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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “Lesson Zero”

As irrational as Twilight Sparkle’s fears get in this episode (fearing the utmost worst from Princess Celestia for being late on one assignment), I sympathize and I wonder if some of you out there do the same. I definitely felt that way back in school, being both a nerd and an “A” student myself. I often felt one bad grade was a sign of a slippery slope that would eventually lead me to ruin and failure. I feel that way on my job sometimes too, or even in something as mundane as my hobbies. It’s just my personality.

However, to get a bit more personal with today’s devotional, I think the utmost worse I ever got as far as fear was concerned was in my relationship with God.

The Bible describes God as perfect love and compassion. It also makes it quite clear God is someone to be “feared”. Proverbs 1:7 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Psalm 33:8 – “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!” Acts 10:35 – “But in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” All power and glory belong to God. He has the power to fill my life with blessings or curses, to give me rewards or punishments, to renew me or destroy me, and to grant me eternal salvation or eternal damnation. That’s a lot of power and authority…definitely something that can be feared in the classic sense of cringing in terror from.

Therefore I had a conflict growing up. You see, I’m very absolutist in my thinking. There is never, ever a “gray area” in my thoughts. Everything has to be one way or the other. The Greatest Commandment says to love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your strength. But the Bible also commanded me to fear the Lord. And in my early devotional life, I was torn. On one hand I saw the gentleness and love of Jesus in the New Testament, but I also saw the terrible wrath and destruction of God in the Old Testament, and I knew full well both were one and the same. I didn’t know how to be the “best Christian” or get closer to God…by trying to love him more or to try and fear him more. In the end, the side of me that looked at the damnation of Hell and the talk about the “narrow path” and the vengeance and fury of God made me decide if I couldn’t do both; it was better that I fear God.

What followed, and what still has a hold on me to this day, was some of the more miserable years of my life. The primary thought was always to “fear God”. God was great and terrible. God was constantly on the lookout for my sins. God would keep careful track of every thoughtless or cruel or unkind thing I did. He would also keep careful track of every act of negligence or failure as a Christian. He would be looking to damn me for eternity for every misstep I made and every time I failed to “be perfect” as Jesus was perfect. As a result…I grew in hatred for myself daily. I’d spend long hours lying depressed just thinking of how much of a failure I was. If I did anything bad, I felt God was furious at me and he wouldn’t accept my repentance because, if I was a “real” Christian or “really” sorry, I wouldn’t have repeated in the first place. If I did anything good, it didn’t matter…there were far better Christians throughout history who had done far more at a younger age than me. There were better Christians right in front of me constantly doing better than me. And worse than that, I started reading passages about the importance of love in my actions. Even when I did something good, it was purely out of fear of punishment…so I figured God hated that. Or passages such as 1 John 4:18 – “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” So I figured, because I was scared, that means I wasn’t saved. And I grew into more despair thinking I was hopelessly damned and that God hated me.

There was a line from Master Yoda in “The Phantom Menace” that most people think is cliche, and I did too at the time. Nowadays I see the wisdom and truth in it. “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” I could only take so many years of living in constant fear that I began to grow angry. I began to wonder why God had made me to be something “irredeemable”…why I had been created just to be destroyed. Why everyone around me talked so much about the love of God when I only felt dread and fear of God. Why I felt neither “peace that surpassed all understanding” or happiness from serving the Lord. Why I was destined to be miserable for my entire life only to spend eternity in pain and torment. And I began to grow hateful. I began to hate seeing happy people in my Church. I began to hate people who talked so pleasantly and marvelously about how they had been saved. I began to hate preachers who talked as if repenting from sin was “so easy”. I wondered why I was bothering to do anything or even make an effort for God when I’d only end up failing and feeling loathed, unloved, and miserable. I nearly blew up in Church several times and walked right out of services, feeling if I kept listening I’d scream at the pastor or get violent.

To be honest, I’m still working through these issues to this day, although they’ve improved a lot. And yet here I sit, writing this devotional. Why?

I eventually realized how I was thinking and, in spite of my absolutist thinking, I realized I had made the wrong choice. Fear is a God-given emotion, but it is meant to preserve us from danger and prompt us to avoid it. I could only “fear” God in the classic sense of the word for so long before I’d want to avoid him all together. I also realized my fear was irrational. It was based on “worldly guilt”, not “heavenly guilt”. A devotional I read told me something valuable that I have to remember from time to time. “Heavenly guilt”, or “Godly sorrow”, NEVER tells you “you are bad” or “you are a bad person”. God created you and you are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. He loves you more than a father loves his child. So any feeling that says to you that you are intrinsically bad person is not from God. It’s from the world, your own negative thinking, perfectionism, perhaps even something evil…but it’s not from God. That’s “worldly guilt”, and you can tell what it is because when you make a change to get rid of it…you still feel bad afterward. “Heavenly guilty”, on the other hand, simply tells you what you did was bad, and once you repent of it, it goes away. Paul summed it up in 2 Corinthians 7:10 – “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

But most importantly, I realized it was never about just “making myself fear God” or even “making myself love God”. In either case, it’s a forced emotion. What is important is to form a relationship with the Lord. To know Him and to understand Him. To be intimate with Him. I realized just as I can’t love something I “worldly fear”, neither can I love something I don’t understand. It is in the relationship with God and growing closer to him that we learn to appreciate and understand the Lord. And once we understand him and his Love, his Mercy, and his Plan, then both love for him naturally follows just as fear (i.e., reverence, respect, “holy” fear) follows. I learn to love God because he loves me, just as I learn to fear God because I respect him and feel shame for disappointing anyone I respect. These things can’t be “forced” or just “turned on or off”. They’re things that take time, relationships, reading the word, and a good, healthy Church.

Where Twilight went wrong is she forgot Celestia cared about her as an individual, not just as a student or subject. Where I went wrong is I forgot God cared about me as an individual, not just a servant. I pray anyone who reads this and is struggling with relationship issues with God finds some encouragement in that.

“We love because he first loved us.” – 1 John 4:19

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, thank you no matter what I feel, what guilt I have, what shame is on my conscience, where I find myself in life, or what good or evil I have yet to do, you love me enough to send your only Son to die for me. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”