work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
— from Philippians 2:12
Fear and trembling. Paul uses this phrase a couple of other times (2 Corinthians 7:15 and Ephesians 6:5), apparently with the connotation of submissive humility and receptive meekness. It is an affections-full being put into one’s place, I think. A disposition appropriate to the circumstances. The command in Psalm 2:11 is “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling,” showing us that fear is not without activity and trembling is not without joy.
Here I remember Emma Thompson’s beautiful portrayal of Elinor Dashwood at the end of the film Sense and Sensiblity when Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars reveals it was his brother who got married, and not himself. Thompson’s Elinor is an expert at keeping her emotions bottled up — until this moment where we see “fear and trembling” brilliantly and movingly in display. It chokes me up every time.
Pent-up hopes and dormant affections brought near the super-electric current of a fearsome reality. The hair on our arms stands up, gooseflesh springing, a sense of fresh air and being winded at the same time. Overwhelmed. That’s fear and trembling. As it pertains to having the living God draw near to us, fear and trembling assume it is truly God and the glorious Christ we have encountered and not some pitiful caricature. The god of the prosperity gospelists is a pathetic doormat, a genie. The god of the cutesy coffee mugs and Joel Osteen tweets is a milquetoast doofus like the guys in the Jane Austen novels you hope the girls don’t end up with, holding their hats limply in hand and minding their manners to follow your lead like a butler, or the doormat he stands on. The god of the American Dream is Santa Claus. The god of the open theists is not sovereignly omniscient, declaring the end from the beginning, but just a really good guesser playing the odds. The god of our therapeutic culture is ourselves, we the “forgivers” of ourselves, navel-haloed morons with “baggage” but not sin. None of these pathetic gods could provoke fear and trembling.
But the God of the Scriptures is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). He stirs up the oceans with the tip of his finger, and they sizzle rolling clouds of steam into the sky. He shoots lightning from his fists. This is the God who leads his children by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. This is the God who makes war and sends plagues and sits enthroned in majesty and glory in his heavens, doing what he pleases. This is the God who incarnate in the flesh turned tables over in the temple like he owned the place. This Lord God Jesus Christ was pushed to the edge of the cliff and declared, “This is not happening today,” and walked right back through the crowd like a boss. This Lord says “Nobody takes my life; I give it willingly,” as if to say, “You couldn’t kill me unless I let you.” This Lord calms the storms, casts out demons, binds and looses and has the authority to grant us the same. The devil is this God’s lapdog.
And it is this God who has summoned us, apprehended us, saved us. It is this God who has come humbly, meek, lowly, pouring out his blood in infinite conquest to set the captives free, cancel the record of debt against us, conquer sin and Satan, and swallow up death forever.
Let us, then, advance the gospel of the kingdom out into the perimeter of our hearts and lives with affectionate meekness and humble submission. Let us repent of our nonchalance.