When fear is more than awe (as we now use the word)

The Bible is full of reminders to fear God, and I think for most of my life I’ve heard that the kind of fear expected from Christians is really a kind of awe of his greatness and power. You aren’t supposed to be scared of God, in other words.

But today, our sermon was on the story of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 5. You probably know it, but it just takes a moment to read (ESV),

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

“And great fear came upon all” – you read a story like that and you think, I bet these people were quite literally afraid. And it wasn’t an unreasonable fear – you’re scared of tigers because they might eat you. Fear of danger is a good thing. As to God, in the words of CS Lewis (speaking of Aslan), of course he isn’t safe! He is not a person to be trifled with (or, in this instance, lied to).

Maybe I’m just suffering from linguistic confusion. I looked up the definition of awe, “a feeling of amazement and respect mixed with fear that is often coupled with a feeling of personal insignificance or powerlessness”. Actually, that sounds right, I just don’t think that’s how many people use or understand the word today. I could easily imagine someone saying they were in awe of a Hollywood celebrity – but there is no fear there, they have no real power over you. God does.

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