When you go on vacation, you expect to experience a lot of things—fun, rest, exhaustion, togetherness, delight, surprises, and so on. You don’t expect to feel afraid—or at least I didn’t. Then I went to Colorado.
I don’t mean the kind of fear I felt when Evan, our 21-year-old, was negotiating our way up Pikes Peak, at an oxygen-deprived elevation of nearly 14,000 feet. Determined not to cross the center line into oncoming traffic, Evan stayed firmly in his lane on each switchback. Unfortunately for me, his resolve meant that our Toyota Camry appeared to be headed for blue oblivion each time it approached an un-guard-railed precipice on the mountain. Then my son, at the last moment, would jerk the wheel to the right or left to keep us on the asphalt.
At times, my anxiety (really, a lifelong fear of heights) expressed itself through clipped commands to slow down or keep both hands on the wheel. Other times, it was revealed through my body language—closed eyes, head tilted away from the window—or my shouted prayers: “Oh, God, oh, God!” If I were not wearing my seatbelt, I probably would have curled up into a semi-permanent fetal position. Once we made it to the summit, I was a mess, feeling wrung out but grateful that we made it in one piece.
Yet as I say, this fear—a concern for my bodily safety—was not what I’m talking about.
It happened earlier in the trip, when we were driving up a winding, mostly tree-covered road to Rocky Mountain National Park. We rounded a corner, and suddenly we were in the clear, confronted with the biggest thing I have ever seen—a range of enormous, jagged peaks of brilliant hues across a sweeping valley far below. At the end of July, we even saw snow atop some of those silent monsters.
For a moment, the usual banter in the Toyota halted, my mouth dropped open, and we just looked. What I saw was beauty, a terrible beauty, and I was afraid. We were in no danger of going over the edge, but I could feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I was in the presence of overpowering grandeur and have never felt smaller or more vulnerable.
As we pulled over to take the necessary photos (none of which, like my feeble attempts at description, come close to capturing the scene), my fear slowly yielded to feelings of wonder and gratitude. Yet a part of my soul remains afraid, and that is a very good thing.
Christians know something of the source of such terrifying beauty. In the sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet finds himself in the Lord’s smoke-filled throne room. Six-winged seraphim, their faces covered, are calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
Isaiah’s reaction is pure terror at this unbearable display of power and beauty. “Woe is me!” he cries. “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Or consider a terrifying scene from Exodus. The Lord has just flicked away mighty Pharaoh and the Egyptians the way a man might dispatch a fly. The Ten Commandments have just been given.
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and
the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid
and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us,
and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”
When Elijah defeated the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah on Mount Carmel with a tremendous bolt of fire from heaven, the people fell on their faces and cried out, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.”
C.S. Lewis spoke of a certain feeling of special dread, of the numinous, as a sense of “wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy … and of prostration.” Author Aldous Huxley observed, “The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum.”
Scripture commands us repeatedly to “fear God.” Given the incalculable distance between us and our Almighty Creator, it’s a wonder that we need to be told at all. Christians may point out, rightly, that our fear is different, that God is love, that He gave His only Son to save and adopt us.
As J.I. Packer said, “Adoption is the highest privilege of the gospel. The traitor is forgiven, brought in for supper, and given the family name. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater.”
And yet, let us not move too quickly from the fear of a holy God, for if we do, we may unwittingly exchange Lewis’s majestic Aslan for a declawed house cat—too tame and weak to protect us in trouble or fulfill the deepest longings of our souls, much less carry us to heaven. Tragically, according to Francis Chan, many of us see God “as a benevolent Being who is satisfied when people manage to fit Him into their lives in some small way. We forget that God never had an identity crisis. He knows that He’s great and deserves to be the center of our lives.”
Do we know how great He is? Does He terrify us, at least sometimes?
Let us therefore go to the mountains and be afraid. As the author of Hebrews puts it, “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
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