Toxic Fear of God

Looking for God

More information about Deity Formerly Known as God Everyone reacts to the fear of getting caught by a cop in one way or another. It’s moments like these that reveal some of my deepest fears and anxieties. My fear of being caught, my willingness and readiness to lie or make excuses, my panicked impulse to floor it and pull a Thelma and Louise. That fear is always somewhere within me, every time I get in the car, everywhere I go. And all it takes to bring it to the surface is a cop around the corner.

I often wonder if it’s really just a cop we’re most afraid of, or if it’s actually something much deeper. If all it takes are a couple of flashing lights and a squealing siren to evoke such deep emotions and reactions, then imagine what the soul goes through when it fears it’s been found out by God. What fears and anxieties rise to the surface at the slightest thought of being “caught” by God?

My hunch is that many of us move through this life operating under the same basic set of cosmic assumptions:

  • There actually is a permanent record out there filled with all the wrong things I’ve ever done.
  • I’m probably doing something wrong right now.
  • At this very moment, God is lurking around some dark corner of my life with his radar gun, just waiting to nail me for whatever it is so he can add yet another entry to my permanent record.

Sadly for some, this is all they have to point to as their “faith experience.” An experience that operates in a fear-based system. This assumption about God tends to take root early in life and is connected to some negative experience with an authority figure — a parent, teacher, coach, boss, or just about anyone else who had power over us. My friend Ryan can pinpoint the precise moment this fear was formed in him.

When he was in fifth grade his family lived abroad, and he was forced to attend a religious boarding school with a strict dress and grooming code (apparently there’s a verse in the Old Testament that says the Devil is in the denim). When he returned to school after a summer break, the headmaster noticed that Ryan’s hair hung in rebellion about two inches over the tops of his ears. And Ryan wasn’t the only one. Infuriated at such disregard for the rules, the headmaster immediately and forcibly marched all the little members of that mullet militia onto a beat-up school bus. They drove in silence for almost an hour, having no idea where they were going. When the bus pulled up in front of the local Air Force base, the boys were escorted across the massive facility into the base barber shop. Air Force barbers proceeded to shave the boys’ heads in record military time. As hair and tears gathered on the linoleum floor, the headmaster laid down the law. “God is a God of rules, boys,” he barked. “God gives us rules and those who enforce the rules to keep us from getting out of control. Let this be a lesson to you, boys.”

The headmaster had no idea how effective his lesson was. It would take another eight years from that moment until Ryan could even begin to consider the concept of a loving God. And another eight years from that moment until he began to seek out this God. And of course, it would be many more years still until Ryan even considered wearing his hair short again.

Can you pinpoint an experience or person who first planted a toxic fear of God in you? It may have been a rule-ridden principal, rule-ridden parents, or some sort of rule-ridden religion. Sadly, without even knowing it, it is possible that you’ve become a rule-ridden person yourself — someone whose whole life is built around playing by the rules. Someone who avoids more than enjoys and is more familiar with fear than freedom. Someone who loves the idea of a citizen’s arrest and makes as many of them as possible. You can find them almost anywhere, pointing fingers, whispering judgment, and running to tattle to a God who loves to catch people screwing up. They embody what Anne Lamott was getting at when she wrote, “You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do.” Sadly, if you grew up around church or religion, it doesn’t take long for images of these folks to come to mind. You may know more of these folks than you would like to admit. You may even have become one yourself.

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Rule-ridden people abound because we live in a culture that depends on behavior management. It’s a culture that is quick to punish bad behavior and wrong choices, but does very little to reward good choices or good behavior. I have yet to receive a letter from the IRS thanking me for turning in my taxes on time. In all my years of driving I’ve never been pulled over by a cop who just wanted to express appreciation for how I used my blinker in that last lane change, or to commend my firm grasp of the “right-of-way” concept. It doesn’t happen. It probably never will. But turn in my taxes a few weeks late or cross a double yellow line, and someone is right there to bust me. I’m motivated to do my taxes on time and stick to my side of the road, not because these things are right or good, but simply because I don’t want to be caught and punished.

If God is nothing more than a rule keeper or a commandment maker, then why would anyone want anything to do with him? If that’s all there is to it, then there is nothing intimate or personal about him … or about us, for that matter. In fact, if that’s all there is to it, then we’re nothing but a few more faces in a long lineup of perpetrators who need to be caught and corrected.

Is this the only God you’ve ever known? A God who demands respect over admiration? Who would rather speak through lectures than conversations? Who relates to you from a distance instead of intimately? Who prefers fear over love?

The 2005 Oscar-winning Best Film Crash gives us a small glimpse of this hope. A small glimpse into God. In an intense scene toward the end of the film, Terrence Howard’s character, Cameron, finally loses it. An otherwise calm, collected, and respected individual, Cameron finally blows up after a series of events that open his eyes to the reality of racism. From being racially profiled and pulled over by the police for no crime at all, to having his wife sexually manhandled by a crooked cop (Officer Ryan, played brilliantly by Matt Dillon) right in front of his eyes, to having his life threatened by a couple of car jackers. After physically assaulting one of the car jackers and driving with him at gunpoint, Cameron attracts the attention of several police cars and a chase ensues throughout a Los Angeles suburb. The chase reaches its climax when Cameron is cornered, an otherwise good man, with a gun in his hand ready to shoot his assailant who is still in the car with him. The police are ready to fire, until a rookie cop (Officer Hanson, played by Ryan Phillippe) intercedes.

Hanson met Cameron the night before when he and Officer Ryan pulled him over. Hanson believes that Cameron is a good man in the middle of some bad choices, and he manages to position himself between the row of police with their guns aimed at Cameron. Hanson begs and pleads to his fellow officers to trust him and let Cameron go. He breaks several layers of protocol by banking his personal reputation and career on Cameron’s fate. Hanson convinces his partners to back down and leave the scene as if nothing happened. As they do, Cameron is stunned and doesn’t know how to take it all in. He’s not sure if he should believe it or trust it. He knows what he’s done. But he’s being let go. His life now forever changed by an undeserved interceding act of grace.

This image is so much closer to the truth of the God we find in our moments of deep fear, shame, and guilt. Not a God who is hiding out and creeping around the corner to catch us, but rather a God who positions himself in the wide open for us to see him. A God who stands between us and the full weight and consequences of our sin and destructive habits and choices. A God who is able to uphold the law in every way, and yet still somehow make a way for us to be fully free and forgiven of all charges. We don’t have to freak out or try and talk him out of busting us for what we know we’ve done wrong. We don’t have to make excuses or make a case for why we’re normally really good people. He already knows who we are. He has a rap sheet on us that could condemn us for life, he has every right to do so … but he offers another way. A way for us to come to him instead of waiting and wondering when he will lower his final sentencing. It is the way of grace. A clearing of the record. A way that could take a lifetime to explain but only a moment to receive.

Adapted from  The Deity Formerly Known as God by Jarrett Stevens.

Copyright © 2006 by Jarrett Stevens, published by Zondervan, used with permission.

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