With Fear and Trembling

I’ve done some dancing in my life—first in ballet slippers, then in a college survey course, and finally the day I married Riley. I have no problem admitting a lack of grace (I’ve actually been told I look like an epileptic chicken when I attempt “creative movement”), but the way dancers move has always fascinated me. Unfortunately, I found some mental dance steps of my own that shaped the way my heart swayed for far too long.

As a churchgoing kid in the Bible belt, I was constantly surrounded by talk of salvation (and the alternative—a forever brimming with, well, brimstone). Mixed in was this message of how to behave and how to please God and what would happen if you disappointed Him. (I figure it’s a lot like the Catholic culture up here, just with less alcohol and more Vacation Bible School.) Unlike Catholic culture up here, though, I couldn’t escape it after church was finished on Sunday; my family cared about faith on a personal level, so home was saturated with it. While my parents would pray with me each night and tuck me in, I’d have this vague notion in my head about how to keep Jesus happy with me and avoid burning to death for millions and billions of years (somehow a scarier thought when you’re nine).

Because I bought into the performance model of salvation, I struggled with fear—honestly, it was closer to terror—for over half of my life when it came to eternity. Was I doing enough of the right things? Was I disappointing God today? What if I died before I could appease Him again by not biting my little brother? Church gained this association with guilt, confusion, and anxiety, driving me into a bizarre and desperate dance of trying harder in order to escape the constant questions. I can only imagine how delighted this made the enemy: here’s a kid who’s completely incapacitated by a false fear, worrying so much about her own salvation that she doesn’t realize she’s unnecessarily paralyzed from being any kind of threat.

But then, Jesus.

The Jesus of Scripture is so different than my early notion of Him. He is tender and kind, and He honestly longs for us to be with Him. Yes, there is power and wrath and justice and holiness. And He embodies each to its best, fullest extent. But He’s not only those things.

When I would be overcome with worry about my eternity (which happened quite a bit), I’d be pointed to Philippians 2:12 and told that we are supposed to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, that I was just doing what the Bible said to do. My relationship with Christ has morphed dramatically since those anxious days, but that text in Philippians has been waiting at the back of my mind, covered in cobwebs and spreading a light fog of uncertainty whenever I get close enough to examine it. I finally studied the text for myself, and it’s something entirely surprising. Here it is in context (with verse 13):

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

First of all, it’s in the context of being called beloved: “a person who is dearly loved and cherished, sometimes preferred above all others and treated with partiality.” Just hearing that is the tone God inspired Paul to use changes things. But I also learned that to work out your salvation doesn’t mean to try to determine whether or not you are (still?) going to heaven, but to put your salvation to work, to live out of the position you are assured of. Paul is telling the church in Philippi, “Hey, besties! God has bought you. Because of that, bear fruit! Be bringers of life to this dark and dead world!” And the fear and trembling part? It’s just an old-school way of saying “with a deep respect for the Lord.”

Believers are not meant to be a terror-ridden people, forever looking over our shoulders to see if Mean God caught us being bad. We were always intended to be the most joyful, carefree bunch on the planet, exuberant in our confidence in Christ. Jesus set us free, gave us overflowing life. Not so that we could constantly wonder about whether we are being good enough to deserve grace, but so that we could thankfully and humbly accept the grace we didn’t deserve once and for all, and then go dance that out in every aspect of our lives.

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