I’ve been contemplating a lot of differing thoughts and experiences over the past week. As I stated in a prior post, there are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way, as we humans always seem to prefer. These had me at somewhat of a standstill of what to do next.
As I prayed more over this, God said, as he has oh so many times before—just follow the Holy Spirit. I’ve been learning to do this more and more, just go where the Wind takes me though I don’t know where it’s going (John 3:8).
Over the past several weeks, many good things have been happening in my personal life. This isn’t so much because God is specifically blessing me. It seems God is always pouring out his love on us, it’s just that we want to do things our way and often end up hurting ourselves and others in the process. When trusting him, though the journey may be rough, we find he always has our best interest at heart.
On a similar note, I was talking with a fellow Christ follower this week who I know in my personal life. While there is much I wanted to say in regards to the faith, I kept feeling the Holy Spirit holding me back. I could have still said the things I wanted, but it most likely wouldn’t have been productive. In the end, I remember only saying one sentence that I felt the Spirit leading me to say—just a hint of words and nothing more. In this approach, I’ve felt a huge burden lifted of trying to lay out, in conversation, everything in my head. This approach seems to have made him contemplative, and, in these scenarios, I can go as deep as a person is willing to at any given moment.
There’s another couple of topics that have been on my heart, however.
I still constantly see a bombardment of obligated “church” attendance, laid out as rules of conformity.
Our gatherings have become about control, mandates, submission to the “leaders” (those that have been ordained by men), etc…
We see the early church coming together for fellowship under the most dire of circumstances because of the joy and intimacy of those relationships. Today, however, we mandate attendance under threat to maintain our kingdom—worse, we state that is the way God wants it.
Many churches today have become the same as the synagogues and temple during Jesus’ ministry. Though, because of the ineffectiveness of that system, Jesus came to establish a New Covenant. This isn’t because of the system itself, but because of the human stranglehold that had ensnared it.
Jesus even tried to teach in the synagogues and temple but was often ran off and threatened (John 8:59, Luke 4:28-29). The very sheep he came to rescue from that system instead rejected him (Matt 15:24, 21:42).
Today, we repeat the same things. We’ve rebuilt synagogues and call them churches. We view the Bible as a set of rules to run our churches and seize control of others—the same way the religious leaders imposed their view of the Old Testament, though Jesus redefined that also. Likewise, we continue to miss out on the main point—the Bible is to help us draw closer to Father, with Jesus, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Note, in a “healthy” congregation, the fellowship can be stellar. Unfortunately, I’ve not been privy to witnessing any, pursing the obligated approach, that are truly growing spiritually as the early church was.
For example, the early Christians were known to be singing praise to God when dragged into the Roman arenas for execution. That extravagant love that is joyful even in the face of death eventually broke down even the most powerful empire on earth.
We don’t see that in much of Christianity today.
Instead, we see churches pushing political agenda in an attempt to strengthen their control over others—not at all what Jesus’ intent was for the Church. That same type of agenda seemed to disturb him greatly (Matt 23).
I know, I’ve probably said these things before in one way or another, so I won’t go into any more detail here. Maybe I’m prompted to say it again so that one day that freedom and life Jesus promised (Matt 11:28-30, John 10:10) might start being truly pursued, if only by one person that is tired of being bound by endless mandates and man-made traditions.
That singular hope alone is worth any and all effort.
But what about all those other times the Bible talks about “Fearing the Lord?”
Could there be two different meanings or perceptions of fear?
Is fear of God more of a reverent, mouth agape, awe of God’s majesty and beauty or is it a fetal-position-inducing scariness that causes us to be obligated instead of in love?
Can we ever truly love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27) if we are afraid of him?
We may attempt to serve him with everything we are, but is that being in love with him or a performance to attempt to gain acceptance by works and rituals?
If we’re honest with ourselves, is our “love” for God out of fear of punishment and obligation or truly because we are in an ever-joyful love relationship with him?
Is there really no fear in love?
Could we be confusing what fear is and presenting our beloved Father as a monstrosity?
Does our malformed view of God cause us to try to fear others into our man-made kingdoms and hate those that refuse to be manipulated by such a skewed view of him?
Can we blame non-believers for not wanting to believe in such a fear inducing being?
Personally, I could never truly love God with everything I am while simultaneously being terrified of him. As I fell more in love with him, I saw that my terror of him was ill-conceived (Isaiah 29:13). I do “fear” the Lord, but it is because I am amazed by the inconceivable depths of his love, power, grace, and mercy. It’s salvation I work out with reverent awe and excited trembling (Philippians 2:12).
Does obligation grow from a love relationship, or are we trying to obligate ourselves and others into loving God?
Is that the love relationship Jesus presented?
Could we be putting the cart before the horse by trying to “do” before we learn to love (1 Cor 13:1-3)?
Are we pursuing righteous because we are afraid of slipping up and falling away into hell, or are we so in love with God that we have an assurance that we will be with him always (Romans 8:38-39, 2 Cor 1:22)?
Is our service to God out of fear of punishment (1 John 4:18), or because he loves us and that has caused us to fall in love with him?
If the title of this scares you, it’s probably because this term has been used to manipulate for so long by casting our all-loving Father into the role of a vengeful, almost maniacal, being. I was always made to fear this expression, most likely to uphold a conformity based religious performance.
So what can everlasting punishment mean if not what we’ve so often been told as burning forever and ever in hell?
This is something I wondered about for a very long time and God helped me understand this from his perspective of everlasting love and his will being fulfilled in the end (Col 1:19-20).
The first thing I came to better understand was the word everlasting. What could this mean other than continuing on and on without end? I pondered this for some time asking myself and God how he could be so cruel as to create humans that he knew would suffer forever. This didn’t quite jive with the claim of an all-loving Father.
As I began to research this more, I saw the word originally seemed to modify what it was explaining. In this case, the word punishment (I’ll get to that in a minute). In another case, it modifies the word life, as in everlasting life. I don’t want to go through all the iterations but I encourage looking into the original word meanings. For brevity’s sake, I’ll state that I personally came to believe the word everlasting, as it refers to punishment, means that it will last as long as we make it last. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man was still presenting himself as being superior to Lazarus, who was at father Abraham’s side in paradise, by ordering him to do his bidding. Even so, it seems his heart was being changed as he was now concerned with the fate of his brothers still living.
So, if everlasting could mean “age during/age of,” or in other words, a time of punishment, then what does the word punishment mean?
The first question to ask would be: Is punishment for God’s benefit or ours? That being, is God’s punishment to sooth his anger towards us or to correct our actions? Is God so fickle that he has to torture us forever?
Any loving parent wouldn’t punish their child just to appease their own anger. God, being infinitely patient with us, his children, likewise has no need to punish us to appease his anger. Punishment is a corrective action for our benefit.
Another situation that drove this point a little further home for me is as follows:
I was at a gathering with a family who had got a new outside dog. The dog kept wanting to come in the house but wasn’t allowed. The husband stated, “If I pop him on the nose one good time, he’ll know not to try to come in again.” As I thought about this, I realized this would have been an “everlasting punishment.” Now, this isn’t exactly how I would view God’s corrective actions towards us, but the principle here is a corrective action meant to permanently end the dog’s stubborn insistence on getting his way on his terms.
Likewise, fire is presented more as a purifying means of burning away our stubbornness and anything else that would be unfit to enter into heaven.
For example, In Daniel 7:9-10, fire is explained as flowing from The Throne. If this corrective fire comes from God, and God is love, wouldn’t this be a means of purifying us? Further, we see Zechariah and Peter talking about God using fire as a purifying agent, just like it is used to burn away the impurities in silver and gold. Some may go through these fires in this life by following Jesus, others in the next.
All of these are my personal opinions and how I’ve come to experience living with God. You can take what is beneficial to your walk or throw it all out. However, is the good news really good news if it has to be sold under threat of eternal punishment?
It would seem our effectiveness as Christians is seen by the rest of the world dependent on how we present God to them.
If we look through the Bible, we can see God represented in many ways. Many Christians present the Bible as the authority we should follow on how to live our lives yet no one can agree on many of the the things the Bible presents.
How can we present Jesus to the rest of the world when we, as Christians, can’t understand and agree on God’s Word?
The Bible, to me, has to have some sort of underlying theme that ties it all together and makes some kind of sense. That one concept the entirety of the Bible points to is Father’s love as represented in human form in Jesus. Anytime we are confused about how to represent God, we can look to how Jesus did. Jesus’ representation contradicted the most religious people of his time as well as much of how God was represented prior to his coming. Jesus’ life also heavily contradicts the way the vast majority of Christians are representing Father today.
But, how do we reconcile God with love and the atrocities we see even in the Bible?
For me, real love means loving someone regardless of who they are, what they do, or who we think they should be. Many religious people extrapolate rules from the Bible of how a Christian should look externally based on such things as the Ten Commandments. However, Jesus stated what these commandments really were attempting to communicate: love (Matthew 22:37-40). Still we claim love, but the form of love is not unconditional like Jesus represented. We built our own god by our interpretation of the Bible instead of looking to Jesus, who exemplifies Father.
The love of God that the Bible communicates does not exist when extrapolated and manipulated to our desires. Then, we just have dead words that attempt to guilt trip someone into accepting a relationship which only seems burdensome instead of freeing.
God is love and he created humans to be in a relationship of love with him. Love can only be love if it is chosen freely without manipulation or force. In attempting to manipulate or force someone into that relationship, we push them away from love. Whether our efforts work to conform them externally or not, we still uphold a false standard that God’s love is based on our compliance which wouldn’t be unconditional love.
God’s intent is to redeem all of creation while working through all the “bad” things we cause by our actions (2 Corinthians 5:19, Colossians 1:20). In this way, he still shows his unconditional love to us while we maintain our free will. Love without this kind of free will would not be love. Our main “task” is to live in that love and let it flow through us for others to see so they can free themselves from the burdens of trying to live “morally,” whatever that may entail.
When we live in that love, we become obedient to God. When we try to produce love by obedience however, we only create confusion and chaos as can be seen in our world today. In turn, we end up extrapolating cliches to give ourselves some form of comfort when we see things falling apart around us. When we live in God’s love, we allow him to remove those things from us that distract us from growing deeper in that love. Many pray for this type of relationship but get confused when God removes something that they’ve put their trust into so they can see and trust in his love instead.
When we focus on God’s love for us, we fall in love with him. That love then flows through us to others. However, when we focus on upholding the Bible as a rule book, we have the exact opposite effect and alienate others.
I come across fear and manipulation quite often from religious people. More often than not, this fear manipulation drives people away from a congregation. I understand that many are attempting to bring people to Jesus, but the ways they are presenting the gospel just pushes people away.
Should someone be afraid of hell? Yes, in the sense that it is separation from God’s love. Many are just manipulated to fear hell to remain obligated to an institution’s standards. Often I see attendance, tithing, and participation upheld as methods of fire insurance. Some tactics are outright and unmistakable while others are very subtle. At best, these tactics only manipulate people into a sense of salvation by external compliance but does nothing to help them develop a deeper spiritual relationship with Jesus. Also, this places people in a conundrum where they can be continually manipulated. This may be unintentional, but the result is the same. Many are made to constantly question whether they are truly saved and are convinced that they have to vehemently work while fighting against themselves and the rest of the world to maintain that salvation. When a real relationship develops with Jesus, however, fear of hell dissipates because we are fervently in love with him. Our status with God becomes unmistakable and hell threats no longer hold any weight.
Through the gospels, it seems Jesus mostly speaks of hell to the religious people. It is as though to say those that are pursuing religious rules as their means of righteousness are the ones who are in danger. In Matthew 5:22&30 Jesus mentions hell but is stating how high the standards are to avoid it by religious rule following. If we’re honest with ourselves, it seems impossible–which is exactly the point, it is impossible by our human means of righteousness and rule-based obligation. Ironically, I can’t find any passages where Jesus walks up to a “sinner” and threatens them will hell to save their souls. Instead, he shows them love and lets them choose by that standard!
So why is fear usage so prevalent in the Bible and religion? There are a few points, as I’ve come to understand them, that might clear up some of the confusion.
The Lord said, “Because this people draws near with their mouth and honors me with their lips, but they have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which has been taught;–Isaiah 29:13 (emphasis mine)
It seems that men defined what fear should be and then held it over others’ heads as the means to relate to God.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love.–1 John 4:18
We see in this verse that love and fear cannot coexist. So what about all the things mentioned about fear in the rest of the Bible? My personal belief is that fear in this context is a reverent awe of God in that he is something beyond our human comprehension. It’s kinda like standing at a great height and getting a bit weak in the knees and queasy multiplied a few thousand times. In addition, the Old Testament people feared God’s antidote for sin–his wrath, but his wrath for our sin today has already been expelled on Jesus. Now, we can live in reverent awe and “excitement” as I believe Paul to convey in Philippians 2:12.