A Well-Timed Blessing of Fear

Growing up in a Baptist church outside of Detroit, I never understood how the sentence, “He’s a good, God-fearing man” could ever be received as a compliment. After all, the American Male Mystique – an enslaving mirage, both then and now – glorifies the “real man” to be entirely fearless and confident, self-assured and in command of his faculties even under the most extreme forms of duress. The presence of fear was more often used as a critique, a sense that a man was lacking somehow, so the idea that a good man should fear anything landed on me as an oxymoron.
So how does a modern Christian male reconcile the entirely-biblical truths that we are to both love (Matthew 22:37) and fear (Deuteronomy 13:4) the Lord? What is the appropriate place for fear in the spiritual and emotional make-up of the well-ordered disciple of Jesus? If Jesus has indeed saved us from sin and judgment, then is there really anything left to fear?

One day last week, the ride to school was especially challenging for me and my son. Our morning routine had not gone well; there had been several less-than-loving comments issuing forth from his mouth, most of which I did not have adequate time to address as a father probably should. Even the simplest tasks – eating breakfast, putting on shoes, zipping up a jacket – became grueling events that tested the mettle of all combatants. In short, a heart of stubborn, rebellious pride had descended on my first-grader, and he had given himself over to it. Heeding some parenting advice once spoken by Jerram Barrs, I desperately sought to “overlook everything I possibly could.”

As it happened, God blessed Boone County with a fairly-impressive storm that morning. Traffic was slow and snarled. Bridge construction on Scott Boulevard, other road work elsewhere and partial flooding had the effect of re-routing cars and busses such that the two of us found ourselves trapped in unmoving traffic more than once. And then the hail started coming down, landing loudly on the roof of our car and further obstructing our ability to see out the windshield. I briefly wondered if the hail was damaging my vehicle when the lightning kicked in. A nearby crack, and I no longer needed any more caffeine to wake up. Apart from any “choice” of mine, the adrenaline surged.

About that time, I noticed that my son had gone silent.

I then realized that he actually hadn’t said much for a few minutes. Where previously he had been very loudly complaining and critiquing everything that crossed his path, he had at some point gone quiet. The expression on his face provided visible evidence that he had decided to suspend his growling and spend some time wondering what was going to happen to us next. When he began gulping for breath, the fear moving now into panic, I simply reached over to him, put my hand on his leg and looked full into his eyes; “Don’t worry. Don’t be scared. I’m with you. We’re going to be just fine. You can relax.” I kept my hand on his leg and repeated those phrases a few times, waiting for his breathing to slow down.

It wasn’t too long after that when the hail stopped, bringing a measure of relief to the previously-deafening sound of ice striking sheet metal. The rain slowed up a bit, too, and traffic began to move again. We arrived safely at school, both of us now enabled to articulate gratitude for the warmth, dryness and safety of the car’s interior. My son wondered what his life might have been like had he been walking or biking to school that day, as he sees “other kids do sometimes.” His school principal stood by the covered entryway, large umbrella in hand, welcoming the kids who were being dispatched from a line of cars and hustling them into the safety of his building. My son was able to express his thanks before we hastily said goodbye.

The message had been received. I said a quick prayer, thanking God for my son’s safety…and for the well-timed interruption in his peevishness.

My son is not the only Mayer male with a rebellious, stubborn heart in need of a healthy dose of reality.

I have had the same primary care physician for over 20 years. When I arrived in Columbia in the fall of 1992, I was a hot mess. A physical, emotional and certainly a spiritual shipwreck. My doctor and I have never spent much time talking about issues of faith, but I have an enormous respect for her plain-spoken approach, as well as her patience and considerable medical skills. At some point in the mid-1990s, God’s common grace descended on her medical practice as she laid out three different possibilities for me to both enter rehab and have some chance that my University insurance would foot much of the bill. After I wasted her time by finding some small fault with each of the three possibilities for drug and alcohol rehabilitation – none of them fit “my” ignorant preconception of “what rehab should look like” perfectly – she gave me an incredible gift of well-timed fear:

“OK, well, these are your options. These are what your insurance plan will cover. If you keep drinking the way you are, you will die. Probably sooner than you think.”

I never did go through any form of “institutionalized” rehabilitation, though I know many currently-sober people who have done so and swear by it. Instead, sobriety came a few months later as the simple truth of her words continued to “make noise” in my soul similar to the incessant downpour of ice that struck fear into the heart of my son last week. The Lord had allowed me to hear these words in a way that had previously been impossible; over the course of 20+ years of drug and alcohol abuse, I lost count of the number of people who had tried to talk some sense into me. On a plane ride from San Francisco to Kansas City, I surrendered my life to the God of my understanding. The specter of impending death had managed to catch my attention…in the best possible way.

Of course, fearing God and fearing for our physical well-being are very different. But God is in the business of redeeming even our most selfish fears. Where once upon a time various fears were a controlling influence in my life, a horrid feeling bringing with it much physical discomfort – a discomfort that could only be drowned out with prodigious amounts of drinking and drugs – fear has nowadays been relegated to the less-intimidating role of “indicator light on my heart’s control panel.” The presence of fear serves merely to remind me that I have 1) forgotten something about God or 2) have placed an inappropriate amount of trust in something other than God.

It’s actually a blessing to have a “dashboard light” that calls me back to my Savior when I stray. A rightly-ordered fear of God stands in awe of His perfect holiness and righteousness. In the Bible, it is oddly reassuring to me that the universal reaction to the manifested presence of the Lord is immediate and consuming fear. God and His angels are constantly telling human beings not to fear (Daniel 10:10-12; Luke 2:10; Matthew 28:5), the clearest-possible indicator that God’s world is “wholly other” than what we now know, and that His level of perfection is such that we simply cannot grasp it.

We fear that which we cannot understand, and in doing so with reference to God we must acknowledge our weakness and frailty.

Where once I looked down on fear and rather-cluelessly tried to master my own, I can now appreciate this kind of fear as a reminder of our place in God’s universe, our need for protection and Christ’s call to pursue love as the only effective means of casting out the more self-centered expressions of fear (1 John 4:18). Praise God that He regularly interrupts our selfishness and lack of gratitude with lightning, hailstorms and no-nonsense, plain-speaking family doctors.

Proverbs 1:7
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Psalm 111:10
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!

Job 28:28
And he said to man, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.”

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