Saturday, 19 March 2016

Overcoming dread

Religious authorities were afraid when they saw the rising popularity of Jesus, afraid their Roman colonial overlords would see his spiritual leadership as politically threatening, with damaging consequences for Jews and their home land. Their own high priest thought it was expedient to do away with Jesus and eliminate the risk of losing the privileged identity they struggled and suffered to preserve as God's chosen people. Thus they began to look for ways to arrest him, try and execute him for blasphemy. What they most feared happened anyway forty years after the time of Jesus, when Jerusalem was razed, the Temple destroyed and the inhabitants dispersed, if not killed.

Fear of annihilation distorted their perspective and their vision for the welfare of Jewish people and their religion. Fear undermined the trust that God alone deserved to receive from them. Fear robbed them of confidence in dealing with change and new opportunities to glorify the God of their ancestors. Fear could only spur them to actions destructive for themselves and others. This can happen to anyone, no matter how strong and active they are in believing or praying, unless their prayer life embraces the fact of fear as a force to reckon with. St John, in his first epistle declares

'There is no fear in love, perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.' (1 John 4:18a)

Punishment is the painful consequence of actions which others consider wrong, whether justifiably or not. Fear of punishment although intended to deter someone from repeating the offence doesn't always have the desired effect, unless some learning about the nature of the offence and the reason for punishment has occurred. Such is the pervasive nature of sin that perpetrator, victim and those who pass judgement may not fully understand or learn from the experience of suffering which sin causes. Reality can be terribly painful. Healthy human beings instinctively flee pain, just as they seek to avoid punishment. 

Faced with adversity and suffering it is not unusual for people to dread this as divine punishment. Persecution by enemies is often regarded as something permitted by God as punishment for sin in Hebrew scripture. This also carries over into the Christian era. 

'My heart is in anguish within me, And the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, And horror has overwhelmed me. I said, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Behold, I would wander far away, I would lodge in the wilderness.' (Psalm 55:4-7)

'LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.' (Ps 6:1)

'O LORD, rebuke me not in Your wrath, And chasten me not in Your burning anger. For Your arrows have sunk deep into me, And Your hand has pressed down on me.…' (Ps 38:1)

One word is used both for reverence and for fear in Hebrew language. Disabling fear is too easily associated with God. It needs to be overcome, trusting 'God is love' (1 John 4:8). Only by God's grace can the depth of truth about the human condition be addressed, In prayer, we expose ourselves to the unique healing, learning process which God's love effects in us.

'By grace you have been saved through faith. This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works (i.e. our own efforts) so that no one may boast.' (Eph 2:8-9)

Following the oracles of the prophet Habakkuk comes an unusual prayer declaring awe and wonder at God's power, expressed in nature and in the rescue of his chosen people from enemies. It concludes, voicing trust in God despite the worst calamity of nature - famine - with rejoicing and praise. Loving trust in God, by grace, can triumph over the worst fear.

Though the fig tree should not blossom And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls; nevertheless, I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.' (Hab 3:17-19)

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