Did Jesus not declare all foods clean?

Q.  I’m in a group that’s discussing the gospel of Mark, and when we got to the place where Mark says that Jesus “declared all foods clean,” the question arose as to whether Jesus actually did away with all the Levitical dietary restrictions.  The suggestion was made that Jesus was declaring only that all of the foods that Jews considered to be foods were clean — thus, “all foods” declared to be clean would exclude things such as pork, shellfish, etc.  I’m familiar with the arguments of Daniel Boyarin about this, but I’m unpersuaded, especially by his insistence that if Jesus had undone the kosher food laws, he would have been a false prophet, per Deuteronomy 13.  What do you think?

I haven’t yet studied Boyarin’s arguments myself, so I can’t comment on them, but let me share some general thoughts in response to your question.

All Jesus actually said was, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”  This was the principle that Jesus taught.  Different early communities of his followers then sought to apply that principle to themselves, in the context of the particular milieu of life into which God had called them to live out their faith.

For Matthew, writing as an observant Jew to other observant Jews, the takeaway is simply, “Eating with unwashed hands does not defile” a person.  This was the direct issue at stake:  The Pharisees had asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

But for Mark, writing for an essentially Gentile audience, probably in a Roman context (Mark has to explain the whole issue of washing, which Matthew’s audience already understands), draws a broader application for life in the context of their calling:  “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”

And so one could well argue, on the authority of the gospels, that Jesus did not actually declare all foods clean for observant Jews (and being one of those is still a valid way of being a follower of Jesus today).  He only set aside a human tradition requiring ceremonial washing (something not in the law of Moses) in favor of the pursuit of true inner virtue.  But he did declare all foods clean for those who are called to live out their faith in many other contexts (but not all contexts, for example, not for Jesus-followers who continue to be cultural Muslims).

Paul, in his letters, declares not a radical freedom to eat all foods, but a radical freedom from trying to be righteous by works that allows one to eat, or not to eat, in whatever way best serves another person in love: “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat”—now that’s radical freedom!

(The Jews of Jesus’ time weren’t keeping kosher in order to earn a righteous status by works.  For them, this was a sign or boundary marker of the covenant to which they already belonged.  Rather, Paul was writing to Gentiles who were being encouraged to keep kosher as a way of being righteous before God—as a kind of “sanctification by works”:  saved by grace, but then maintained in righteousness by things like observing special days and keeping kosher.  Thus Paul had to write to the Colossians, for example, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

In short, as has well been said, there is no such thing as a disembodied “gospel.”  We can only engage the gospel of Jesus when we experience it contextualized for us in our own milieu of life.  When it comes to this particular saying of Jesus, the Bible actually models for us a couple of different ways in which his earliest followers contextualized it for themselves.  Trying to pick one or the other of these (“anything goes” vs. Levitical dietary restrictions for everybody today) does not do justice to the rightfully demanding process of understanding how Jesus’ words apply to us today, a process all of his followers are called to pursue faithfully and diligently–as you are doing by asking questions like this one.

The illustration from Daniel Boyarin’s Tikkun article “Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark”

Did Jesus and Paul have different focuses in their teaching–the kingdom of God vs. salvation by grace?

Q. Why does Jesus seem to focus so much on “the kingdom of God” while Paul seems to focus on “salvation by grace”? Are they two sides of the same thing, or are they different focuses?

I think it is fair to say that Jesus’ teaching was essentially about the kingdom of God.  That’s how Matthew, Mark, and Luke actually summarize his teachings in their gospels—in Luke, for example: “Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”

But I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that Paul’s teaching is essentially about salvation by grace.  As Gordon Fee has shown quite convincingly in his book God’s Empowering Presence (abridged in Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God), we actually have that impression about Paul because we read him through the eyes of the Reformation.

The Reformers were trying to respond to a situation in which salvation was being depicted, explicitly or implicitly, as the result of works.  Beginning with Luther, the Reformers found in the opening parts of epistles such as Galatians and Romans a strong insistence that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and they made this the centerpiece of their response.  All Protestants are heirs of the Reformation and so we see Paul through this lens.

But Paul was not actually writing to counter people who taught salvation by works.  Rather, he was correcting the teaching that salvation was by grace and sanctification was then by works—specifically works such as circumcision (the main issue in Galatians) or keeping kosher and Jewish festivals (as in Colossians).

So Paul emphasizes salvation by grace, not works, in the earlier parts of such epistles so that he can make the argument that sanctification should and must come by similarly by God’s work in us, not our work for God.  As he challenges the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

This reference to the Spirit is the key element.  Paul’s opponents said that people, once saved by grace, needed to be trained and restrained by the law; otherwise, what would keep them from running wild?  Paul countered that the transforming influence of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives would change them into people who desired and delighted to obey God.

But the very fact that the Holy Spirit was and operating in this fashion was, for Paul, evidence that the “age to come” or the “kingdom of God” was breaking into human history.  In other words, the essential incentive to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh is that we are already citizens and heirs of the kingdom of God.

Towards the end of Romans, for example, Paul turns aside a legalistic concern for sanctification through keeping kosher in favor of the transforming influence of the Spirit by explaining, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  And he warns the Galatians against the “deeds of the flesh” by reminding them that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”—in other words, those who will inherit the kingdom of God do not do such things.

So we see that the notion of the “kingdom of God” is not an emphasis that’s central to Jesus’ teaching but missing from Paul’s.  Rather, for Paul the presence of the kingdom is evidenced in the coming of the Spirit and in the Spirit’s transforming influence, which allows people not only to be saved by grace rather than works, but also to be sanctified by the Spirit rather than by works.

(This is only a brief overview; I develop this understanding further in my study guides to Paul’s Journey Letters and Paul’s Prison Letters.)

(Also see the series of four posts that begins here for a further discussion of how the teaching of Jesus compares with that of Paul: “How does New Testament teaching progress from Jesus to Paul?”)

An icon depicting Paul receiving his apostolic commission from Jesus.

Why didn’t Jesus explain his parables to everyone?

Q. I have a question about something I read today in my quiet time in the gospel of Mark. Why didn’t Jesus explain all of his parables to everyone who was listening?  Instead, it says he explained them to his disciples later, but for the public, everything was in parables. Is it because he knew the crowds were just “fans” who thought the things he said were interesting but not important? Jesus even says,”otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.” That sounds strange to me. Doesn’t he want each and every person on earth to believe, even though he knows there are many who won’t believe?

Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower,” 1888

Jesus says the things you’re wondering about when he’s explaining the Parable of the Sower to his close followers.  As I observe in my Mark study guide, it may appear that he doesn’t want “those on the outside” to understand, since he says that when they listen, they will be “ever seeing but never perceiving” and “ever hearing but never understanding.”  However, Jesus is actually quoting these phrases from the book of Isaiah.  That was how God described what the response of the hard-hearted Israelites would be when he sent Isaiah to speak to them.  These words explain what happens to someone whose heart is hardened, as represented by the first kind of soil in the parable.

(I discuss the passage in Isaiah in this post, in response to a question about whether God actually hardens people’s hearts so they won’t believe.  As I say there, “God really wants people to respond positively to his warnings and invitations and so be rescued. But the language here reflects God’s knowledge of the people’s confidence in their own strategies and his realization that they will choose their own way even more stubbornly when they’re challenged. And so God tells Isaiah, ironically, to go and make the people even more insensible and resistant. Whatever their response, the reality of the situation needs to be proclaimed.”)

Back here in Mark, it’s clear from the Parable of the Sower that other kinds of responses are possible, since the parable eventually describes the seed finding good soil and bearing much fruit, representing those who not only believe, but help others to believe.

It’s even clearer from the next parable that Jesus wants everyone to understand.  He uses a lamp to illustrate that he’s not deliberately concealing the truth about himself; he wants this to be “brought out into the open,” and ultimately it will be.

And so he invites everyone in the crowd, right after telling the Parable of the Sower, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”  Jesus wants people to hear and understand–if they want to themselves.  In other words, as has often been observed, parables were the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ purposes because they either reveal or conceal the message, depending on the state of a person’s heart.  They reveal the truth to those who are open to it, but conceal it from those who aren’t ready for it yet.

That’s why, after telling the parable about the lamp, Jesus also warns his listeners–most likely the entire crowd once again–“Consider carefully what you hear.”  If people don’t understand, it’s not because God doesn’t want them to understand, it’s because of how they’re listening.  They might be just “fans,” as you put it, listening carelessly to what Jesus says as some kind of novelty or diversion.

I think you actually model the kind of response Jesus is looking for.  You’re not just reading his words in your daily quiet time as some kind of religious duty.  You’re thinking carefully about them, and if something bothers you, you don’t just gloss over it, you try to find out what it means.

Keep doing this!  That’s what it looks like to be someone who truly has “ears to hear.”

Dialogue between science and miracle

Q. Although it seems intellectually satisfying to isolate religion and science into separate domains, that doesn’t seem to fully fit the picture. Though religion typically answers questions of who and why, any time the Bible maintains that miracles occurred, it steps into the realm of science. For example, Jesus either physically died and rotted somewhere or he was brought to heaven. If the spiritual world is real, there should be empirical consequences and “facts” that science can never explain. Is it accurate to maintain that the two domains of science and religion really are so separate, or is that more of an ideological goal to strive for to achieve clarity in thinking?

This is the essence of the first part of a long and thoughtful question that was recently posed to this blog.  (You can read the full text of the question here.)  In response to this part, I would say that there is indeed some overlap between the otherwise separate domains of religion and science, in that science (the discipline of drawing reasoned conclusions from empirical observations) can disprove the claim of a miracle by providing contradictory evidence.

Gustave Dore, “Elijah Ascends to Heaven”

In fact, we see this process of dialogue between miracle and science within the Bible itself.  When Elisha comes back from across the Jordan to report that Elijah has been taken up alive into heaven by a whirlwind, the company of prophets in Jericho isn’t so sure. “Look,” they tell Elisha, “we your servants have fifty able men. Let them go and look for your master. Perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley.”

In other words, “Maybe that whirlwind wasn’t a miraculous transport to heaven after all.  Maybe it was an ordinary whirlwind that has left Elijah stranded somewhere out in the desert, where he needs our help!”  Elisha is sure of the miracle and tells the prophets not to go.  They go out anyway and search in the desert for three days, but find nothing.

So did this empirical search that turned up no body prove that Elijah was taken up alive into heaven?  Not quite.  It just didn’t prove that he wasn’t.

In other words, when science investigates a miracle, the most that can be said on the side of the miracle is that there is no scientific proof that it didn’t happen.  But by definition (since science properly limits itself to the non-miraculous), there is also no scientific proof that a miracle did happen.

The same applies to the resurrection of Jesus.  If his body had ever turned up, that would have disproved the resurrection.  We know that his body never turned up because of what historians call the “criterion of embarrassment,” in which a hostile source needs to offer some explanation for an embarrassing detail. The gospels record how opponents claimed that Jesus’ early followers had stolen his body–an admission that it was missing.

A strong historical case can be made that it was not just unlikely, but virtually impossible, for Jesus’ body to have been stolen. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, if we do not rule out the miraculous, the most likely explanation of the events of that first Easter morning is that Jesus actually rose from the dead.  That is not a scientific conclusion, because it allows for miraculous possibilities.  But I do consider it a reasonable conclusion.

So the respective fields of investigation of science and religion do overlap in that science can falsify certain religious claims that should (or should not) leave real-world evidence.  But science does not validate religious claims when it cannot falsify them.  That is still the role of faith.

Are Christian men not supposed to cry?

A reader of my recent post about the Head Covering Movement also read a similar post on the Wartburg Watch about “Head Coverings on the Rise.” It explained how certain groups are promoting head coverings in an effort to distinguish male and female identities.

My reader was concerned to see comments there by Tim Bayly, senior pastor of ClearNote Church in Bloomington, Indiana and former Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, claiming that signs of “femininity in men” included “doubting themselves, using hedge words and phrases, wearing jewelry, abdicating authority, shedding tears,” and “being vain in their appearance.”  My reader asked:

Wow – disturbing to see “shedding tears” listed as a violation of men’s roles!!  How can they reconcile that with Jesus??

This is an excellent question, and a response to it provides a useful illustration of how the ideas of male and female roles that some groups are promoting owe much more to cultural influences than to biblical ones.  A similar study could be done of some of Bayly’s other signs of “femininity in men,” as well as of his signs of “masculinity in women.” (These include “working out”–does God not want women to be physically fit?  Even the so-called Proverbs 31 Woman is praised because “her arms are strong for her tasks”!)  But a single study of praiseworthy biblical men shedding tears will have to suffice here.

First, as my reader observed, Jesus himself shed tears openly.  Not only did he weep over the death of his dear friend Lazarus (even though he was just about to raise him from the dead!), he wept openly when he saw Jerusalem from a distance and sensed its impending fate–destruction at the hands of the Romans.

If we consider Jesus our example, as all Christian men and women are supposed to, then he must provide an illustration for both sexes of the freedom to express godly emotions openly.  Indeed, as historic hymns illustrate, the tears Jesus shed on earth have long been understood as a consolation to all who still mourn here:

Jesus wept! those tears are over,
But His heart is still the same;
Kinsman, Friend, and elder Brother,
Is His everlasting Name.
Savior, who can love like Thee,
Gracious One of Bethany?

When the pangs of trial seize us,
When the waves of sorrow roll,
I will lay my head on Jesus,
Refuge of the troubled soul.
Surely, none can feel like Thee,
Weeping One of Bethany!

But while Jesus, in his incarnation, is the supreme biblical example of a godly man, he is not the only praiseworthy man who weeps in the pages of Scripture:

• Esau, often held up as a “man’s man” in the Bible (“a skillful hunter, a man of the open country”), wept when Jacob stole his birthright, and he and Jacob wept together when they were reconciled.

• Jacob wept when he thought his favorite son Joseph had been killed.  Joseph wept when he was reunited in Egypt with his brothers who had betrayed him and he discovered that they were repentant.  (In fact, “he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.”)

• When David and his men–tough guys all–discovered that the Amalekites had raided their city of Ziklag and carried off their families, they “wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep.”  David and his friend Jonathan “wept together” when they were forced to part because of the violent jealousy of Jonathan’s father, King Saul.

• Nehemiah wept when he heard that Jerusalem still lay in ruins.

• Peter wept when he realized that he had betrayed Jesus.

• The elders of the church in Ephesus all wept as they said goodbye to Paul for the last time. (Apparently even church elders weeping together isn’t inappropriate, according to the Bible.)

Many other examples could be given, but the point should be clear by now.  To suggest that there is any Scriptural basis for arguing that godly men shouldn’t cry overlooks a broad range of positive examples throughout the Bible, including most notably Jesus himself.  If we are concerned about appropriate roles and identities for men and women, we need to be informed by God’s word about this, not by cultural assumptions.

Why did Jesus say we should hate our families?

Q.  Some of Jesus’ teachings have puzzled me over the years.  While some may have been part of a parable, others were definitely spoken directly to people as instructions.  Take this one:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”  I thought we were supposed to love even our enemies.  So why does Jesus say we should hate our families?

In this earlier post I explain that when Jesus says we should love our enemies, he doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to feel a warm and delighted attraction to people who have hurt or betrayed us, a feeling that makes us want to be in a close relationship with them.

Rather, we should understand “love” in this case to be a commitment, not a feeling.  We commit to doing whatever is in that person’s best interests, in the hopes that this will help them realize that they’ve done wrong and lead them to pursue restitution and reconciliation.

It’s just the opposite when Jesus says that we should “hate” our families.  He’s not saying that we should be committed to doing whatever is most harmful or hurtful to them.  Rather, in this case, he’s talking about a feeling, not a commitment.

Jesus is saying that we should be so devoted to him as his disciples that if anything or anyone should ever threaten to come between us and him, we would react to this with a strong feeling of antipathy and revulsion that makes us choose Jesus over that person or thing, without hesitation.

In the culture in which Jesus lived, family loyalty was probably the thing that was most likely to come between a would-be disciple and Jesus.  (The same is still true in many parts of the world today.)  And so Jesus is saying that if your family members try to keep you from following me, you have to react with such horror and revulsion that you’re prepared to lose your relationship with them in order to become and remain a disciple of mine.

Beyond this, however, Jesus told his followers to be very careful to follow the commandment to honor their parents.  This included doing such things as providing for them in their old age.  Jesus’ earliest followers similarly taught the importance of caring for family.  So Jesus’ words about “hating” family must be understood only in the context of never letting anything come between us and our loyalty to God.

To state the matter simply, when Jesus says we should love our enemies, he’s talking about a commitment, not a feeling.  When Jesus says we should hate our families (if they would come between us and him), he’s talking about a feeling, not a commitment.

Can we truly love our enemies?

Q.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”  Forgiveness is one thing, but I think this is impossible.

Jesus would certainly be asking us to do something unreasonable, if not impossible, when he tells us to love our enemies–people who have hurt us, or violated our trust, or taken advantage of us, or who are out to get us–if love means a feeling, a warm and delighted attraction to another person that makes us want to be in a close relationship with them.  A person who’s been badly hurt by someone else simply can’t force themselves to feel those things towards that other person.  Our feelings and emotions aren’t under our control in that way.

But the kind of love for enemies that Jesus commands isn’t a feeling.  It’s a commitment.  It’s a decision of the will, which is under our control.  Specifically, love is the commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.

This is clear from the way Jesus immediately elaborates on his statement:  “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  He’s talking about actions, not feelings.

This is also how Jesus’ earliest followers understood his statement.  Paul writes in Romans, for example, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but . . . if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink . . . do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

The goal, in other words, beyond forgiving someone who has hurt us (which sets us free from bitterness and the hold that the other person’s action might otherwise have over us), is to choose to pursue their best interests in our actions towards them, so that good triumphs over evil.  This also makes own our character more godly, as Jesus goes on to explain:  “Love your enemies, do good, and . . . you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Doing loving actions as a commitment to another person’s good may mean, however, actually breaking off our relationship with them for a time, if they would only hurt us again if we stayed in relationship.  We aren’t called to enable other people’s destructive behavior.  There need to be positive signs of change on their part before it’s safe for us to pursue reconciliation, beyond forgiveness.  But we can still pray for them and hope for the best for their lives.

In other cases, we may be able to do something practical to help them, and when we do this, it might even enable them to recognize that they were acting wrongly and that they need to change.  But we need to be led carefully by God’s Spirit to do, in any given case, what is healthy and appropriate for us and the other person.

So, to sum up, the kind of love Jesus commands us to have for our enemies isn’t a feeling.  It’s a commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.  And I believe, God helping us, we can do that even for our enemies.

Couldn’t “turning the other cheek” get someone seriously hurt?

Q.  Jesus said we should “turn the other cheek” if someone hits us.  But couldn’t we be seriously hurt if we don’t defend ourselves against an attacker?

Jesus’ teaching about “turning the other cheek” comes at a point in the Sermon on the Mount where he’s contrasting later interpretations of the law of Moses with the true spirit of that law.

In this case, he’s talking about a law that specified that the community should mete out proportionate justice for offenses:  “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  This law was designed to prevent individuals from taking vengeance, and also to prevent disproportionate punishments (whether too lenient or too severe).

However, by the time of Jesus, people were taking the idea of “an eye for an eye” to mean that they should “keep score” personally.  Whatever someone does to you, you do back to them.  In other words, they were appealing to Scripture to justify grudges and feuds!

So Jesus basically tells them, “Don’t keep score.”  Let the other person get “one up on you,” without trying to even the score, in the interests of pursuing reconciliation and peace.

Jesus gives several examples of how not to keep score.  Lend or give money without expecting repayment.  If someone sues you, settle with them generously.  If one of the occupying Roman soldiers exercises his right to force you to carry his load for a mile, carry it an extra mile.  (As it has been observed, you go the first mile as a conscripted laborer, but you go the second mile as a potential friend.)

As for “turning the other cheek,” it’s important to recognize that Jesus says specifically to do this if someone slaps you, not if they punch or strike you.  (See this thread for a discussion of the translation.)  In the time of Jesus, slapping was intended as an insult, not to cause injury.  So the idea is that you don’t return insult for insult; instead, you say with your actions, “Insult me again if you want, but I’m still interested in reconciliation and friendship with you.”

Jesus’ early followers “got it” and they present the same idea in their writings.  Peter says, “Do not repay evil for evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.”  Paul says similarly, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

It must be emphasized that Jesus is not saying here that we should allow ourselves to be beaten up and injured without trying to defend ourselves or escape.  There’s no imperative for followers of Jesus to suffer bullying, domestic violence, and the like without protest or resistance.  If we really want to live out the spirit of this teaching and pursue what’s best for the other person, we need to take the necessary measures to stop them from being violent and help them understand how to relate to others in a proper and healthy way.

Why did Jesus entrust His mother Mary to John’s care?

Q.  When Jesus was dying and entrusted his mother to John, does that mean Joseph was dead?

Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care. Chapel Nosso Senhor dos Passos, Santa Casa de Misericórdia of Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Yes, most interpreters believe that Joseph had died and that Jesus, who had been responsible to care for his mother as the eldest son in the family, was asking John to take on this responsibility.

This shows us two remarkable things:

(1) Even at his time of greatest suffering, Jesus was thinking of others, not himself.

(2) The family of the kingdom of God takes precedence over human families. Jesus had at least four brothers whom he might have asked to take on this responsibility, but instead he gave it to a “brother” in the kingdom.

To explore this episode a little further, one fascinating and beautiful aspect of the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in John’s gospel is the way it’s arranged as a seven-part chiasm:
A: Jesus is Brought to the Place of Execution
B: Pilate Refuses the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Change the Inscription
C: The Soldiers At the Cross Cast Lots for Jesus’ Clothes
D:  Jesus Entrusts Mary into John’s Care
C: The Soldiers At the Cross Give Jesus Wine to Drink
B: Pilate Grants the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Break the Legs of the Crucified Prisoners
A: Jesus is Taken from the Place of Execution

As I note in my study guide to the gospel of John, the central placement within this arrangement of the episode in which Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care “shows that Jesus was a person of compassion who extended mercy and care to others right to the very end of his life.”

“But,” I also observe, “it’s interesting that an account of the crucifixion would not have Jesus’ actual death at its center.  John may have an additional purpose for including this episode and placing it where he does.  He may be putting his central focus on the effects of Jesus’ death.  John may be portraying how Jesus’ death is for ‘the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.’  Through his death, believers in Jesus become part of a new family, which is their true family.”

I then ask in the guide:  “Are there some other followers of Jesus who are ‘just like family’ to you?  What creates the bond between you?”

What would you say?

What does it mean to “fear” God?

Q.  There’s been something that’s been eating away at me about our relationship with God.  Jesus said the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, your soul and your strength.  Okay, that might be possible if it weren’t for the  “flip side.”  In Matthew 10, Jesus said not to “fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. Fear Him, rather, who can destroy both the body and the soul in hell.”  I don’t think I’m alone in having felt far more fear during my life than love.  I don’t think anyone can truly love and trust someone they’re scared “to death” of.  People have told me that “fear of God” means “reverential awe,” but the idea of body and soul being destroyed in hell seems more like “terror and shaking” to me.

You’re right, there’s no question that Jesus told us both to love God and to fear God in the sense of being afraid of what might happen to us if we really displeased God.  But I think the essential issue is, “What is God’s fundamental disposition towards us?”  Is it to welcome and heal and bless, or is it to accuse and judge and punish?  I believe that God is both loving and just, gracious and righteous, so the real question is whether we can count on God wanting most of all to see us healed and transformed and restored, or whether God is basically out to get us, just waiting for us to mess up so he can nail us.

God’s own self-description in the Bible leads us to believe that he is fundamentally gracious and loving.  Moses begged God, “Show me your glory,” and in response God “proclaimed his name” to Moses in a special divine appearance. He said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”  Here we see the two sides of God, the side that attracts us to love him and the side that makes us afraid he will punish us and even makes us wonder how God can go after the children and grandchildren of offenders.  (But that’s for another post.) However, the loving side is clearly primary and predominant.  So we can be eager to love and please God knowing that he’s working with us to make that happen, and not looking for every chance to punish us.

I remember that when I went to the dentist once when I was a kid I reached up for some reason to try to move his hand when he was working on my teeth.  He quickly and powerfully slapped my hand away.  But then he explained patiently and kindly that I could hurt my mouth and teeth badly if I ever moved his hand while he was at work.  (Not that I’d really have had the strength to do that!)  He told me I could just raise my hand and he would stop what he was doing and listen to my concern.  So, should I have been afraid to go back to the dentist after this, fearing that he might slap me again?  Or should I have been reassured that all he wanted to do was protect me and care for me?  So long as I didn’t reach for his hand again, I could be perfectly secure and safe trusting him to care for me.

I think it’s the same way with God.  He has great power that he will use to keep us from harming ourselves and others.  But what he really wants is to help and protect us.  If we know that he wants the best for us, and that we’re working with him to help bring that about, we don’t need to have the “terror and shaking” kind of fear.  But we should still have a healthy respect for what God can and will do to protect us and others from the destructive things we might do.  And that, in itself, shows that God is essentially loving.