Holy Fear and Humility
The great English critic and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, once quipped: “Some men please themselves with a constant regularity of life, and decency of behavior. Some are punctual in attendance on public worship, and perhaps in the performance of private devotion. Such men are not hypocrites; the virtues which they practice arise from their principles. Their religion is sincere; what is reprehensible is, that it is partial."
Apparently, the great man understood only too well the tendency of men to happily embrace religion--as long as they could have it on their terms. That is a far cry from Biblical faith.
The Christian approach to any issue, or any problem, or any situation, or even any circumstance--in fact, the Christian approach to the whole of life--must always be theocentric. In other words, it must begin and end with--and ultimately be centered in--the Lord. He is, after all, the Alpha and the Omega of all things in reality (Revelation 1:8). To attempt any approach to reality without this in view is to invite frustration and failure. God is sovereign (Psalm 115:3). This is the fundamental truth that underlies the Christian worldview. Thus, our lives must be suffused with a holy fear and reverence of Him--to the point that everything is thereby affected.
The Bible is prolific in its vehement assertion of this truth: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Proverbs 1:7). "Hear O people of God the Good News: in the fear of the Lord is strong confidence, and His children will have a place of refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to avoid the snares of death (Proverbs 14:26-27). "Clothe yourselves in humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may lift you up in due time, casting all your anxiety upon Him because He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:5-7).
Humility is not exactly a popular concept these days. Fernanda Eberstadt, in her brilliant coming-of-age novel Isaac and His Devils, captured this sentiment: "Humility has a dank and shameful smell to the worldly, the scent of failure, lowliness, and obscurity."
How different is the Biblical perspective. A nation whose leaders are humbled in fear before God will suffer no want (Psalm 34:9). It will ever be blest (Psalm 115:13). It will be set high above all the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 28:1). Similarly, families--and even individuals--that walk in humility will be exalted and lifted up in due time (Proverbs 3:34, James 4:6).
The Westminster Confession of Faith was written between 1643 and 1648 by a remarkable group of English reformers. The cornerstone of its magnificent formulation of Biblical orthodoxy is its conception of God’s nature and character: “There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty; most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal most just and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.”
This precise perception of God’s regal character is matched in the Confession by a sober realization of His sovereign attributes: “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His glory in, by, unto, and upon them: He is alone the foundation of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleaseth. In His sight all things are open and manifest; His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature; so as nothing is to Him contingent or uncertain. He is most holy in all His counsels, in all His works, and in all His commands.”
Thus, the Confession concludes with a practical admonition: “To Him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience He is pleased to require of them.”
Though such humble affirmations formed the backdrop of the thinking of the Reformers--and thus in turn, the much of the fabric of early American culture--it is a far cry from our own comprehension of God today. In fact, the combination of doctrinal precision and awestruck humility of the Westminster divines necessarily sounds rather foreign to our ears, not just because they made liberal use of a exacting tone and a majestic language at odds with our relaxed syntax and egalitarian prose, but because their very perception of God is foreign to us.
We are prone to think of God--when we think of Him at all--as wonderful. We are less likely to see Him as willful. Certainly He is both, but the overwhelming emphasis of Scripture is upon the will rather than the wonder. It is upon the exercise of God’s prerogative rather than the expiation of our pleasure. The difference is probably a matter of slights rather than slanders. Nevertheless, it is a difference that makes for rather dramatic consequences.
Thus, to some of us God is little more than a cosmic vending machine in the sky, designed to dispense our every want and whim. To others of us He is a grandfatherly sage who lives to patiently offer us certain therapeutic benefits and baubles from His largess. To still others He is a kind of Santa figure--jolly, unflappable, and determined to bestow goodies upon incognizant masses. Invariably though, we moderns tend to see God in terms of ourselves--in terms of our wants, our needs, our preferences, and our desires. We have apparently, as Voltaire accused, “made God in our own image.”
To the Westminster divines, such a prideful conception of God would have been altogether unrecognizable as the God of the Bible. Such a conception would have been incapable of laying foundations of Christendom--thus rendering the flowering of American civilization utterly impossible. In fact, according to psychologist Paul Vitz, such a conception is not knowledge of God at all, but a form of “self-worship.”
Thus, if we fail to come to a full and accurate knowledge of God--if it is shallow, or superficial, or self-centered, or supercilious as our modern evangelical conception of God is apt to be--then we are not only likely to miss God's purpose and will for our lives, we are likely to make a mess of the world around us as well. And so we have.
Thus, the Shorter Catechism properly begins by asserting that, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” The English reformers, recognized that the beginning of any serious endeavor must necessarily be rooted in a humble and holy fear of our Gracious and Almighty God--that worship of Him, fellowship with Him, service to Him, and communion in Him, must be the vortex of any and all other activities. The Biblical faith is a circumspect fear of the Living God. That is its essence.