fear and trembling – and compassion

I exchanged text messages yesterday with a friend of mine who is a gay Christian. He gave me permission to share this here but anonymously since he has not fully come out to his family yet. I’m posting it because his question is really astute and one I had never thought of (maybe because I’ve not had to live in as much fear and trembling as he has). His question relates to these two passages:

Phil. 2.12-13: So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

1 John 4.15-19: Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us.

Friend: Question: If we as Christ followers are to work out our salvation with “Fear and Trembling” but we are told to live in the Perfect Love of the Father through Him giving us Christ, and Perfect Love casts out fear, how do these teachings connect? Am I in error of my understanding of Perfect Love? Or the terms fear and trembling? These are my questions as of late.

Me: You’re not wrong about the two statements. That is what each says. I think the contexts give us different meanings. John is talking about love perfecting us so that we don’t have to be afraid of the day of judgment. We don’t have to be afraid of confessing Jesus, even to a persecuting world (we could add a persecuting church). Paul is talking about how Jesus emptied himself and how that serves as an example to us to remain humble in our faith. In our context, it is those people who have failed to maintain the humility Paul talks about who wind up persecuting other believers and filling them with fear. The trick is to hear John – don’t be afraid to stand up and confess Jesus as Lord of the person you are, and also to hear Paul – maintain a humble posture even while standing up to persecution.

Me: Or to put it more succinctly, we could say that salvation is working the fear and trembling out of us.

Me: Which is true because the persecutors are coming from a place of deep fear. They lash out because they are afraid. Salvation hasn’t worked their fear out yet.

Me: They don’t trust the Holy Spirit to be able to save both them and people who are not like them.

Me: We have to stand up to them while remaining patient and loving toward them. And that is hard.

Friend: I never thought about it like that. Hmm interesting it would seem that I encounter a lot of believers who are afraid and do not trust the Holy Spirit. So the challenge is finding the balance in between the two?

Me: I think of it more of a both/and than a balance between the two. John is encouraging you to receive the great compassion the Lord has for you. Paul is encouraging you to have that same compassion for others.


I haven’t done a lot of blogging lately (teaching 6 classes at 3 universities has that effect) but even when I was, you may have noticed I haven’t addressed the LGBT situation very much, even though most American churches are quite preoccupied with it. I have kept my thoughts mostly to myself because my own view is kind of complicated, not fully worked out, and not likely to get a fair hearing in this climate.

But I’m pretty sure I’m right about fear being a driving force behind all this. We fear what we don’t understand and we can’t understand what lies beyond our capacity to experience. “Truth to be understood must be lived; we can only possess what we experience,” as Charlie Peacock sings. Those who have not experienced same gender attraction have a limited ability to understand what it’s like for those who do, which leads to fear and “otherizing” (to use a dumb, academic word) and the sort of persecution I texted my friend about.

So, all I want to say about all this are these two things:

1. I greatly admire the courage of gay Christians who are trying both to receive the great compassion the Lord has for us (which is harder than it might seem) and also to give that same compassion to brothers and sisters in Christ who treat them in the worst ways. I honestly don’t know how you do it. My dear cousin Kimberly Knight keeps engaging with Christians acting like trolls (or trolls masquerading as Christians, it’s hard to tell which sometimes) on her blog (click here to visit). I’ve told her to quit. I pray for the emotional hurts I know she suffers from each person wrongly using Scripture as a weapon to attack her. But she is doing this very thing. She is letting perfect love cast out fear and walking in the fear of the Lord, receiving and giving compassion. I’m not at all sure I could do it.

2. I trust the Holy Spirit to be sufficiently able to grow anyone who calls Jesus ‘Lord’ more and more into the likeness of Christ. How the Spirit does this looks very different for each of us, both in the process and in the result (in this life anyway). There is no doubt we are in a place of deep moral confusion right now, and the deepest confusion attends our place, or actually our non-place, as the determiners of good and evil and the judges of each other. An eagerness to determine good and evil is what got Adam and Eve into trouble. From that time forward, we make idols of ourselves when we seek to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit in directing the conscience of others. Jesus specifically told us not to judge others (Paul went so far as to say he didn’t even judge himself, but waited on the Lord’s judgment) and yet we keep finding ways to ignore his teaching or give excuses for why we need to disobey Jesus on this one thing (judging) to keep others from disobeying Jesus on whatever it is we’re afraid of. We’re not the arbiters of good and evil. We’re not the moral police of the world or even each other. Unless we have been specifically called to pastor another person (they have to consent to this) or have received a prophetic word or a word of knowledge or wisdom for them (be careful claiming these, you have to embrace charismatics gifts to do so and take it very seriously, you know blaspheming the Spirit and all), we have no business trying to take the Holy Spirit’s place in the lives of other followers of Jesus. We can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can. If they are wrong, we can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can. If after that we still think they’re wrong, we can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can. If we think they’ve read Scripture wrong, we can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can. If we think they are living in open sin, we can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can.

Do you get it? There is no point where we move beyond trusting the Spirit without moving immediately outside the grace of God to something inferior to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m as concerned for holiness as anyone – but holiness is only possible in freedom. All the external pressure in the world can only at most secure compliance, it can never bring about obedience. Obedience cannot be coerced, it can only ever be freely given. Which is why the Spirit operates the way the Spirit operates because the Spirit wants us to grow in obedience, so calling Jesus ‘Lord’ becomes more than lip service (which is how it starts for each of us) but reflects actual allegiance to the teachings and practices of Jesus. We have to give each other the freedom to walk this out because we can only walk this out in freedom.

My prayer for all of us is that we learn to receive the great compassion the Lord has for each of us and find a way to give that same compassion to each other. Those two things are at the very heart of the Gospel and they are quite enough work to be going on with for all of us.

justice and the heart of God

Micah 6.8 says:

O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

We can hardly overstate the emphasis the Bible places on justice as a matter very close to the heart of God. Yahweh repeatedly called for Israel to show justice to the aliens, widows, orphans, and aliens in the land.

Isa. 1 stands out as one of the strongest prophetic declarations of this sort:

Untitled 4“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”
    says the Lord.
“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fattened cattle.
I get no pleasure from the blood
    of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to worship me,
    who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
    the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
    and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinful and false.
    I want no more of your pious meetings.
I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.
    They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!
When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
    Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,
    for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
Wash yourselves and be clean!
    Get your sins out of my sight.
    Give up your evil ways.
Learn to do good.
    Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
    Defend the cause of orphans.
    Fight for the rights of widows.

Jesus echoed this in Matt. 25.31-46 where he equated care for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned with care for himself.

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

It is clear that our God identifies with those in need of justice, with those society is most prone to treat unfairly. As followers of Jesus, this needs to be close to our hearts just as it is close to God’s heart.