I grew up in church. Not in a “we’re Christians, but we live like the world” kinda way, but in a “you will obey Jesus or else” kinda way. I was taught to not only fear the Lord, but to fear almost everything else around me. And for most of my life, it was that fear that kept me “in line”. I didn’t have a deep abiding love for the Savior. I just didn’t want Him to send me to hell.
This fear made for a great facade of spirituality. I could preach to you about the dangers of sin. I could point out everything you were doing that didn’t line up with the Bible. I could line up my actions with God’s Word. I could check off the list of “read your Bible, pray every day”. I could quote hundreds of Scriptures. I was at church every time the doors opened…leading and serving. And the whole time I was scared to death that I wasn’t doing enough…wasn’t pleasing God...wasn’t holy and righteous enough…that I might be headed straight for hell. It was great behavior modification, but my heart was still imprisoned by the enemy.
I think many people are stuck in this place of what I’ve termed for this offering spiritual “fearity”. They believe that they are maturing because they’ve changed some outward behaviors, but inside there is a disconnect and they aren’t experiencing the fruit of relationship with God. As a result of this disconnect, they have no love of God to offer others, and instead resort to pressure and fear tactics to try to get everyone else “in line”.
We see this on social media a lot...people using guilt, pressure, and fear under the guise of “sharing the Gospel” to point out behavioral problems and issues. They think that an instituted moral code of behavior is the answer to everyone’s problems, and if everyone would just follow it like they do everything would be solved.
Not to sound cliche, but it’s not a moral code that is the answer. It’s Jesus. And why is it Jesus? Because none of us can abide perfectly by the code...which is why the cross was even necessary. We all have sinned and fallen short. The only difference between saved and lost people is that saved people have accepted that Jesus’ mercy is the only way they are ever going to please God.
When God taught me of His great mercy, it was the hardest, most painful lessons I’ve ever experienced.
Why is mercy painful? Because pride spits on it. Pride says “I don’t need mercy. I’m doing quite well. I’m obeying everything You said. I got the Ten Commandments down pat. I’m spiritually mature, thank you very much.” Pride convinces people that they are Christians because they prayed a prayer, go to church, live with morals and values, know the Scriptures, and volunteer wherever they are needed. Pride has many thinking they are Christians when they are far more lost than the lost people they look down upon.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a (moral churchgoer) and the other a (immoral world lover). The (moral churchgoer) stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
‘But the (immoral world lover) stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:9-14)
Spiritual maturity recognizes our great need for mercy...not just prior to salvation, but right now, TODAY. And then it acknowledges that there is nothing special in us that deserves that mercy. The same mercy is available for every other living, breathing person. If we’ve freely received it, we must freely give it.
But once we recognize the great mercy freely given to us, we begin to internalize God’s love. It’s not His wrath that bears fruit in us; it’s His love. When we accept that God loved us so much that He paid the destructive cost of our sins for us…He offers us a way to eradicate the shame of our failures from our record…He invites us to be His children with an eternal inheritance…it changes our hearts. Under the protection of such love…as we learn more about it in the Word and in relationship with Christ…we start to mature from the inside out. We don’t worry so much about our behavior anymore, because love begins to rule our decisions and our actions. And that’s all the law was ever meant to do…lead us to love.
Spiritual maturity is only possible on a strong foundation of love. Fear will keep us far from it…focused on the wrong things…fighting the wrong battles…wearing ourselves out and making very little difference. Making the fear of God…the fear of hell…the fear of sinning…the fear of imperfection…the basis of your relationship with God may change your behavior, but it will never free your heart.
Reteaching myself to habitually live in the love of God has freed my heart in ways that I don’t have words to explain. I have been so afraid along the way that love would cause me to become “loose” in my standard or that I might “fall away” from holiness, but truly love has only taught me the heart behind God’s standards and the reason He wants us to obtain holiness. It is only in His Presence that there is fullness of joy. The closer we get to Him, the freer we become of the weights of shame and bitterness. And just like I never want to be separated from my husband or my children… not because I am afraid to be, but because I would suffer painfully in that separation…so it is with how I now love Jesus. My heart needs Him to breathe.
That is the fear of the Lord. The tangible knowledge that without Him, we are nothing. The desire in us to never have anything between us and God. The willingness to do whatever He says because we trust Him more than anyone or anything else. Only love will get us to that kind of devotion.