When Fear Is Good

By Charles Redfern 

I’m thinking of termites, investment bankers, and the fear of God.  They go together.  Naturally.  It goes without saying.  

Termites obliviously gobble the homes of quick-witted behemoths, who think nothing of slaughtering entire populations so they can cozily watch American Idol.  If only termites knew more.  They’d flee to the woods and be happy with rotting trees.  Investment bankers obliviously gobbled our financial system, veering us treacherously close to a 1930’s black hole.  If only they knew more.  They’d say: “Whew!  We’ll be good boys and girls from now on!”

But bankers, brokers, and lenders are displaying termite sentience and morality.  Their CEO’s maintain their obscene bonuses while blaming Obama for the economy.  They are still “maniacally creating risk, inventing new ways to bet on the death of ‘peasants’, economies, and nations,” according to L. Radall Wray.  Even worse, prosecutors are probing their foreclosure procedures.  Evidence suggests robo-signing: company administrators okay documents without verifying their validity.  Propublica has shown how lenders run loan modification applicants through a two-year gauntlet involving trial periods and repeated demands for the same paper work.  Denials and hefty bills often come at the end. 

Where’s a fire-breathing Puritan when you need one? 

One wonders: Should we call up Jonathan Edwards?  Should we fling quotes from his most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?  Maybe investors and lenders could memorize this gem before they puff their pillows at night: “… thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked …”  They can recite these nuggets in lieu of counting sheep: “Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who walk in His ways,” (Psalm 128:1); “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment” (Psalm 2:12); “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10);  “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you” (James 5:1); “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24); “Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf” (Proverbs 11:28).  And don’t forget Psalm 15:5, where holy people lend their money “without usury …” 

Sleep tight. 

Why no nightmares?

There’s a glitch.  Executives are like many who trim God into a vague deity: “The word ‘fear’ doesn’t really mean ‘fear’ as we understand it.  It means ‘awe,’ or ‘respect,’ or ‘reverence.’”  True, but that other meaning — shivering horror — remains.  We’ve rebelled, which means God can do to us what we do to termites.  The Big Surprise from the Big Bang’s author is his Big Pause before he lowers the Big Boom.  Yet our warped reasoning still meanders:  “I don’t think God could ever get angry; therefore, God is never mad.”  God becomes “my God”:  “my God is always loving, so he would never my God is always peaceful, so of course … always gentle … always kind … always … therefore  …”   Stop.  Think.  Apply: “My version of President Obama would never agree to abortion on demand; therefore, President Obama is not pro-choice …”

A question: Is “my god” … God?  And if “my god” is God, then God is not “mine.”  The Almighty is not my parasite.  God is not confined to my delicate sensibilities – so my squeamishness over a limitless, transcendent, righteous Deity says everything about my preferences and nothing of God.  Let’s admit our true quest: We don’t really want a peaceful, kind, and genuinely graceful Lord.  We crave a complacent Deity: a semi-senile grandfather whom we can protect.  We’ll even monitor his medication.  At most, we’ll mould him into the Great Psychologist in the Sky.  He’s an omnipresent Carl Rogers, forever listening and always affirming.  This “god” is all about “me” and my own self-actualization.  He makes our kingdom more comfortable instead of enfolding us into his own. 

Such a weak “god” is, of course, immoral.  He comforts everyone – including the greedy bank investor, the sadistic parent, the philanderer, and the mass murderer.  Evils such as war and genocide don’t bother him, and he didn’t really mean it when his prophets cried out against institutional poverty.  So let’s shove our compliant God into our Bible studies and church services and practice Social Darwinism:  So sorry you … misunderstood … us about the paper-work, but this is business – and business is business.


The question arises: Have we done ourselves any favors by weasling free from fear?  Can we even appreciate God’s mercy if we lobotomize the Lord and shear him of wrath?  What was the cross all about?  An exercise in divine masochism?  Will we grasp the insights of Psalm 111, where fear enwraps God’s transcendence?  God’s works are great, glorious, and majestic; his righteousness endures forever; he is gracious and compassionate.  The conclusion: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.  To him belongs eternal praise.”  God is like roaring rapids through which a thrilled but frightened kayaker paddles.  He is the “Lion of Judah:” loving, but far from tame.  God is free and wild, and fear is part of the emotional package that comes with a divine encounter.  Such healthy fear allows us to savor him more.  Life becomes momentous again. 

I wonder if the Lion of Judah roared in 2008, when we all reaped the rewards of Wall Street’s termites?  If so, the natural fright was short-lived.  They’re chewing and munching again.  How loud will the lion roar next time?

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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