Fear and trembling

September 22, 2008

It's one thing to profess; another to do. Christians put a lot of
emphasis on professing—belief, repentance—but we also know that without
doing, those words are just so much hot air. Still, how do you know how
to be what you believe? Paul says, "Work out your own salvation with
fear and trembling.” This suggests to me that Paul didn't have an easy
answer. Sure, he advised looking out for the interests of others first
and foremost, but how do you determine what's in the best interest of
others? A church in my area recently gave away gas cards to random
drivers, relieving the hurt of high gas costs. Yet gas consumption
contributes to global warming, among a host of other ills. No ethical
act seems simple.

"Work out your own salvation with fear and
trembling, because it is God who is at work in you....” Notice that
Paul doesn't say, "but [i.e., don't worry]"; rather, he says "because."
In other words, God "at work in you" does not relieve the difficulty of
working out your own salvation. Rather, it raises the stakes.

The
pendulum of Christian confidence sometimes swings into arrogance and
presumption. We pray as though God is a magical ATM machine dispensing
what we ask or we assume that God has a plan and we are especially
privy to it. These attitudes have nothing of fear and trembling about
them. They suggest that God is an idol, fixed and static, who can be
manipulated and wielded—that God is no God at all.

In some of
the grimmest days of Christian history, we literally forced others to
their knees and beat out of them the confession "Jesus Christ is Lord."
We look down on that now, yet the sentiment remains, it seems to me, in
efforts to evoke a JesusChristismylordandsavior phrase out of ourselves
and others as though it is some kind of magical mantra. Is Jesus so
fixed and static, or our understanding of "name" so literal that Jesus
must be frozen in our imaginations as a first century guy from the
Middle East? What happens to our theology when "name" is more than
letters on a page or a particular pronunciation of consonants and
vowels, when we take seriously the universal and timeless implications
of a radically humble incarnation of the living God? I find that
terrifying.