The Decline of the Sacred

As our culture becomes increasingly secular, it is obvious to observant people that there are few things left that are considered sacred. And unfortunately, it seems that the church often reflects the culture in this matter. Even a mega-church pastor noted that the church has left a God-centered approach to prayer, worship, and church life, and is now very man-centered in those areas. The sacred does seem to be on a decline in the church. But this is hardly a problem found in mega-churches alone, but can be seen in churches of all sizes and persuasions. Many years ago, Pastor A.W. Tozer wrote:

“THE CHURCH HAS SURRENDERED HER ONCE LOFTY CONCEPT OF GOD AND HAS SUBSTITUTED FOR IT ONE SO LOW, SO IGNOBLE, AS TO BE UTTERLY UNWORTHY OF THINKING, WORSHIPPING MEN…THE LOW VIEW OF GOD ENTERTAINED ALMOST UNIVERSALLY AMONG CHRISTIANS IS THE CAUSE OF A HUNDRED LESSER EVILS EVERYWHERE AMONG US.” (Tozer, “Knowledge of the Holy” p. 6)

The evaporation of the sacred from life is directly connected with one element. The sacred disappears when the fear of the Lord disappears. This is an issue that is so basic to life, and one that dictates the flow and the outcomes of life. The Bible presents the fear of the Lord as one of the central issues in life. There is a dramatic difference when the fear of the Lord is present or when it is absent. So, it is good to refresh our thinking about this central biblical subject. I need the reminder and maybe you will find it helpful.

What is the “fear of the Lord”?

What is meant that we are to fear God?  The common Greek word for fear is “phobos” (from which we get our word ‘phobia’). This, along with a less common word (“eulabeia”), are used for “reverence,” “awe,” “dread,” “admiration,” and “holy fear.” The same basic idea is found in the Hebrew word (“yare”) and communicates that the “fear of the Lord” is the awe and deep reverence that we have for God, recognizing who He is and what He can do. It is having a deep, conscious respect for Him, which includes a wholesome dread of displeasing Him. It is opposite of having a casual or flippant attitude towards Him. Fearing God, as a child of God, does not mean that we cower before Him, like a puppy who awaits a beating from its quick-tempered master. The correct view of God produces a reverential awe that leads to a right relationship and to right living. The fear of God actually removes fear (terror and anxiety) from our lives. 

This proper view of God comes from God’s revelation of Himself as it is found in the Scriptures; particularly in the Old Testament. The names of God, which reveal much about Him, as well as His many attributes are especially found in the Old Testament.

The Importance of the “fear of the Lord.”

  • The “fear of the Lord” is the foundation for living correctly and successfully.

The wisdom literature of the O.T. consistently teaches that fearing the Lord brings quality to a person’s life. By seeing the Lord God correctly, everything else lands in its proper place. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10). So much stress and negativity is avoided, and so much blessing and prosperity of soul comes to the person who has this perspective. Fearing the Lord is the starting point in living a life that is fulfilling and has meaning to it. This is what the Bible teaches.

  • The “fear of the Lord” is the greatest deterrent to sin in the believer’s life. The matter of sin is impacted by the fear of the Lord. All people struggle with sin. However, when a person sees the Lord properly, then they will begin to see themselves with greater clarity, and this includes their sin. When Moses and the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai, God appeared to them in a powerful sight and sound display. And the Lord had good reason for doing this.

“AND ALL THE PEOPLE PERCEIVED THE THUNDER AND THE LIGHTENING FLASHES AND THE SOUND OF THE TRUMPET AND THE MOUNTAIN SMOKING; AND WHEN THE PEOPLE SAW IT, THEY TREMBLED AND STOOD AT A DISTANCE.” (Exo. 20:18).

Why this overwhelming sensory assault? Wouldn’t a gentle breeze and a still small voice work just as well? The answer is “no.”  Moses then explained to the people why God approached them with high decibel, 360-degree surround sound along with smoke and lightning. He said: “God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin. This revelation of their all-powerful God was to be fixed in their minds and this would help them when they were tempted to sin and disobey His law that they were about to receive. Centuries later wise King Solomon would reinforce Moses’ words when he said: “by the fear of the Lord one keeps away from sin” (Prov. 16:6). Solomon’s words need no explanation, do they?

Unfortunately, Israel in the days of the prophet Malachi had forgotten this. People and priests were engaged in all kinds of sinning. For example, Malachi records that the men were divorcing their Jewish wives so that they could marry foreign women; they were bringing blemished animals to the Lord as sacrifices which was a gross violation of the Law of Moses; they were openly declaring that living according to God’s standards was a useless thing to do; they were not tithing (which was not optional but a tax that they were obligated to pay) and were thus said to be robbing God; and other sinning was present as well. Malachi was clear as to the underlying reason for all their bad behavior. Israel no longer feared the Lord. Their view of God had sunk to the level where He was hardly recognizable and this stimulated sinning. 

It is true that when believers see the Lord God as He really is, sin has a far more difficult time taking root in life. But there is more. “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13). Believers who have this awesome reverence for the Lord, begin to hate sin as they never did before. They are less likely to play around with it, or to see how close they can come to it without crossing the line. And the result is that they begin to experience a purity and freedom in their lives that was not there before. A.W. Tozer was on target when he observed that the church’s broad sinning is because the church’s view of God has diminished badly. The fear of the Lord keeps sin away, but when the fear of the Lord is not a reality in the believer’s life or the church’s life, sin has fertile ground to flourish. Does this not explain why the church so often looks much like the culture and has adopted the standards of the culture? And as we look at ourselves, do we not see the correlation between our sinning and our thinking about the Lord God? 

  • The “fear of the Lord” brings a special commitment from God to the believer.

The wisdom literature also teaches that the Lord God makes a special commitment to those people of His that fear Him. The Lord loves all His children, but the Scriptures declare that there is unique relationship between the Lord God and those children who have a reverential awe of Him. God says that He will guide these in their lives; He will deliver and protect them; He will give them special care and provide for them in a special way; and these will experience His special favor. How all these things will be manifested is not detailed, but that must not keep us from taking these promises seriously. The Lord commits Himself to uniquely care for His children who view Him correctly, and thus, stay away from sin and walk in fellowship with Him. The following verses from the Psalms talk about this: 25:12-14; 33:18; 34:7-9; 85:9; 103:11-13; 111:5; 145:19; 147:11. Spend some time in these verses.

Indications that the “fear of the Lord” is missing from life.

Israel, in the days of the prophet Malachi, embodied life that was devoid of the fear of the Lord. This reality was seen in that they were disobedient to known commands, and yet when confronted, made all kinds of excuses for their disobedience. Their careless attitude towards the need to serve God became pervasive, as they no longer took Him seriously. “Self” replaced God at the center of life, as what they wanted dominated the way they lived, even when it meant ignoring God’s laws and standards. Those in leadership, instead of dealing with the sinning, became participants themselves. This pattern remains the same for individuals and for the church today. 

Regaining a “fear of the Lord.”

This is a most central and serious issue. Since time does not automatically make things better, we need to act. Again, Tozer’s point is well-taken.

“THE ONLY WAY TO RECOUP OUR SPIRITUAL LOSSES IS TO GO BACK TO THE CAUSE OF THEM AND MAKE SUCH CORRECTIONS AS THE TRUTH WARRANTS. THE DECLINE OF THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE HOLY HAS BROUGHT US OUR TROUBLES AND A REDISCOVERY OF THE MAJESTY OF GOD WILL GO A LONG WAY TOWARD CURING THEM.”

He then adds this powerful point.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO KEEP OUR MORAL PRACTICES SOUND AND OUR INWARD ATTITUDES RIGHT WHILE OUR IDEA OF GOD IS ERRONEOUS OR INADEQUATE. IF WE WOULD BRING BACK SPIRITUAL POWER TO OUR LIVES, WE MUST BEGIN TO THINK OF GOD MORE NEARLY AS HE IS.” 

Tozer is right. We need to be thinking about God more nearly as He is, and that knowledge comes from the Scriptures. It is a healthy and helpful thing for us to freshen up our understanding of the character of our God. It cannot but upgrade our lives. First, we might find it helpful to do some reading in the Psalms and Proverbs which reveal much of who God is. There are, of course, many passages such as Isaiah 40 and the “exodus” story, which tell us much of the nature of the Lord our God. And second, books such as A.W. Tozer’s, “The Knowledge of the Holy”; J. I. Packer’s, “Knowing God”; chapters 6-8 on the attributes of God in Charles Ryrie’s, “Basic Theology”; and for those seeking a challenge, Stephen Charnock’s, “The Existence and Attributes of God.” These books give us help in understanding better the greatness of our God. 

Many churches and many Christians look like Israel in the days of Malachi. And that is because the underlying matter of not fearing the Lord is the same. That condition was not good and did not end well back then, nor will it today.

If we are willing to let the Holy Spirit do His work, we will see our lives become qualitatively better. It really is true that the fear of the Lord is the starting point.