As the World Fears

I turned around and was shocked to see an AR-15 rifle moving towards me.

The momentary thrill of fear lessened once I recognized that the gun was unloaded and pointed away from my person. (Better yet, it was being handled by someone I trusted not to shoot me.) Although the lack of threat had been established, I recognized that this powerful tool deserved a healthy amount of respect. At the same time… I wanted to hold it. The gun was surprisingly light in my hands. I looked over the sleek metal, kept my finger off the trigger, and resisted the urge to swing it around like the orange-capped toy imitations from childhood.

Years ago, on a camping trip with my dad, I shot a BB gun exactly once. Somehow, I managed to miss the paper target hanging from a wooden beam and instead hit the post in such a straight line that the BB ricocheted back into my forehead. Suffice it to say that my experience with firearms has been limited since then. I’ve fired small handguns at a shooting range, but the thrill of holding an AR-15 – knowing the power it contains – was above and beyond. The gun was enticing, yet terrifying.

Power can strike fear into our hearts, even as we desire to hold it for ourselves.

Guns, for all their power, are dispassionate tools. Still, they’re dangerous in the wrong hands, or in irresponsible ones. They can even be dangerous in well-meaning and fairly capable hands, once the heat of a high-pressure moment has jammed their capacity for decision-making. Despite the danger, firepower is one of many ways our world measures… well, power. We’ve seen this on full display in very recent events, when young men (or underage children) have postured with weapons intended to wound and kill, attempting to intimidate people they’ve identified as the enemy. This supposed enemy, with weapons of their own, seeking to equalize their own power in different ways, reacts. The result of these encounters is tragic, and tragically familiar – the most recent addition to a tapestry of violence patterned throughout human history. More power for some, and more fear for everyone else.

There are other displays of worldly power besides gun ownership, of course. Many forces would like to claim absolute power and manipulate the powerless through fear.

Well-known Christian leaders use their influence to cover up personal scandals and maintain authority over their institution.

Campaigns threaten chaos and devastation in X Candidate’s America, attempting to scare voters towards Y.

Mass media profits off clicks, and so stokes fear and outrage with every baiting headline.

Military superpowers boast secret knowledge, because knowledge is power, and power is a reason for enemies to remain submissive before us.

In a violent world, the best plan for peace is to purchase the biggest gun. When you have the most power, come what may, you can rest secure in the knowledge that you’ve built the strongest empire for yourself. The problem is that this “knowledge” is a lie. None of us have ever held that kind of power, and no one ever will. And I think, at the heart of our deep-seated struggle for power, we all know it.

In Romans 1:20, Paul writes,

For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that the people are without excuse.

Although the Son’s revelation was necessary for humanity to know God as Father, Paul explains that creation itself is evidence to the fact that God is Creator. Every culture has a creation myth. Each one bears some fragment of truth pointing towards the Creator God, tiny though the fragment may be. There are two fundamental distinctions between creature and Creator that Paul says everyone can know: nature and power. Each of us, regardless of our relationship with Christ or lack thereof, has a glimmer of awareness of the Almighty’s power; consequently, we also recognize our own powerlessness in comparison to Him.

What, then, is our response to an all-powerful God? How do we react when faced with the One next to whom all other powers appear feeble? The God who spoke creation into existence with a word, whose voice is like thunder and whose footstep shakes the earth, who went ahead in cloud by day and fire by night, who holds the sun and moon and stars in the sky, who created time and space and sees every minute detail within them, who easily holds the cosmos in the palm of His hand and yet is attentive to the intricacies of our anatomy – this God’s power has confronted us. I suppose it’s understandable to respond in fear – to clutch whatever power we can and construct delusions of security.

Even the men who knew something of the Creator’s character were struck dumb when they found themselves in His presence.

Isaiah’s vision of the Lord’s throne room is one of my favorites (and I have the tattoo to prove it). The prophet opens his eyes to see the Lord seated upon His throne, the train of His robe filling the temple. Picture how big a robe must be for its train alone to fill the temple, then imagine looking up from the ground at the One wearing it. I doubt Isaiah’s eyes could reach the face of the Lord, even if he’d been able to keep from falling to the ground! (We haven’t even started on the flashes of fire, billowing smoke, earthquakes, or six-winged snakes flying around. No wonder the poor guy cried out “Woe is me!”) In case Isaiah missed the point, shouts of praise echoed through the vaulted room: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.”

Later on, while God’s people were living in Babylonian exile, the prophet Daniel had a vision of his own. While there were several confusing things happening with beasts and nations, one figure is central to it all.

As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.

And a few verses later in chapter 7,

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.

Even those among the Lord’s chosen people are fearful when they behold His power. However, fear of God is different than fear of the world. These prophets do not go spiraling out in search of cheap imitation power to defend themselves before the throne of God Almighty. Isaiah adopts a posture of complete humility; Daniel even submits the responsibilities of his political role, an enticing source of pseudo-power, to the Lord Most High. Their response to God’s power goes against the grain of the worldly pattern. How can this be?

For one thing, I suspect that the sudden revelation of God’s power and presence obliterated any notion of grasping at imitations. For another, I think God’s ongoing revelation of Himself through Israel’s history let them see beyond His nature and power alone. They knew that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not a dispassionate force, but a Person – One described as our refuge, who provides counsel and whose presence brings joy, whose rod and staff are a comfort, who commands hosts of angels and makes wars cease. Under His judgment, all the world’s finest military tech will be beaten back into civilian equipment.[1] It was not an assault-rifle God who sent the Prince of Peace.

The greatest display of God’s power came through this Prince about 2,000 years ago. The prophets weren’t around to see him; their understanding of God’s revelation, though not inaccurate, was incomplete. As John writes in the prologue of his gospel, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” This is Jesus’ repeated claim throughout his ministry – God the Father is made known through Jesus, His Son.[2] At the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the center of all history, we see the Almighty’s power displayed through the cross. The Son, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being,” is tortured, humiliated, and put to death. Although it was within his power, he called no armies to himself, angelic or otherwise; he proved himself to not be the military Messiah many Jewish people were expecting. After three days in the tomb, though, he proved that his power and purposes are greater than what human minds could imagine when he conquered death and rose from the grave.

The Son, in his power, does not give as the world gives; therefore, we do not fear as the world fears.[3] With Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father, he has given us his Spirit. This Spirit “does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

I recently re-watched a sermon (originally preached during the last election cycle, funnily enough) on God’s sovereignty. At one point, the sermon lands on Philippians 4:6-7 with the command “Do not be anxious about anything.” The preacher drives the point home. “Realize that every command in Scripture is rooted in who God is…. Do you understand that if you knew God perfectly, you would be incapable of worry?”

Through the Son, we see the Father. We know the God whose ultimate display of power looked like dying on a cross. Therefore, we do not fear as the world fears, and as a result, the world loses its power over us. For early Christians, this often meant facing death themselves. Eusebius of Caesarea, a Christian historian in the fourth century, recorded details concerning the persecution and martyrdom of many early Christians.

“After these words, before giving the account of Polycarp, they record the events which befell the rest of the martyrs, and describe the great firmness which they exhibited in the midst of their pains. For they say that the bystanders were struck with amazement when they saw them lacerated with scourges even to the innermost veins and arteries, so that the hidden inward parts of the body, both their bowels and their members, were exposed to view; and then laid upon sea-shells and certain pointed spits, and subjected to every species of punishment and of torture, and finally thrown as food to wild beasts.

And they record that the most noble Germanicus especially distinguished himself, overcoming by the grace of God the fear of bodily death implanted by nature. When indeed the proconsul  wished to persuade him, and urged his youth, and besought him, as he was very young and vigorous, to take compassion on himself, he did not hesitate, but eagerly lured the beast toward himself, all but compelling and irritating him, in order that he might the sooner be freed from their unrighteous and lawless life.” – Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Bk. IV, Ch. XV

I’m not necessarily advocating for luring the beasts of persecution toward us, but I was struck by the countercultural, otherworldly peace apparent in these martyrs. When the fear of bodily death is no longer a factor, our response to worldly power appears unnatural. We no longer need to join in the world’s power struggle because we know the Creator – the Father – whose resurrection power and purposes go beyond what we can see with eyes limited by death.

The last few months have definitely stripped away many false securities we used to cling to. The invisible threat of a respiratory disease has even shaken our trust in the air we breathe. Election season has us scrambling to amass power within our party of choice. The pervasive fear only stokes further hatred and division in the mad grab to maintain dominance. Perhaps, if judgment might be a mercy, this season is an opportunity to ask ourselves: what enticing powers do we seek to hold as defense for our rights or offense against a perceived enemy? How are we seeking out worldly dominance, rather than looking to the Son’s example of submission as our guide?

How must we live differently, now that we do not fear as the world fears?

[1] Psalm 16, 23, 31, 46; Isaiah 2:4

[2] Hebrews 1:1-3 provides a quick summary.

[3] John 14:25-27

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