After graduating college, I worked at our County’s youth detention center for three years as Michelle and I started our family and began the process of becoming missionaries in Jamaica. Then called Barnes Hall, and located in a building that has since been torn down, I was employed as a youth care worker. My role was a mixture of a parent, teacher, counselor, recreation leader, mentor, and guard, for children who were accused or convicted of crimes, and for whom the juvenile justice system deemed their family system insufficiently stable to make sure their kids would keep court appointments. Thus at any given time, we’d have between 15-30 kids staying in Barnes Hall, and we cared for the kids until such time as they received a “not guilty” verdict and could go home, or they were found “guilty” and transferred to a rehabilitation facility or program. The same thing continues to this day in our County’s Youth Intervention Center. In my days at Barnes Hall, I learned something about fear…and wisdom.
In the previous post in this five-part series on Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, we learned that we show we are wise by seeking wisdom, even when it might hurt. That begs the question: What is this wisdom? Now the Teacher (the author of Ecclesiastes) arrives at what he calls the conclusion of the matter. Here is how my Old Testament seminary professor David Dorsey translates the final two verses of the book:
“13 But after considering everything, the conclusion is this: Obey God and do what he wants you to do. This applies to every human being. 14 For God will judge everything that human beings have done, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.”
In verse 13, Dorsey decides not to use a word that all the major English translations use. Fear. In verse 13, Dorsey translated that word “obey God,” but it is the standard word in Hebrew for fear, meaning “when you are afraid of or scared.” It is used that way in many places in the Old Testament. But the same word is used figuratively for the concept of respect, awe, and reverence. It is sometimes translated “awesome.” God is truly awesome, meaning that he is worthy of our awe, of our respect, our reverence. In that sense, God is to be feared; he is fearsome.
As I think about this word, I get it that it can be confusing, and thus why Dorsey went a different direction. The concept that we should fear God just doesn’t sound right. When we read “fear God,” it is too easy to think that we should be afraid of or scared of God, which is antithetical to the idea of a loving God. In fact, one of our Christian communication mistakes over the centuries has been the overemphasis of the judgment of God, making him out to be an ogre in the sky who just can’t wait to lay a smack down on humans who step out of line with his will.
I remember years ago in a meeting with some people in our church family when one of the persons felt that I was not presenting God as I should be, and they raised their voice, slamming the table with the palm of their hand for emphasis, saying, “People need to know about sin!” Repeating it a few times, punctuated each time with the slap of their hand on the table: “People need to know about their sin! You need to preach about sin!” The tension in the room was crackling. Talk about being confronted. By the way, I did not sense that the person confronting me was speaking the truth in love. It felt instead that they were like the enemy wildly swinging a knife, trying to injure me, as I described in the previous post.
And yet, what should I say in response to them? I disagreed with their methodology, which seemed like a use of worldly intimidation, anger and manipulation. Theologically and biblically, though, I mostly agreed with the content of the person’s message. Sin is the massive problem in the world, and people need to know about it. There is a time, place and way to talk about sin, though it must be in line with the example of Jesus. He talked about sin, as did his apostles. So the person was right, but they were also wrong. They were wrong not just in their method of raising their voice and slamming their hand on the table. What I heard from that person was a throwback to hellfire and brimstone preaching days, when the method was to scare people to their core. Causing them to have similar feelings to those you might get when you’re watching a horror film, or when you’re alone in the dark, and you’re freaked out. As I think about it, the person seemed to be trying to scare me into scaring other people about sin.
It’s convoluted, isn’t it? To use the hellfire and brimstone method to scare people into trusting in God? Is that how Jesus related to people as he walked on this earth? With fire and brimstone? Or with life done so differently and love done so beautifully that people were attracted to him and curious about him. He loved so sacrificially and so boldly, that he was all the talk. So scaring people into loving God sounds pretty backwards if you ask me, and totally counter to what I see in the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. It’s a Christian misuse of the “scared straight” mentality.
Back in my day as a youth care worker at Barnes Hall, the County’s juvenile probation office would gather groups of kids on the bubble and bring them for tours of Barnes Hall. Perhaps these kids had been convicted of a crime, but it was not a severe enough crime, or maybe it was a first offense, so things weren’t to the point of incarceration or sentencing to a rehab facility. But they were close. The point of the tour was to scare them straight. The probation office wanted them to think Barnes Hall as a terrible place they did not ever want to go. To accomplish that, at some point on the tour, we would lock each kid in one of the rooms (we didn’t call them cells, but they were basically prison cells) all by themselves for a couple minutes. On those tours, we, the youth care workers, would also speak loudly, harsh, and act tough, way tougher than we actually were in our normal interaction with residents. Why? We wanted to put the fear of God in those kids.
Wait a minute. I just said, “fear of God.” And I used the phrase “fear of God” in a way that is actually somewhat common in our society. The Scared Straight program wanted kids to be afraid, which is a normal understanding of the “fear of God.” At Barnes Hall, the juvenile probation office was hoping those kids would be so scared of being locked up in Barnes Hall that they would start a new pattern of making better choices in their lives. But I have to ask: does fear, does scaring people, make them choose goodness? Is that what The Teacher is talking about here in verse 13? Is that the ancient wisdom that the Teacher has boiled his whole book down to? Make people afraid of punishment? Focus on their sin and how much God is going to judge them and throw them in hell? Is that kind of horror going to drive them to believe in God? Is the Teaching saying that the best wisdom he has found in all his study of life is that humans need to be scared straight?
I hope the answer is obvious. No, that’s not what the Teacher suggests. But there might be some who think, “But didn’t that work in the past? Wasn’t that how the great revival preachers like Billy Graham got so many people to accept Jesus as their savior? Scaring them with the consequences of sin? And furthermore, can’t we talk about sin in such a way that emphasizes the love of God who gave his son to die for us to forgive our sin?”
Yes, that hellfire and brimstone preaching did work in the past, in a way of speaking. In fact, it was how I first got saved. I was a little kid listening to the pastor of my church preach about hell, and it freaked me out. I have always had a bit of an overactive imagination and for a long time struggled with just about any movie or TV show that was scary or intense. If someone left the lights on in the downstairs family room in my house growing up, sometimes my parents asked me to go turn it off and then come back up for bed. I would walk to the edge of the top step, stare down into the room below lit by a single light and think, I hate this. What if there is a robber down there? I would take a few deep breaths, and launch with speed down the steps, hit the light switch off, bolt back up the steps, taking two or three at a time, trying to get back to the top as fast as possible, slamming the door behind me, as I breathed heavy breaths in and out. Whew…I survived!
So years earlier as a little child, when I heard my pastor’s sermon about hell and sin, I wanted no part of that. None. I don’t remember much about that night, other than the comforting words my mom shared with me later that evening in bed, that I didn’t have to be scared because Jesus died and rose again, and if I trust in him, I won’t go to hell. You bet I trusted in him right then and there.
To that you might say, “See, Joel, that kind of preaching worked.” We could argue, also, that scare tactic preaching has brought thousands to Christ through the years. But I would respond that hellfire and brimstone preaching requires major residual work to actually begin to learn about the real character of God, to come to terms with and begin to believe in the love that God has for ourselves others. To look to God and understand him as so much different than the portrayal that was given to me as an angry God to be afraid of, not a loving God to be in awe of.
But that kind of scare tactic preaching is not what the Teacher is talking about here in Ecclesiastes 12, when he writes “Fear God.” Furthermore, we need to see preaching as more than just content. Any time we share the message of Jesus it is not only an act of evangelism, it is also an act of discipleship, such that we are forming people as followers of God when we communicate with them. We are shaping their belief system. Our words are quite important.
Simply put, fear and horror is not what Jesus wants to use to shape people. It is not the way that Jesus demonstrated the life of God’s Kingdom. He wants people to be shaped like him, or as I wrote in a recent post, God wants us to walk in step with his Spirit who lives within us, so that the fruit of the Spirit flow out of our lives. Consider the Fruit of the Spirit as described by Paul in Galatians 5: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Kindness and Self-control. Those are the God-shaped qualities that the Holy Spirit wants to fill us with. Not judgement, horror, pain, punishment, anger, being scared or afraid.
So whatever the fear of the God is, it looks like the Fruit of the Spirit. Paul would further write that perfect love casts out fear. This is also why we speak the truth in love.
The result of a proper understanding of fear of God, then, is that we revere, we respect him so much that we want to be like him, which means obeying him. This, the Teacher tells us, is the whole duty of humanity. That one phrase was highly transformative for me, and I’ll explain how in the next post.