Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Joy and Fear: Peter’s View of God the Father

The New Testament everywhere presents a multi-faceted view of God in all his perfections.  What we are prone to separate the writers of the New Testament hold together.  God is both loving and wrathful.  He is both full of mercy and ready to judge.  He is both incomparably kind and manifestly severe.  In Peter’s first epistle he also demonstrates this robust view of God as he recognizes him as the Father whose mercy brings joy and the Father who is a judge to be feared.  Reflecting on these attributes can bring balance and perspective to our approach in prayer in worship.  Failure to honor this balance as found in 1 Peter can lead to truncated and distorted views of God that adversely affect our Christian walk.
Peter begins his first epistle with thoughts of God the Father.  The phrase “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” is loaded with covenantal significance.[1]  It speaks of God’s covenantal affection upon the believers.  In verse three Peter praises “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This praise focuses upon the Father’s mercy displayed in the guarantee of future salvation which we have hope of now.[2]  In light of this the recognized response on the part of believers is that they “greatly rejoice.”[3]  The Father’s mercy has provided salvation in Jesus Christ and Peter acknowledges that even though the recipients of his letter have never physically seen the Lord Jesus they nevertheless love him and “greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.”[4]  Wayne Grudem speaks of this joy as “so profound as to be beyond the power of words to express” and then adds:
It thus reminds us of the value of singing and other kinds of music in worship, for music often provides a vehicle for expressing the fullness of joy in a Christian’s heart in a way that is much more effective than spoken words alone.[5]

Thus, the flow of thought is the Father giving mercy that produces joy in his people. 
            Later in this first chapter Peter again brings up the notion of God as Father.  In verses 17-19 Peter writes:
If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.

Here the call for believers is to recognize that their Father is the one who will judge their works in an impartial manner.  In light of this reality believers are to live their lives “in fear” while they are on earth.   Schreiner helpfully comments in regards to the nature of this fear:
Abject terror certainly does not fit with the joy and boldness of the Christian life.  Reverence, however, can be watered down so that it becomes rather insipid.  Peter contemplated the final judgment, where believers will be assessed by their works and heaven and hell will be at stake…There is a kind of fear that does not contradict confidence.  A confident driver also possesses a healthy fear of an accident that prevents him from doing anything foolish.  A genuine fear of judgment hinders believers from giving in to libertinism.[6]

  The flow of thought here is that our Father is also the judge so the appropriate response is a proper fear.
            What is noteworthy is that God is portrayed as both Father and judge with corresponding responses of joy and fear.  Schreiner captures this dynamic when he writes:
What is remarkable here is that God’s tenderness and love as Father is mingled with his judgment and the fear that should mark Christians in this world.  Apparently Peter did not think that the two themes negated each other but are complementary.  The relationship we have with God is both tender and awesome.[7]

Holding these aspects of God’s revelation in balance can be difficult.  There are some who so stress the father aspects of God and its corresponding joys of intimacy that all notions of God as judge are subverted.  There is also the corresponding error in which some believers can so stress the judgment of God and his awe-inspiring holiness that all that is left emotionally to experience is fear.   The evangelical church, at times, suffers from both of these limiting perspectives and is, therefore, adversely affected in its worship and life.
            An over-emphasis on the kindness of God to the exclusion of any idea of God as judge is documented in Tanya Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.[8]  As a trained psychological anthropologist Luhrmann spent four years in and among two different Vineyard churches in an attempt to understand their notions of spirituality.  Luhrmann sees a view of God reflected in the Vineyard churches (which she takes to be representative of evangelical churches as a whole) that is distinctive and is indicative of a shift in American Christian spirituality stemming from the counterculture movements of the 1960’s.
The remarkable shift in the understanding of God and of Jesus in the new paradigm churches of modern American Christianity is the shift that the counterculture made: toward a deeply human, even vulnerable God who loves us unconditionally and wants nothing more than to be our friend, our best friend, as loving and personal and responsive as a best friend in America should be; and toward a God who is so supernaturally present, it is as if he does magic and as if our friendship with him gives us magic, too.  God retains his holy majesty, but he has become a companion, even a buddy to play with, and the most ordinary man can go to the corner church and learn how to hear him speak.  What we have seen in the last four or five decades is the democratization of God—I and thou into you and me—and the democratization of intense spiritual experience, arguably more deeply than ever before in our country’s history.[9]

Luhrmann shows how this view of God is reflected in the Vineyard churches of which she was a part.  She documents how the pastor urged people to set out a cup of coffee for God so they could talk to God.  This pastor encouraged his people to “hang out” with God, ask God for advice on small details, and to take God to task when the people thought God was out of line.[10]  This also led to women having “date night” with God.
The women would set aside the night, and they imagined it romantically: it was a “date.”  They might pick up dinner or set out a plate at the table, and they imagined their way through the evening talking to God, cuddling with God, and basking in God’s attention.[11]

This is a manifestation of a profound overemphasis on the “intimacy” of God.  This vision of God also impacts the evangelical Contemporary Christian music industry.
Rarely do you hear of his judgment; always you are aware of his love; never, ever, does a song suggest you fear his anger.  He is a person: lover, father, of course, but more remarkably, friend.  Best friend.[12]

This quest for intimacy and friendship with God to the exclusion of all strains of God’s judgment also leads to songs that “are almost sexual, with a touch so light that the suggestion could slip past.”[13]  In this vision and version of God that Luhrmann documents something has gone awry.  The perspective of Peter in which God is judge and fear is a proper component of the Christian life is gone—smothered under the quest for intimacy.
            At the other end of the spectrum are those Christians for whom God is nothing more than a judge.  There is no sense of his Fatherly pleasure.  He is a distant God in terms of love but his judgment looms large.  Such conceptions of God engender little joy.  Klaus Issler aptly comments:
Distortions in our God-image can prevent us from receiving God’s gracious love—in effect, rendering various aspects of God’s character as nonexistent.  For it is hard to assign the word love to a relationship with God when God feels like a judgmental parent who criticizes us without any display of affection, or like a legalistic police officer who makes us toe the line whether we like it or not, or like a distant relative who never seems to show up.[14]

Perhaps a good barometer of whether such a distant view of God is taking root is the presence of joy in the believer’s life.  Peter speaks of this “great rejoicing” in reference to salvation found in Christ Jesus.[15]  The sending of the Son by the Father is the supreme demonstration of the Father’s love.[16]  Reflection and meditation on this is what will sustain joy.  Even in the context of 1 Peter in which the fear of God is being urged there is more than just the mention of God as judge.  Verses 18-19 connect the thought of “conduct yourselves in fear” with “knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things…but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.”  As Peter Davids reminds us, “Their reverential awe before God, however, is not based simply on their recognition of judgment, but on deep gratitude and wonder at what God has done for them.”[17]  The work of Christ in shedding his blood for the sins of his people becomes a focal point of rejoicing in the love of God.  Without this cross-centered spirituality the doctrine and experience of the love of God is truncated and, perhaps, even missing.
            Believers are ever prone to extremes.  This manifests itself in our view of God and his relationship to his people.  First Peter gives us a different, more unified perspective on God.  God, according to Peter, is both a loving Father who has had profound mercy upon his people and will save them to the uttermost.  This produces deep joy in the life of his people.  This same Father is also the impartial judge and his blood bought people are exhorted to live with a wholesome fear before the Holy One.  These are not contradictory perspectives but, rather, complementary truths that should inform the worship of God’s people.  Perhaps the Psalmist captured this unified perspective best when he urged the people to, “Worship the Lord with reverence and rejoice with trembling.”[18]

     [1] Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (NAC 37; Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman, 2003), 53.
     [2] Verses 3-5.
     [3] Verse 6.
     [4] Verse 8.
     [5] Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter (TNTC 17; Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1988), 66.
     [6] Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 81.
     [7] Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 82-83.
     [8] T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Vintage, 2012).
     [9] T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, 35.
     [10] T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, 74.
     [11] T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, 80.
     [12] T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, 4-5.
     [13] T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, 5.  This erotic turn in Christian worship would not be unprecedented in the history of the church.  Leon Podles in his work The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Dallas: Spence, 1999) details how the “bridal mysticism” of the Middle Ages took on nearly explicit erotic tones in terms of its devotional literature—see pages 102-108.
     [14] Klaus Issler, Living Into the Life of Jesus: The Formation of Christian Character (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2012), 95.
     [15] 1 Peter 1:6, 8.
     [16] 1 John 4:7-8.
     [17] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (NICNT: Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990), 71.
     [18] Psalm 2:11.