Fear and Trembling

Before I left Boston I would think with longing of the beginning of my maternity leave: baby still inside my belly (and therefore silent and automatically fed!), a minimum of daily obligations, temperate weather, family, fall foliage…

Though I tried not to, these dreams of lazy days made me less motivated in my last few weeks in Boston. I got a kind of ministry senioritis. After five and a half uninterrupted years of some kind of leadership role–school fellowship, small group, diaconate, you name it–I was more than ready for a break and ended up decelerating into it rather than trying to finish strong.

As for these last few weeks–they’ve been every bit as lazy as I had hoped and dreamed. But this past Sunday I experienced a needed interruption.

Because I only needed a church to attend for about a month, the most convenient thing to do has been to go to services at the megachurch down the street from where my mom lives. Overall, it’s met expectations: mostly white, mostly affluent, fairly anonymous.

The one thing that’s disappointed me about it fairly consistently is that I’ve found the preaching surprisingly basic and unremarkable for such a large church; more moralistic than Gospel-focused, shallow in its exegesis, devoid of particularly challenging applications. But whatever, I’ve thought–the music is good and I still listen to sermon recordings from my home church, so I figured I’d live with it.

This past Sunday, however, I was in for a rude awakening. Most of the way through a tedious “Do you Pass or Fail?” journey through the Ten Commandments one by one, he arrived at “Do not bear false witness,” and brought up the Kavanaugh/Blasey-Ford hearings, and managed to contradict both himself and verifiable facts in his remarks on the subject.

“There’s a reason in ancient Israel no one could be condemned except on the testimony of two or three witnesses. The problem with this situation is that what the witnesses said were simply not true.”

Before I could even close my dropped-open mouth he had moved on to “Do not covet.”

At first, I felt a wave of fury and wanted to pick up my purse in a huff and storm out of the sanctuary…less impactful given that we were watching a video recording. And then, a verse came to mind which doused my rage:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

I am not the one who will have to give an account, I thought. I felt like the Holy Spirit was giving me a chill pill and reminding me that in the end, every so-called shepherd will need to answer for his or her teachings before God who knows all things. And Hebrews is also the book which features this sobering passage, which coincidentally alludes to the very same Exodus text as the pastor did:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31)

So I calmed down, but not without a small tingle of fear. I thought about what a risk it is to shepherd a flock so large that each sheep is anonymous. What will it be like to be called to account before the omniscient God over souls that one doesn’t even know and can have no way of knowing?

I thought about how stunningly easy it is to get complacent when one’s sphere of influence grows little by little. Maybe it even becomes possible to forget the weight of responsibility resting on your shoulders.

I thought about how casually this man, accustomed by decades to holding power, could speak definitively on a subject on which it is factually impossible to be definitive. I looked around the room– a large and full gymnasium, just one of six services who would hear these words today. Statistically, a fifth of the women present had experienced sexual assault. If they failed to report right away, if they failed to recall every detail, would he just as flippantly declare their allegations “simply not true”?

And someday, he would be called to account. Who is the God before whom he’d answer? Besides being a “consuming fire” and the “living God,” he is also described in the Old Testament as Father to the fatherless, defender of widows, champion of the poor and oppressed. He is described by Jesus as one who advocates for the least of these, who says to those who would disregard  them: “Depart from me–I never knew you,” and sends them into fire and darkness and eternal regret.

The image that came to mind, silly as it may sound, was that of a man picking on some seemingly abandoned bear cubs. He goads them and laughs, not realizing that Momma Bear is towering behind him and ready to end his life with a single swipe.

As I thought about all this, I thought about the power that God has given me, the positions of leadership and authority and power over which I will be called to account. The weight on my shoulders has always been a lot smaller than that of a megachurch pastor, but still–he will ask me about real souls.

He will ask me about the fellow students in InterVarsity and my grad school fellowship, about the visitors and members of my small group, about the people under my care as a deaconness.

And he will do so with the same soft spot for the powerless. He will see every way in which my power could have been used for others’ good and His glory, and he will know all the ways in which I’ve fallen short. He will see all the times I knowingly slacked off. He will see the times I was casual and indifferent when I should have approached all my callings with fear and trembling. He will see the times when I was ignorant and proud rather than humbly dependent on him for wisdom.

For myself and for this megachurch pastor and for every Christian leader, I’m grateful that our souls will be secured by the blood of Christ. But all we have built in his name will be tested by fire. And in that day, he will show us all of our blind spots as well as the ways we disregarded the least of these. It will not be enough to say “Lord, I didn’t know it was you.” It will seem ridiculous to say “I didn’t know that you cared about more than personal salvation, that you cared about every assault victim and every refugee and every person displaced by climate change.” He will not let us insult him by pretending he is a God who tolerates structural violence the way we do.

All of these reflections left me crying during the songs of response and still quiet as Bill and I left the service and embarked on a morning full of boring errands. I’m glad. I needed to be shaken out of my stupor. As a 21st century American Christian, fearing God is not a disposition that comes naturally to me. So I need his help, and I look forward to the fruit that results–this fear and trembling is the beginning of wisdom.





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