A contradiction, it seems. That we both confess that “God is love” (1Jn. 4:8) and that we are to “fear God and keep His commandments” (Ecc. 12:13). A seeming contradiction that puzzles even those who have embraced Christ as Savior for many years, and a contradiction I feel that I am incapable of resolving fully. But the joy of embracing all that is God is worth the attempt, and so I set out on a journey far too difficult to complete on my own, and I pray that His Spirit would guide me as I think and write.
When we meditate on “God is love” we invariably tend to feel that we are the primary object of His love, that His world revolves around us, and that His cross was primarily for us. We may not verbalize these feelings, but we act on them daily, ignorantly clinging to our childhood sense of supreme importance. To be sure, God does love us and the cross is partly for us, but His affections are primarily for Himself and the cross primarily for His glory. But “God is love” does not mean “God is loving.” It means that “love” is what drives all that God is. Love drives His justice. Love drives His compassion. Love drives His grace. Love drives His intolerance of sin. Love drives His condemning those who do not repent to Jesus. Love drives His forgiveness of those who do repent to Jesus. And His love is for Himself supremely, and this is a good thing because we would not want God to worship anything but Himself.
While His steady and unwavering love for Himself makes Him a holy God, it also places us under His wrath. Because the natural response of love toward sin is hate. Because God is love, He hates sin and must act on His righteous anger toward those who sin. This does indeed give us reason to fear. We have relegated the concept of “fear God” to mean a much lesser, much safer concept of “respect God.” While we should indeed respect God, we do not only respect the One “…who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). No, we respect and FEAR Him. The response before God is indeed a solemn respect, but one that is coupled with a holy trembling before the One who rules the cosmos, reigning over all that is.
But, for the Christian, the fear of God and God’s love beautifully collide in the cross of Christ. At the cross, this love-centered God bore upon Himself all of the reasons we have to fear Him outright. He took all of our sin, all of our shame, all the reasons God’s wrath was settled upon us and paid that price Himself, setting us free from the enslavement to sin and death, as well as freeing us from the wrath of God by absorbing that wrath Himself (Rom. 3:25). Yet, there is still reason to fear. Because just as this freedom was birthed out of violence toward the Son of Man, the grace of God moves in us violently. God’s loving grace moves upon us, killing all that we are and making us into something new. This newness does not come without pain and suffering, both Christ’s and ours, and it sometimes leads us to suffer for the sake of the One who freed us. Yet we do so as Christ did, suffering well and embracing the pain for the sake of the joy set before us.
It seems that this concept is only foreign to us when it comes to suffering for God. We see this modeled in all areas of life, and embrace it gladly. A good friend of mine was recently able to watch a child birth as part of her nursing program, and she described this experience as “amazing and terrifying at the same time.” Women embrace and endure the pain of child birth for the joy of raising and loving a child. And forgive me if this is crass for you, but we also see this suffering before joy concept modeled in marriage, as the virgin on her wedding night experiences pain before joy, showing us the death of singleness and the birth of the couple. The death of being alone and the birth of being forever attached to someone, as Christ’s death was necessary before we could be forever attached to Him. And this oneness leads to further loving sacrifice throughout the marriage.
So, we accept that sometimes, or often times, suffering must come before joy. Yet we are so resistant to suffering for the sake of Christ. But, I ask you, what could possibly be more joyous than being like Christ? What could be more joyous than spending eternity with the simultaneously “amazing and terrifying” God?
As C.S. Lewis says “He isn’t safe, but He’s good.” That is why we are able to simultaneously bow our hearts and tremble before Christ the Lord, and yet embrace Him with our arms as a Brother and Savior.
Indeed, grace is fearsome, but it is still grace.