare people into salvation. Yes, we are all sinners in need of a Savior. Yes, we need to study the various understandings of heaven and hell. Yes, we see throughout the Old and New Testaments instances of God’s anger and judgment. Yes, we need to repent. But to confine our presentation of the gospel to the question, “Are you going to heaven or hell?” leaves out so much of Jesus’ life-giving beauty.
A few weeks ago, I reflected on the lyrics of singer-songwriter Paul Thorn, who grew up the son of Pentecostal ministers in Tupelo, Mississippi. In 2008, for National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series, Thorn shared his thoughts about growing up in a Christianity powered by fear:
“The people who were trying to get me to God used fear and intimidation like a hammer, beating into submission anyone who dared to question their brand of absolute truth. The higher power I now pray to gives me love, joy and comfort. And I’m not afraid of him. I had to break away from the God I was supposed to believe in to find the God I could believe in.”*
I am saddened to think of how many people have stories similar to Thorn’s. I am saddened that people like he turn away from Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But I understand why they do so. And we as the Church need to listen to these stories. We need to ask ourselves how we can change our presentation of the gospel from that which scares us away to that which sustains us.
Perhaps we need to find the right kind of fear. Proverbs 1:7 teaches that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Such fear is an awe of God’s power to save, to heal, and to set free. The fear of the Lord is the recognition that we are not the center of the universe, but God is. The fear of the Lord is not about what happens to us. The fear of the Lord is about the Almighty caring about what happens to us. On this eve of All Saints’ Day, I reflect on two loved ones who died this year: my grandmother who lived down the road from “the Old Testament prophet” and my friend, Jan Huff.** I want to believe in a God who has raised them from earthly death to eternal life through Jesus Christ. A God of such resurrection power is the God I want to believe in. This is the God I’ve always known, and this is the God I wish all people would know. I fear this God not because he’s frightening but because he is awesome.
Will you join me in taking down the scary “signs” and instead clothing ourselves in love? Will you invite people to experience the love of Jesus not as an escape from fiery hell but as an opportunity to be in relationship with our Creator? Let us become wiser, and may such wisdom begin with the right kind of fear.
all good things to each of you,
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.