From fear and trembling to refuge (Psalm 2)

I have always had a particular attraction to Philippians 2:12, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” partly because it creates a crisis for evangelicals with a formulaic “decision for Christ” account of salvation. I do believe that justification by faith is a core part of our salvation, but I also think that δικάιοω (justify) means “make just” more than “declare just” in a way that the English language screws up with the word “justification.” Though we need to have Christ’s justification declared to us to wrest us free from self-justification, it is a means to the end of the Holy Spirit’s sanctification by which we are made just. And God doesn’t need to have the results of an act that He authored “declared” back to Him through some contrived performance of feigned ignorance. You can call the trust that God instills in us a “decision” if you need to, but it’s a decision that must be remade over and over again, and furthermore it’s a surrender, not the product of dispassionate rational deliberation (sorry Bill Bright!). In any case, I was reading Psalm 2 in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament this past Monday. It may have been what Paul had in his head in writing Philippians 2:12 because it talks about “fear” and “trembling” and how they relate to the refuge that God offers to humanity.

From a historical-critical perspective, Psalm 2 likely refers to the coronation of the king of Israel: “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (v. 7). The psalm opens by talking about the nations who are conspiring to “burst asunder the bonds” and “cast the cords” of the Lord (v. 3). I’m assuming this is a reference to Israel’s vassal states like Moab and Edom, who would presumably rebel when a new king was crowned. The psalm basically talks smack to the nations about how Israel’s God is going to beat them down if they don’t “serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (v. 11). It closes by saying, “Happy are all who take refuge in him” (v. 12).

There’s a way in which this exudes a sort of mob boss logic: if you take refuge in the Lord by accepting the cords and bonds of paying tribute to Israel’s king, your life will be happy; otherwise God will pour out His wrath on you by sending His minions to burn down your house. Serve with fear and rejoice with trembling? Is that like what you do when Don Corleone invites all of the storekeepers under his protection to a holiday party at his mansion and you’re supposed to pretend like you’re having the time of your life so that he doesn’t decide to shoot you on a whim?

I’m of course disinclined to read it that way insofar as I try to identify myself with the nations in this psalm. I’m even less comfortable putting myself in the vantage point of the Lord’s anointed and saying this is a psalm about how God is going to beat down all of our rivals on the global stage (USA! USA!). Of course, I did have a conversation with a rabbi recently about a passage from Isaiah in which he pointed out that a lot of the Bible’s prophecy is nationalistic, as uncomfortable as that makes us feel. So there’s a certainly a historical, nationalistic component to Psalm 2, as well as what appears to be the Don Corleone God that the fundamentalists are so fond of.

But here’s what it says to me as a Gentile from the nations who longs to live under God’s mercy. What stands out most of all is the closing verse where the psalmist affirms God’s commitment to the protection of all who take refuge in Him. It’s interesting that the Hebrew verb for taking refuge is חסה (hasah) which you may recognize as being very similar to my favorite Hebrew word חסד (hesed) which we translate as mercy. Hebrew roots are three letters, so the lexicon groups these words separately, but I’ve noticed that there’s often semantic similarity when the first two letters are the same. I’ve shared before that חסד is more than just mercy; it describes the love that you have for your most intimate kin.

So God provides refuge to those who ask to be adopted into His family. But this asking is more than just checking the “Wish to join” box in the attendance registry at church. It’s a mystery, but we have to be dislodged from an imprisoning frame of reference in which we assume that we’re the center of our own universe, completely self-reliant and capable of being good, decent people without any help from God or anybody else. It is certainly possible to do good and be successful without acknowledging how the Source of our being has been at work every step of the way through the opportunities and angels He puts in our lives to take care of us. But to live as though you are a “self-made” person instead of God’s creature requires maintaining a perpetual delusion that always threatens to unravel.

It may be subtle, but the work of convincing myself that nobody else has ever helped me really is as arduous as “bursting bonds asunder and casting off cords.” The evidence of how strenuous it is to assert my self-reliance comes out in the acrimony or quiet condescension with which I view others who don’t work as hard, make their kids behave in public, keep their emotions out of their professional life, and all the other snippy observations I make about people. The more that I’m sucked into building an idol to my “self-made” success, the less suited I am for communion with God and other people, particularly those who have made themselves vulnerable and dependent on God.

A self-reliant, self-satisfied person can wreck a community of people who have committed themselves to building an environment of humility and graciousness. I don’t know if it’s ever happened to you that you try to resolve an interpersonal conflict by scouring your memory for all the things that you could possibly apologize for, and the other person instead of softening in response to your earnest desire for reconciliation, says, “You should be sorry!” and doesn’t forgive you, but adds the items in your self-deprecating over-apology to the list of things they can hold over you. I’ve had a pretty sheltered life with only had a few encounters like this, but they were very frightening because I don’t know how to operate in a world where saying “I’m sorry” gives other people ammunition instead of defusing conflict. But that horrifying, über-retributive world in which other peoples’ offenses against me become the basis for my power over them is the life that we embrace the more that we declare our independence from God and commit ourselves to the defense of our constant infallibility.

Thus, I need to believe that God will in fact preserve a refuge for those who live under His mercy by keeping out those who aren’t. Yes, I’m talking about heaven and hell. Before you react, there are two things to observe here: 1) There are many humble, introspective people who haven’t made a “decision for Christ” even though their lives evidence the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 and they don’t have an mean bone in their body. I don’t know how to explain that theologically. The doctrine police will pounce on me for saying this, but perhaps it’s possible for God to justify and sanctify people preveniently without their awareness, even though Christ’s sacrifice would remain the hidden basis for this process. I just can’t understand the divisions of the afterlife in terms other than God’s solidarity with the people who trust in Him. Incidentally, this is how Miroslav Volf presents the matter in Exclusion and Embrace.

Now here’s the other side: 2) There are many self-reliant, self-satisfied “oversaved” people whose “decision for Christ” did not signify the fear and trembling of seeking God’s refuge, but rather a notch in their belt to justify an even more acute self-idolatry than before. “Decision for Christ” or not, I don’t think the God of refuge will let community-wrecking Luciferian narcissists into eternal communion with those who have given themselves to humility and mercy and thus depend on God’s protection. Too many church congregations on Earth have been destroyed by these monsters for me to think that God will let them continue to prey on His people in the next life. It doesn’t bother me that the dividing line is not something over which we have formulaic control. It’s when “getting saved” becomes something that we can guarantee through our agreement with a checklist of statements, our recital of an official prayer, a full-immersion baptism, confirmations, or whatever else that we are no longer talking about a justification by faith that we receive as an unconditional gift. In many ways, the evangelical salvation industrial complex of today is not a lot different than the sacramental industrial complex of late medieval Catholicism that triggered the Protestant Reformation.

Some people call themselves agnostic and live like Christians; others call themselves Christians and live like they’re the god of their own universe. I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t know what to do with the fact that we are told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” and also to “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Hebrews 10:22). All I can say is that there is a false confidence which rests in my delusion of self-reliance that is never truly secure at its core and requires an excruciating mental gymnastics of denial to maintain. There is also a “confidence in the Holy Spirit” which is simultaneously “the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). I have explained this confidence and fear combination as arising from a vivid enough encounter with God’s infinite presence that you can never have a banal, domesticated view of God again. Trusting God means being comfortable with the discomfort of my lack of control. I can be certain that God loves me and has welcomed me into the refuge of His mercy without having the presumption to explain exactly why I know this with absolute certainty. The first certainty is trust in God; the second certainty is trust in my knowledge.

So I think “fear and trembling” describes our permanent epistemology before God as meager creatures who dare to face an infinite light that blinds us. This fear may begin as a kind of terror, but if faith is really the centerpiece of our relationship with God, then the terror evolves into wonder. If it remains terror, then it will resolve itself into a safe, oversimplified explanation of God that protects us from His otherness and, in doing so, keeps us out of communion. I realize this was a lot to pull out of Psalm 2. Let me know what you think of these contemplations of our terrifying and yet perfectly merciful Creator.