“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).
In a recent online search of Scriptures about God as Father, I encountered one person’s vehement reaction to the verse above—in particular, the idea of God as One who wants to be feared.
To be honest, I think we all tend to shy away from verses that mention the fear of the Lord—either because they seem to be inconsistent with our view of God as love, or because we’re afraid such verses will be misunderstood apart from the larger Biblical context, which is probably true. And yet it hurt to read this person’s reaction.
As my emotions bubbled up over their hurtful words toward my Daddy God, I had to remind myself that God’s Power and Truth are greater than man’s misunderstandings—that’s He’s perfectly capable of defending Himself and revealing Himself to whomever He wishes in whatever timing His superior wisdom dictates. And yet I felt compelled to examine and put to words how I personally reconcile the seemingly discordant attributes of Father God.
How, for example, can one Person embody uncompromising holiness—which requires judgment and justice—while, at the same time, allowing mercy and forgiveness of sins? What does it mean to both love and fear God, and how can a God who wants us to fear Him also represent unfailing Love? Even considering the fact that His thoughts and ways are beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9), I believe we can get at least a rudimentary grasp for how to reconcile these seeming inconsistencies in our Heavenly Father’s character through a few related analogies.
Fusion, Fire & Fear
“The Sun contains 99.8 percent of all matter in the Solar System. Under crushing pressure and extreme temperatures generated by gravity, the violent process of nuclear fusion powers the tremendous energy output of the Sun.” (Science Channel YouTube video)
The Sun, our star… Light and heat from fusion… Technically, not fire, though I’m pretty sure the human brain would register close proximity to the Sun as a kind of roasting nonetheless.
The surface of the Sun boasts a temperature of 5,778 Kelvin or 9,941 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but that commands some respect and makes me pretty glad the earth orbits that blazing inferno at a distance of 93 million miles and no closer. And yet, as glad as I am we’re not next door neighbors to the Sun, I’m equally glad it exists—for the light and heat it provides!
If we think of God as the Sun (or fire) and sinful man as straw (even flesh), we can begin to understand the meaning of fear. In all its blazing glory, the Sun is a fearsome body indeed—or it would be if we teleported onto its blinding, burning brilliant surface (if an expanse composed entirely of gas can truly be considered a surface)! Even so, before we ever got that close, I’m pretty sure we would vaporize. I’m not being very scientific here since a chemical reaction (“Man + Sun = toast!”) is not my primary concern but, rather, an emotional one (“Oy vey, I’m flambé!”).
With a little imagination, we can read Isaiah 6:1-5 (+) and catch a glimpse of the fear manifest in Isaiah’s throne room experience. As you read, try to place yourself in Isaiah’s shoes:
6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
In God’s immediate presence (vs 1-4), we can’t help but fear Him because we see ourselves as we truly are: sinners (vs 5) in need of His mercy (vs 6-7). In His presence, we see the truth—and we’re changed (vs 5-8). I realize there are varying degrees of His presence; I don’t consider myself an expert. But the main point is this: Fear is as natural a response to God as if the fiery fusion ongoing in our very own Sun were repackaged into an activated bomb in our very own hands!
In other words, if we choose to scorn God for requiring our fear, we do so with the same results as if we scorned the well-known rule to look both ways before crossing the street—to our own detriment!
A Consuming Fire
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-29 (see also Deuteronomy 4:24)
The idea of God as fire is not unbiblical, and I’ve found it to be a useful analogy for pondering the melding of love and fear in a believer’s life. We all know that fire and straw don’t mix. In the presence of fire, straw can’t help but disintegrate. Likewise, when a flammable object approaches a blazing fire, the fire can’t help but destroy it. It’s in a fire’s nature to burn just as it’s in God’s holy nature to destroy evil.
There are those who may struggle with the previous statement—and even become offended—but when evil is committed against us, don’t we want God’s justice? When a chill darkness surrounds us, don’t we want light and heat? No one rebukes a fire for burning them when they get too close. Instead, they give it the proper respect—the fear it deserves. In the same way, the one and only God, whose holiness and power far exceeds our own, merits respect, fear, and awe from all those He created and even now sustains with His life and breath (Acts 17:25, in context).
One problem is, we necessarily live apart from God, and as a result, we don’t often see Him rightly—unveiled, as Isaiah did. This is because, in this world, He often conceals from us the full radiance of His glory. This divine posture of hide and seek might seem cruel to some, or even offensive—but truly it’s an act of mercy, for no one may behold His face and live:
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:18-20).
Judgment Delayed—for a time
The evil in our hearts, called sin, consists of anything that separates us from God. It severs us from Him not because He can no longer draw near, but because if He did draw near, His holiness would consume us like chaff in a blazing fire. His aloofness, then—at least in part—is an act of mercy. But that mercy must be balanced with the promise of judgment and justice. As 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance [before the Judgment].”
God longs to fellowship with us, but our sin—not only damaging to our own souls and to those around us—is inherently offensive to His holy nature and sense of Justice. He longs to fellowship with us, but how can fire and straw be joined?
They can’t—unless the straw becomes something new, like gold.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Here is a truth to ponder in depth: God’s love compelled Him to make a Way to restore His bond with mankind—to restore the same kind of intimate fellowship He had with Adam and Eve in the garden, but even better.
“The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him” (Isaiah 59:15b-16).
No natural man could bring justice and also save mankind; so God Himself intervened “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering” (Romans 8:3). “He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-26).
By human logic, justice for the wronged and mercy for the accused can’t possibly mesh. But in God’s economy, nothing is impossible. In God’s economy, righteousness and peace kiss (Psalm 85:10)—at the cross.
Peace with God
This, then, is how God reconciled Justice and Mercy, Offense and Love, Sin and Peace: “He gave his one and only Son, [Jesus,] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And so, “the punishment that brought us peace was on Him” (Isaiah 53:5).
As cruel as it may sound for any Father to sacrifice His Son, we must never forget that Jesus was a willing participant in this plan. In fact, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:14-18): “…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
Many people say they love us, but Father God proved it by sacrificing His Son. Some may wonder if a Father who sacrifices a son can truly epitomize love, but consider this: If by one adult child’s suffering you could save all your other children from death, would you do so?
If the adult child consented, even longed to save his siblings in spite of the pain required to do so, would you not consent?
Father God loves all His children, and so He said, “Yes.”
Consuming to Refining
So, we are reconciled to God through Christ. But the analogy of fire doesn’t end there. When we’re joined with Jesus—grafted into the True Vine—we’re made right with God through Christ. We’re justified (JUST as IF I’D never sinned)—but not yet perfected. The moment we’re rescued from the kingdom of darkness and transferred into God’s kingdom, we’re transformed from something like stubble or straw into a substance akin to unrefined gold.
Just as it’s in a fire’s nature to consume stubble and straw, so also silver and gold are purified by fire:
“[One] third I will put into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God’” (Zechariah 13:9).
This purification (called sanctification) is a lifelong process culminating in Jesus’s return:
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
And just as Isaiah was forever changed by his vision of God, so also any man, woman, or child who belongs to Christ must also be changed, being clothed with the imperishable—and not just any imperishable substance, but only that which is capable of living in eternal fellowship with God (Revelation 21):
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4)…
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:22-27).
It’s not in God’s nature to wish that anyone should perish, but just as fire and straw can’t coexist, neither can sin and impurity survive in the presence of our Holy God.
I doubt anyone alive truly despises the idea of heaven—though many despise the very idea of God. What these people don’t realize is this: Taking God out of heaven is equivalent to turning heaven into hell. God’s glorious presence is what makes heaven good. His absence is what makes hell bad. In this life, we often take for granted all the marvelous blessings God provides while eagerly blaming Him for every mishap and remaining oblivious to our true enemy who would see us all in hell—with him—if he had his way.
So, if anyone reading this happens to be one of the ones who remain skeptical—maybe even hostile toward God, can I challenge you to pray this prayer:
“God, if you’re real and you really love me. Open my eyes.”