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Recently Dr. David G. Benner posted some brief thoughts on whether fear should characterize our response to God (taken from his book Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality).

Remember, these are spiritual reflections, not an academic analysis of the various dimensions of fear and love, or how they might play off of each other. He is not talking about fear as “awe” (as in Proverbs, for example). Benner is a psychologist and spiritual mentor. On his mind are those who “live with a fear of the God who keeps them in their place by ensuring their continued distress.”

Benner seems to think this type of spiritual posture is quite common, and if I have anything to add, I agree. In my experience, the type of unhealthy fear Benner talks about is expressed as anger, arrogance, bitterness, and judgmentalism.

Benner concludes:

Notice the extent to which your actual view of God (not the professed one) involves a God who is capricious, dangerous, hostile or in some way unsafe.  Often such views of God come to us from childhood and remain frozen in time and largely unchanged. If this is true for you, allow that god to die and dare to encounter the God who comes to you in love. You exist as an outflow of that love, and it is this Perfect Love that exists at the center of your being where God resides in you and you reside in God.

What kind of God is actually at work in your life–not the one you tell others you believe in but the one deep down that actually drives your spiritual engine? If your God is a “dangerous” God in Benner’s sense of the word, what difference would it make in your life to allow that false God to die? What if you are created in God’s image, God actually loves you, and you actually believed that? How would things be different for you?

To get more context, read the post linked above. Something to ponder on this Sunday morning.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.


  • Alice says:

    I allowed that dangerous God to die, favoring the loving one and it made a huge difference. However, I was often reminded of all the unloving portions of the Bible and I don’t really know what to do with them.

    • Alice, I believe we have the clearest idea of what God is like in what Jesus tells us of the Father. Much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was written by those who spoke of their understanding of God, and their understanding was often mistaken.

      Another factor in the fear of God is the belief that he will torture us forever in hell, but this is a false notion that does not represent what the Bible says. If you are interested, I address the issue of hell, beginning with:

  • Bev Mitchell says:

    As Lewis, I think, said, God is not safe. Does this mean the same thing that Benner means when he asks if our God is “…..hostile or in some way unsafe.”? I don’t think so. And yet, it is scary to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and let him see and work inside. It often feels much safer to clam up (why don’t we ever say turtle up?). Anyway, I imagine these verses will come to mind for many.

    Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. John 12:24-26

  • I love Psalm 130 on this: “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.” The fear and trembling before God is an awe at His power to forgive, not the fear of an unforgiving Father who counts up our sins against us.

    (Edit: And, since I’m a Swedenborgian, a favourite quote from Swedenborg on this: “As regards the holy fear which is signified in the Word by ‘the fear of God,’ it should be known that this fear is love, but love such as is the love of little children toward their parents, of parents toward their children, of consorts toward each other, who fear to do anything which displeases, thus which in any way does injury to love.”)

  • jenny says:

    Excellent topic ! For me, I am in the process of getting rid of that kind of fear of God that paralyzed me for more that 40 years.
    To demolish that kind of fear is very difficult, because as the post says, it comes from traumatic experience from childhood.
    When there is no love from family, the fear of God becomes distorted.

  • “as God is, so are we in the world” (1 John 4:17). The things we believe about God directly shape the kind of persons we are.

  • James says:

    Very good question, Dr. Enns, and honest attempt to answer it. If we force fear of God to die, I’m afraid we are left half a person. Fear is the underbelly of love and we mortals are made of both. Fortunately, “perfect love casts out fear.” That is the big picture reality for which we hope and that we can experience even now–“in Christ.” Yes, faith is paradoxical.

    • James, I believe instead that we feel alienated from God while God is at the same time desiring to establish a relationship of love and to eliminate the feeling of alienation. The alienation is only on one side–ours. The fear is genuine but unnecessary.

      I usually do not post links in comments, and I have already done it once already. But this is an area of great importance in my blogging. You may be interested in my post:

      • James says:

        Yes, the world is not as it should be–there is hate and wrath and alienation. The Bible reflects the human condition in terms nearly too dark for us civilized folk to handle. It also speaks to a (prodigal) love almost (if not clearly) overindulgent. A feel for the big (canonical) picture leads us both, I suspect, to concur with Rob Bell–“Love wins!” (I usually do not reply so often but…)

        • Yes, I believe love wins! However should there be those who ultimately choose to reject the Father’s love and gift of eternal life, I do not think they will be punished; they simply will not have ETERNAL life.

  • Chuck Sigler says:

    A couple of thoughts on whether we should fear God in the sense Benner means. No we shouldn’t fear God as “the God who keeps [us] in [our] place by ensuring [our] continued distress.” But as a consequence of human sin and rebellion against God, we perversely run from Him because we are afraid. Sin gives us a warped view of God, so instead of running to greet Him when He comes “walking in the garden in the cool of the day”, like Adam and Eve, we run and hide out of fear instead.

    • Lars says:

      I thought we weren’t allowed to reference Adam and Eve on this blog?? Mods? 😉 While I like the God-as-parent analogy, for me it breaks down regarding punishment. As a parent myself, how mean would I have to be to make my children fear my presence? And could they aggrieve me so much that I would never want to see them again, or worse, want them to endure unending punishment for their misbehavior? My goal as their parent is to teach them respect for others and to think critically. Once they are adults however, they may make choices that I don’t agree with. Should my response be to cut them off? Should that be God’s response? Does perfect love demand that separation or does it insist on restoration? I have wrestled with this question for years and the answer isn’t as simple, as some have suggested, as re-imagining kinder, gentler version of God.

      • Luke Breuer says:

        This doesn’t get you all of the way there, but it might be a start.

        If your child is refusing to fear actual danger (fire, crossing the street without looking, etc.), is it ok for you to get him/her to fear you, temporarily?

        • Lars says:

          Certainly! I want to teach them to be careful and get them to adulthood as safely as possible. Once there, however, I will be unable to make sure they look both ways, that they don’t drink or text and drive. You just have to hope you’ve imparted the danger of such activity, knowing you are powerless to act. In fact, I’m powerless to act right now most of the time and that is not lost on me.

          • Luke Breuer says:

            Do you think that fear of God ought to work in the same way? One way I like to improve my idea of God is to ask what would make the ideal father/boss. The only way I know to analyze that is to ask about the consequences, the fruits.

            It’s important to recognize that God in the OT was mostly interacting with extremely rebellious children. Imagine that you’re in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a teenager drinking, texting, and only looking where he’s going enough to last another ten seconds. Are you going to appear ‘gentle’ in your treatment of him/her?

          • Lars says:

            That’s an interesting perspective. This is what both bothers and intrigues me about people’s concept of God – He can be whomever you want Him to be. While I know that taking things too literally can get you banned here, Dr. Brenner implies as much by saying “allow that god to die” if He’s a buzzkill. And though there’s something to be said for that view, it does, in essence, make God (and Truth) relative. From that vantage, it’s just too easy to make God a projection. He’s the father you fear, the ‘Father Knows Best’ you dream of, or a perhaps an effective, but impersonable, avenging superhero. It’s like a twist on the old political axiom, if God refuses to define Himself (first person, not hearsay), we get to define Him how ever we want, and we’re all very good at doing just that. It’s also possible He just doesn’t care, and that would explain why He has so many incarnations the world over. Who’s to say John is right and Joseph Smith is wrong? Does divine revelation have a shelf life? Is Truth a spaghetti maze that has a single end or a trunk that branches indefinitely?

            It’s hard to see God’s present day children being less rebellious than they were way back then. Many, if not most, now support interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, and are pro-choice. Plus, His poll numbers continue to slide. But does God even interact with His children today in the same way that you and I would if WE were in that passenger seat? If I’m God, I’m making my kid pull over and I’M driving until the distractions go away and I see more responsibility! I think Robert Young would back me up here.

            “Should we fear God” is such a loaded, fascinating question. I’ve enjoyed contemplating it with everyone here.

          • Luke Breuer says:

            Yay for conversations like this. 🙂

            This is what both bothers and intrigues me about people’s concept of God – He can be whomever you want Him to be.

            I disagree with what I call the “infinite interpretations hypothesis” (IIH)—that when reading the totality of the Bible, you can get it to say whatever you want it to say. I think the appearance of the IIH comes from vast amounts of cherry-picking through the ages.

            This being said, you remind me of Creating God in one’s own image. We love idol-making, one reason being that idols make fewer demands on us than God. Christians are terrible at this thing I think they’re supposed to be best at: unconditionally loving each other while constantly spurring each other toward being more Christlike, but not in a sucky way. Almost every person I know errs in conditioning love, or not pushing much. My wife and I feel like we’re striking out in new territory by trying to do both!

            While I know that taking things too literally can get you banned here,

            Really? That surprises me, but perhaps I don’t know Enns well enough? I should think he’d be happy with people as long as they’re not pugnacious and keep the tangents to some maximum length.

            Is Truth a spaghetti maze that has a single end or a trunk that branches indefinitely?

            I identify two kinds of truth: what is, and what ought to be. Science is pretty decent at the former, while we all suck at the latter. We suck so bad at the latter that we like to say it’s unknowable. And yet, it’s quite easy to see when someone self-reports as being treated as a means to an end and not an end. Yet we never trust those self-reports; we always trust the people allegedly helping. Funny how we can’t make much progress this way.

            Why would God reveal himself to us, if “even the demons believe [God is one], and tremble”? There’s the naturalistic fallacy: ought cannot be derived from is. This is why we must follow Jesus—we must want what he wants, not merely hold some abstract belief about him. When we want what God wants, I believe that’s when he’s happy to make himself more and more known to us.

            It’s hard to see God’s present day children being less rebellious than they were way back then.

            It may be that we’re working off of lots of inertia; Os Guinness called America a “cut flower society” when I had the privilege of picking him up from the airport for a Veritas Forum.

          • Lars says:

            Almost bedtime alas, but more later, hopefully. My “banned” comment was in pure jest. The war on biblical literalism is Dr. Enns’ raison d’etre! (That, the Yankees, and demythologizing Adam and Eve.)

          • Luke Breuer says:

            Heh, I think I was stuck in ‘serious mode’. I think I’d rephrase Enns’ purpose as “Discovering that God is more than just two-dimensional.”, or something like that. There’s a line between accepting the current view of things and believing that the current view of things is THE TRUTH. I would characterize Enns as being against the latter. Here, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is relevant: sometimes the members of the old guard are so stubborn that they have to die for progress to be made. Sad, but seemingly true.

          • Hello Labreuer, is there a way to contact privately?

            You are a very interesting fellow and I would love to correspond with you, my email is provided of course it would also be interesting for you.

            Unfortunately I could not find that with google but perhaps I missed it.

          • Luke Breuer says:

            I’m up for it! 🙂 My email is . Google Mail has pretty good spam filters, but I might as well be extra careful.

  • Rebecca Trotter says:

    “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18

    I don’t think there’s anything else to say on the matter. Fear is always a sign that we haven’t fully entered into relationship with God. The more perfect our relationship with God is, the less room there is for fear. Fear has no place in our relationship with God. Period. Amen. The end.

  • Andrew Dowling says:

    Mankind’s worst atrocities almost all bubble over from the cauldron of fear.

  • I consider it useful (and true!) to view God’s wrath as flowing from His love rather than as an independent feature, as Calvinists do.

    • Lars says:

      I’m going to use that on my kids next time they leave all the electronics and lights on in the basement! I’m also curious how that works. Is God’s most loving response to non-believers eternal suffering, limited suffering (temporal and degrees), or annihilation/non-existence? Try as I might, I could not excise the wrathful God from the loving one.

      I found it useful to have a view of God’s love similar to Rebecca’s – that love is a choice and a perfect, loving God will respect that free will choice with no penalty. While that view gets me off the hook and eliminates my own fear of God, it’s also disappoints because it gets Hitler and his ilk off the hook as well. Concomitant justice is a casualty, as are rewards, but how does free will otherwise work??

      • Luke Breuer says:

        Try imagining how you would respond if a pedophile were to have his way with your kids, and then be completely and utterly unrepentant the rest of his life, always insisting he was justified in what he did.

        In other words, wrath isn’t the proper response to not cleaning up one’s room, but that doesn’t mean it is never a proper response.

        The above being said, I’m inclined to think that while God’s wrath on earth is sometimes violent, in the afterlife, it’s just him forcing others to be treated according to their own principles, with the hypocrisy and other inequalities removed so that they don’t hinder the… experience. I’m not even sure the last chance to choose God is while on the earth, which would make this treatment very sensible.

        • Lars says:

          Your analogy is closer than either of us would like, unfortunately. Still, the abuser, unless he is a complete psychopath, must live with that transgression, whether he is outwardly repentant or not. And how should we react to this injustice – insist on wrath or attempt forgiveness? Which is greater – God’s wrath or His forgiveness? How does a perfect being embody these mutually exclusive traits? If His wrath is little more than a time-out or a spiritual spanking, however that works, then a big hug, it’s quite possible that we all wise up at some point and get that extra chance to say ‘you win’. But then I know of a few Christians that should probably get that same Fatherly discipline, Sinner’s Prayer or not.

          • Luke Breuer says:

            First, forgiveness does not change the natural consequences of actions. If I break your arm and ask for forgiveness, it’s still broken. You would pay much of the price for that; it would remain to be seen whether I would attempt to compensate you, or insist that you sacrifice fully so I don’t have to at all.

            Now, does God’s forgiveness mean insta-heaven? This enters into the big ‘limited atonement’ shtick, so I’ll just say that repentance has to mean something, and I believe that repentance is entirely the choice of the transgressor. I think there is an easy way and a hard way to learn that what I did was wrong: to assent to it, or to experience the wrong thing done to me until I assent to it. Does the latter match up with ‘wrath’ and/or ‘hell’? I’m not sure.

            I’m not convinced that that after death, God will painlessly ‘fix’ everything left that we have wrong. I don’t have a particular belief in Purgatory, but I do think God wants us to follow his will of our own accord. That means we have to be convinced, not mind-controlled. Sometimes the only way to convince us that something is wrong is to force us to experience the wrongness. The question is how much ‘convincing’ we’ll take. I’m not sure it has to be a finite amount; some people seem like they’ll never learn.

          • Lars says:

            That is very good point, labreuer! But sometimes, in the natural world at least, no amount of compensation will suffice (loss of innocence/loss of life) and sometimes none is expected (accidents happen). This is probably heretical but I’m sure God can take it – does He owe us an apology? Does God need to repent as well? When you lose a child to brain cancer or suicide, a spouse to a drunk driver or a tornado? Your entire family to Nazis? Are those natural and moral evils simply a result of living in a ‘fallen world’ and we get to pile all that on Adam or is God culpable on some level? My wrath is impotent but I hope at the end, if possible, we come to a perfect understanding of how all this came to be and why it turned out the way it did.

          • Luke Breuer says:

            Oh yes, many times compensation demonstrates little more than possible repentance. But we nevertheless must try if we’re culpable, unless the person we harmed explicitly tells us not to. Note that not all ‘accidents’ are free from culpability; there is such a thing as gross negligence.

            In terms of the rest, we have two choices:

            1. Trust that God will make things right while we obey his commands.
            2. Take matters into our own hands and ‘ensure’ that justice is meted out.

            I choose #1. It helps to observe the fruits, in history, of the folks who chose #2. But it’s still hard to stick to #1. One fun are to explore is how much of #1 will end up bringing about the new heavens and new earth—if indeed it will at all. One thing we do know from scripture: God prefers to work through humans than to take things into his own hands.

      • Hello Lars, you raised very valid questions.

        I believe that eternal hell and love are utterly compatible I would be glad to learn what you think about that.

        I view God as the greatest possible being, this is why I don’t think He can fail to love.

        I’m looking forward to reading your answer :=)

        2013/10/21 Disqus

        • Lars says:

          LL, thanks for the link! I tend to agree. Life is gradations (belief, climate, beer) and if there is an afterlife, and a God that oversees it, it seems that there would be grades there as well, whether you head north or south. How did we ever come to accept pure joy or pure agony as the only two options? That third option, annihilation (and we really need to come up with a better name), has gained more traction lately, presumably to make free will even freer and God’s love less vengeful.

          Perhaps my imagination is too limited but I simply cannot grasp concepts such as heaven, hell, or eternity. I can’t even grasp the concept of God once I get past the image of Him in the image at the top of this blog post. To me, what transcends everything else is love, and the hope inspired by that love (as in 1 Cor 13:7). I know people that have lost loved ones much too early and their hope of seeing them again sustains them. Who wouldn’t want to believe that? Or would want to take that away? Sadly, it’s the rest of the crap that gets in the way and that I’m unable to accept.

          • I symphatize with your feelings, Lars.

            I can imagine a finite God who is personal, an infinite God who is not a person, but not a God who is both a person and infinite.

            But since we know that the human brain cannot visualize quantum reality, it might very well be there are truly things beyong the scope of our reason.

            2013/10/21 Disqus

      • I think you are right on target Lars! Except for the Hitler point. I think if we align ourselves with the Father’s perspective, we can rejoice that Hitler is healed of his hate and hurting others.
        However, this does not mean Hitler should not have faced consequences of his actions by society. Had he survived the war, punishment would have been appropriate–even necessary.

  • Cathy Holnick says:

    I absolutely agree that many people have a disconnect between what they think they believe and what they live out of – your aptly described spiritual engine. I find it takes a great deal of work to bring them into line.(Don’t know if we ever can completely)
    I don’t, however, agree with Benner’s definition of people’s fear. In my experience people who are afraid of God (a distinction from fear God) are afraid of Him because they view him as waiting for them to mess up. He’s the big score keeper. These people also think He deals in brownie points, which is just as dangerous.
    I think we have to recognize God is not safe in the sense that He cannot be controlled, and that has to elicit fear in us. Who among us can truly say praying “your will be done” is not scary.
    And it seems like no one walks away from a real encounter with God unchanged. That is really frightening, even if ultimately awesome. Seems to me that healthy spirituality wrestles with all the aspects of love ( from fierce and dangerous to compassionate and gentle). It isn’t dotting i’s with little hearts.
    I am always leery of these arguments. They presuppose we can totally apprehend God and in attempting to define God we ultimately reveal the features we’ve carved into our god. Unfortunately, it may not resemble the One True God. Does anyone have some tweezers? I think I may have a splinter.

  • Luke Breuer says:

    It seems to me that it is better to attach any and all fear response to God, vs. anything or anyone else. But why would we fear God? If we transgress his Law. I don’t mean the OT laws, but the full order of the universe. I mean this to include naturalistic consequences as well as final judgment consequences. If we find ourselves showing no mercy while judging someone, we ought to fear that God will apply the very same standard to us when judging us. (Ja 2:13)

    I believe this fear erodes as we follow Christ (who is the telos of the law—Rom 10:4—we must be careful to not translate telos as ‘termination’; it is something closer to ‘full expression of’). Those who merely followed the letter of the OT law ought to have feared that they weren’t actually doing what God wanted. We have tons of info on what it means to truly follow Jesus, and do this knowing God is not holding our sins against us.

    The analogy of learning to drive is helpful. Many people are fearful when they get behind the steering wheel of a car for a first time. Cars are dangerous! We assure them that if they follow the rules we provide, they will stay safe. They will live. (Deut 6:24, anyone?) We can’t simply say “drive safely”, because most first-time drivers don’t yet know enough to know what is safe. So we give them the law as a tutor. (Gal 3:24) We expect them to ultimately get out of that guardian and start obeying the spirit of the law—safety. (Gal 3:25)

    How to drive yourself is actually more important than how to drive a car. It’s probably not bad to fear God in the beginning, before we can catch the Spirit of the law. But ultimately, we gain confidence that we really are doing the will of God. It’s not too hard—there are many descriptions of what following God looks like and accomplishes—and after a while, no amount of law will be sufficient to test us. The Spirit tests us, to see if we want what he wants. He tells us the results and when we don’t test so well, he helps us pass the next time, without fear (unless we harden our hearts, as in the rebellion).

  • Esther O'Reilly says:

    “But… is he quite safe?”

    “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But, he’s GOOD. He’s the king, I tell you.”

    • Luke Breuer says:

      Yay for Narnia references! God doesn’t want to let us settle for second-best. If we’re attuned to his word and voice, he can just tell us where we have to improve. If we aren’t, more… drastic measures are eventually necessary.

  • Kim Fabricius says:

    That one should not “fear” God in Brenner’s sense is Christianity 101. But the fact is that some Christians do – to the shame of ministers who insinuate it and the pathos of people who suffer it. The problem, however, is not just theological – i.e., coming to know, intellectually, that God is love all the way down – it is deeply psychological (spiritual). That is, Bible study (good Bible study!) is a necessary condition, but may not be a sufficient condition, for the replacement of a demonic pseudo deity with the God of Jesus – I mean as the image of God that is actually operative in one’s lived discipleship.

    For this transformation to happen – such that neurotic guilt gives way to a proper sense of sinfulness, and one’s feelings of worth and joy are secured not by anything we do, good or bad, but are grounded extra nos in the unconditional and inescapable love of God – my experience is that focussed pastoral care and even counselling may be needed. Why? Because our working images of God go psychically deep, and are inevitably shaped by complex interpersonal relationships, particularly with authority figures, running from infancy to adulthood. Healing requires a disentangling of the divine from the human, of the living God from our projections of God, and finally occurs when from a pathological God-to-be-feared image there emerges, instead, the felt reality of the God-to-be-trusted, i.e., Abba, Father.

  • Bryan says:

    Its amazing that ancient Deuteronomistic ideology survives to this day. When something bad happens: “What did I do to deserve this?” This strongly implies a god who is not safe but dangerous.

    • Luke Breuer says:

      You would think the book of Job would have dealt this a death blow. We humans are awfully slow to learn. And we suck at teaching our kids wisdom. We are so terrible at it that it is shocking to me that the human race has done as well as it has!

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