All the people, experiencing the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the smoking mountain, were afraid—they pulled back and stood at a distance. They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we’ll listen, but don’t have God speak to us or we’ll die.”
Moses spoke to the people: “Don’t be afraid. God has come to test you and instill a deep and reverent awe within you so that you won’t sin.”
The people kept their distance while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was. Exodus 20:18-21
Child developmental psychologists tell us that a young child learns who he is through family interactions. By the time he’s 4, he has formed a fairly concrete image of himself through relationship with his parents. If his parents have done the best they could in meeting that child’s physical and emotional needs, he will usually have a pretty stable self-image as well as a sound sense of family.
But if a parent has neglected, physically or emotionally abused that child, the building blocks for future problems have already been stacked against him, including the development of his God-concept which happens between 6-8 years of age.
When I was a young child, I got mixed messages in my relationship with my father. He said he loved me as he showered me with improper affections. But in the next breath, he threatened me saying bad things would happen and I would be to blame if I ever told anyone what he did to me in the guise of that love. Because of my fear of his words, I kept silent well into adulthood. I stuffed my fear down deep inside and put on the happy face of a child in a model family.
As I grew up in Sunday School, I learned that God loved me too, but I had difficulty shaking the idea that his love was conditional, based on my performance. I always felt like I was hanging onto a string, suspended over hell’s fires. If I messed up, God might just decide to let go of that string. Just like I feared my earthly father, I had a deep-seated, almost unshakeable fear of my heavenly Father. I strove to be the best Christian I could, putting on my Martha personality mask while secretly worrying that I wasn’t doing enough.
I was much like the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai here in this passage. From the time they were infants in Egypt, they learned that their parents couldn’t protect them from the heartache, death and pain of slavery. Displays of power by their captors were generally followed by death and an increase of hardship as their enemies attempted to create fear and compliance in the hearts of the Israelites. This kind of emotional brow-beating had been going on for 400 years, spanning many generations.
In the wilderness God had showered them with love. He protected them and provided for them. But they had been conditioned through the centuries to believe that their God couldn’t or wouldn’t help them. In fact, they believed this display of God’s power in the wilderness was sure to be followed by an increase of death and hardship, just like it always had with their enemies. No matter how many times God performed miracles to teach them that he was there for them, it was difficult to overcome their sense of fear. It’s no wonder they hung back and wanted Moses to deal with God for them. If they dared to seek after God themselves, who knew what God would do to them?
As we approach Father’s Day this month, consider your relationship with your father and your heavenly Father. If you were hurt by your earthly father in the past, it may be difficult to trust your heavenly Father now. God’s displays of might and power toward you, designed to encourage your faith and “instill a deep and reverent awe within you,” can easily be misinterpreted to be harsh or intimidating. Maybe you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop in your relationship with Him.
Ask God, your heavenly Father, to help you break those cement blocks of fear which were laid in your formative years so that you may receive his love and encouragement. He wants and deserves your worship, your praise and your deepest respect and awe. But it’s not his intent that you should cower in fear before him. Or that you should keep your distance from him, waiting for others to tell you what he wants.
Father, help us to be fearless as we come to you, to know you and to have a relationship with you. Help us to see for ourselves who we are in relationship with you so we can heal and grow into mature followers – true children of God! Amen.