When Scripture Terrifies Me

I realize a lot of well-meaning people think that fear will endear people to God. They pull out any passage that can be interpreted to terrify people, thinking that fear will lead people to holiness. Well-meaning perhaps, but horribly ignorant of the Gospel itself.  Jesus taught us that only love leads to holiness. Fear will not draw people to God. It will either draw them away from him, or it will make them so focused on their failures that they can’t find mercy and grace when they need it most.

The entire Bible story was written to draw people out of their fear and feelings of condemnation when they think of God, to see him as a loving Father drawing them into his love and his reality.  Look at Jesus. When he was among us he was not terrifying people with his power, but reaching out to them “as harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” I am so sick of religious teachers twisting that story by pulling out those moments where God has to intrude into human history to preserve a line of salvation and concluding that they define his nature. His actions are still one intent on rescue, not destruction.

A few days ago I received an email from Germany written by a young woman who finds some of the more ominous passages in Scripture undermines her freedom to trust God’s love.  Here’s what she wrote:

I emailed you last year shortly after reading your book He Loves Me the first time. I love your book! Since I read it,  I am trying to change my perspective and “live loved”. I really want to live my life for God and do His will without fear.  But I have a problem with different fears since I am a child. Right now, I am seeing a therapist for it (he`s not a Christian) and we are working on it. I think God is working on me, too. I realize His love especially through brothers and sisters that I meet and circumstances. However, there are still great fears in me  because of passages in the Bible that I do not understand. They really disturb me and make it harder for me to believe in a loving Father.

The passages I am talking about are where God hardens the heart of Pharaoh, Romans 9, the story of Annanias and Sapphira, God trying to kill Moses, God saying he loves Jacob but hates Esau, the fate of Judas, the passage in Matthew 7 where Jesus warns that not everyone calling on His name will be saved, and some passages in Hebrews. Reading all these passages create a fear in me that God may choose to harden my heart as well, or suddenly punish me one day or make me “an object of his wrath — prepared for destruction” (Romans 9) – for I know that there are still dark sides in my heart, that I am far from perfect, and not obedient all the time. I really fear that I might get lost or loose my faith one day, that God chooses to do so because of my sins & doubts.

In this regard, I thought about Judas a lot. Did he ever had a chance? Was he meant to get lost since the day of his birth?  And finally, how do I know I am a “real believer” and do not have to fear Jesus warnings in Matthew 7?

I am often telling myself Bible verses that speak of Gods love and that I do not have a Spirit of fear. I also think of your words that fear never does make anyone holy. I talked to some Christian friends about my fears and they said that we will never understand God completely and that I just have to trust & obey him. They said that “nobody can take me out of His hand”, but I wonder, is that true? What about my doubts and sins – can they not take me out of His hand?  I am really trying to learn to trust God but whenever I think of those passages I feel discouraged and fearful. These fears make me doubt God and in the end, I do not only feel awful because of my fears, but also because of my doubts, which in turn increase the fear again that God leaves me/hardens me because of my doubts, and thus, this becomes an endless circle.

I am telling God about my struggles often and ask Him often to give me a trustful, fear-free heart, but obviously, it does not happen yet. I am telling myself that He is still working on me but sometimes I fail to believe that.  How can I loose my doubts and fears and trust God whole-heartedly, knowing that He will not leave me?

It’s easy to understand why these passages cause such concern. It’s just like the alcoholic father who comes home and beats his wife and kids.  He may only do it every few months, but if he does it at all, his family will live on pins and needles always afraid when he comes home that this might be the angry dad. I hate that religion has made our God look like that and creates an environment where people have to either totally trust God or be terrified of him. It isn’t honest and it causes paralyzing fear in people God simply wants to invite to know him better as he teaches them how to live in his love and grow in their trust.

Here’s what I wrote back to this young woman.  Perhaps it will be helpful to others of you as well:

There are many more passages (even in the Old Testament) about God’s “lovingkindness is better than life”, where his faithfulness is great, and where his love endures forever.  You’re pulling out the most extreme circumstances and applying them in ways they were not meant to. Of course it would take a while to drill down into all of those stories and explain what’s really going on there as a loving Father is trying to keep creation from falling into complete darkness and preserving his work of redemption in the world. His actions in these moments are like a surgeon removing a cancer that will spread, than an abusive dad blowing up in his anger. I recorded a video series (8 hours +) to help people work through all of this.  I know that is a lot of time, but it is at least free.  It’s called The Jesus Lens and seeks to help people interpret passages like these through the eyes of Jesus.  It will help, but I realize it will take some time.

Part of the problem may be that you feel as if you must trust God whole-heartedly and never have doubt.  Wouldn’t that be awesome?  But it is also unrealistic.  God wins us into ever-deepening layers of trust as we grow more secure in his love. Jesus is the “author and finisher” of our faith, because we can’t do it on our own.  We all have doubts and God does not reject us for it.  Instead he wants to be invited into our doubts, where we can pray, “What is it about your love God, that if I understood it, I would not have this doubt.”  This is a journey out of fear and doubt into love and trust.  It is a lifetime journey. You can relax in this process as he teaches you.  Look at Jesus’ patience with the disciples when they kept misunderstanding what he was about.  He gently kept inviting them in closer so they could relax in his love.

Don’t try to completely trust him.  Just trust him today as much as you can. Be honest about your doubts and know that he sees you as his beloved daughter and he wants to teach you how to respond to his love and grow in trust.

I don’t believe Judas was condemned at birth.  God might have known the choices he mad,e but he was not forced int to hem. Scripture makes clear that God always responds to the slightest attempts to look to him and follow him.  Focus on those passages that demonstrate his magnificent love.  Those that provoke fear, ignore for a time. Ask God to show you what’s really going on there in his time. But know that his perfect love casts out fear.  Fear will not serve you today in any way God wants access to your life.  Fear drives us from him not toward him.  He doesn’t need it.  You don’t need it.  Your heart is his or you wouldn’t write the things you write here.

How will you know?  Look to him. Watch how Jesus treats the people around him, especially those who are struggling to believe him. Listen to your own heart as his Spirit lets you know how the Father feels about you. You don’t have to trust what others say, or sort through competing conclusions from Scripture. Simply knowing him will make it absolutely clear to you.

I pray you will have the freedom to relax in his love. Walk in it where you see it today. Let the passages you do understand shape your heart, and put those you don’t understand on a shelf until God makes them clear to you.  Do so again tomorrow and you’ll find your freedom growing.

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16 Comments
  1. david h February 10, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    Refreshing to have a discussion on these matters instead of dotting it’s on a doctrine

  2. sylvia collins February 10, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Wayne,
    Regarding todays “When Scripture terrifies me”…I do see what Jesus says about fearing the one that can throw both body and soul into hell and then he basically turns toward his fathers caring even for birds and we need not fear. But what about so many verses that speak of God wanting us to fear him. in OT where he says to Israel ” Oh if only they would fear me etc… Books like Jerry Bridges and others where fear is a positive thing? Could you respond

    • Wayne Jacobsen February 11, 2016 at 1:58 pm

      Sylvia, many scholars believe that the “one” who throws body and soul into hell is the devil, not the Father. I’m convinced it is not the Father but we’re not sure exactly who he is referring to. It could even be us, who have the power to go towards the light or toward darkness. God is the rescuer in the story, not the destroyer. Fear was a positive thing before Christ died to remove our sin and shame. Until then all God had to hold sin in check was our fear, and it was not fear he wanted; it was love. But before the cross we couldn’t respond to the Holy out of love, we were too overwhelmed by our own sin. I said it like this in HE LOVES ME, “If you don’t love God you would be well-served to fear him. Once you learn to live in his love you’ll have no reason to fear him again.” As John writes, “Perfect love casts out fear…” The goal of the gospel is to invite us into a transforming relationships built on the love of the Father and that will invite us into his holiness, because love fulfills the whole law. (Galatians 5) Consider listening to The Jesus Lens to help you sort through all of this.

      • David February 13, 2016 at 5:01 pm

        Maybe references to fear God is intended to bring people to faith and trust. Fear can help get a person moving in the right direction initially( for example-don’t take drugs, they will kill you.), but God wants a loving relationship, not a fearful one.

  3. Jeremy February 11, 2016 at 2:43 am

    Such a wonderfully wise and helpful approach. Thank you so much for this.

  4. Geoff Reed February 11, 2016 at 7:48 am

    Had to comment on this as I read something of great help lately which enabled me to handle a lot of what I cannot fully understand in the Old Testament. We must remember that what we are trying to understand is looking at a shadow, a shadow falls really short of seeing the reality as we cannot tell the substance in what that shadow depicts. Praise God though we now have Jesus the real thing, one we could handle and know His heart. Heb 1v3 Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being. Col 1v15 If you have seen Jesus you have seen the Father. Like you have said Wayne we have to look at things through the Jesus lens. Amen!

  5. Joan February 11, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Perhaps she should listen to the lecture on your website called, “What do I do with scriptures that make God scary?” http://www.lifestream.org/what-do-i-do-with-scriptures-that-make-god-scary-57-minutes/

    I know I have felt similar fears as she does and listening to it has helped me understand more fully. God’s grace is bigger than any irrational fear. Understanding God’s perfect love for us does cast out fear. Understanding you are “Included” from before the beginning of time… brings peace.

  6. Lew the kook February 11, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Help me out here… I am struggling… As I finish my read(s) of the bible, I end up with the Book of Revelation, the summation of the age, and some straight up gnarly stuff coming down on people who held out against God… So, with the Jesus Lens in place in my dealings with Moses and all that, I still end up before a wrath-capable, “all consuming fire” style Deity by the end of the story. am I alone in my conclusion that God is truly fearsome?

    • Wayne Jacobsen February 11, 2016 at 2:03 pm

      Lew, he is truly fearsome to those who do not know him and refuse the redemption he offers. Wrath is “the full weight of God’s being brought against that which destroys the object of his affection.” It is the chemotherapy that cures the world of sin and recreates a new heave and new earth. Yes, it is coming at the end of the age, to bring this age to conclusion, purify all of creation, heaven and earth, and usher in a new age where God is all in all and there is no more suffering, sin, or death. We who know him are completely safe from that wrath. Jesus already endured the cure for us, so in him we are now immune from the wrath to come. God is not fearsome in the sense you mean it, but his nature is fearsome to those who resist him. It’s not HIS desire to be fearsome. He’s just working his redemption in a very broken world. Jesus demonstrated that. That’s what the Incarnation was all about.

      • Lew February 22, 2016 at 7:07 am

        Oh thank you for such a gracious and kind response. It is so helpful to hear a context within which to put all the gnarly, scary, objectively “in scripture” and “definitely part of the story” stuff we are reading…
        yes. It is all real. But in Jesus, we find Rescue, Shelter, and Safety… I guess that’s what was behind Peter crying out “Save yourselves from this perverse and crooked generation” and thousands come and receive the Spirit and begin their journey with true communion with God, instead of fearful law-keeping.
        So it is all “There”, though. The capacity to overthrow the whole natural order, to destroy nations, to bring calamity… Reading that in scripture, I don’t have to perform an “-ectomy”? I can incorporate/integrate the overt teaching and example of God as “fearsome” or “terrifying” into the revelation that God is truly Love, and that he is in Love with me, and that Jesus is the proof…
        So if I get scared, I can just bury my face in the chest of Jesus, because I’m not a Judas. I’m a John… John was a tight-clinger. I’m a David. David was a sword swinger, but he was tight in communion with the fearsome God… And he ended up fearless…
        So I guess what we’re chipping away at is that Jesus brings us THROUGH the fear, into fearless, son and daughter hood.
        I love you dude. Wish I could kiss yer face.

    • Joan February 16, 2016 at 11:21 am

      Steve McVey (GraceWalk) who wrote a great book called,” Beyond an Angry God”, says there are other translations for “wrath.” One is “intense movement or agitation of the soul, impulse, desire, any violent emotion.” Greek for wrath is “orge” from which we get the word “orgasim” or “orgie.” McVey says wrath can mean “intense violent love…” I thought his book helped me in this area of “angry God.”

  7. kent February 14, 2016 at 6:10 am

    If one were to choose to “use” the bible to find god, it would be wise to ignore the parts (even if only for a time) that don’t line up with love, but let’s be honest, we cannot come to this conclusion without already having decided that god is love…maybe the problem is that we have taken something that is heart-based knowledge (knowing god/love) and have tried to use the mind to arrive there…this approach leaves us dependent on having the right information and the right worldview (lens) to interpret this information with…which in itself is a quest that leads us all to doubt and fear…would god use such a flawed system (the mind) to reach out to us? Maybe knowing god happens through a different portal than the mind…and then the mind can be renewed.

    • Wayne Jacobsen February 14, 2016 at 12:29 pm

      That may be true for a lot of people, Kent, but it wasn’t for me. This Scriptures engaged both my heart and my mind and showed be a better Father than the Bible scholars teaching me seemed to know. It made me keep looking until I found that connection that has transformed my life ever since. The Bible can certainly be twisted into a performance manual for a demanding God, or it can be seen for what it is, the story of a relentless, loving Father finding his way through human shame and history to let us know we are deeply loved and can trust him even in the midst of this broken world.

      • kent February 14, 2016 at 10:45 pm

        hey wayne, i don’t doubt that god can use the bible, or any means for that matter, to reach out to us…I guess what i am reacting against is how insidiously one’s worldview skews everything he/she interprets with his/her mind. I have seen it in myself and others, and I have come to realize that what looks like obvious truth to me may not appear the same to others. In fact, since my worldview has changed, I look back at what I used to believe, and I can’t even make sense of it anymore. As for how a worldview changes I am still trying to figure that out. Maybe epistemologists have this figured out, but the whole process has made me distrustful of the mind’s ability to know truth because of the ability of my worldview to “bend” my interpretation of everything…this is why I have looked for another portal of communication with Father…one that is not influenced by worldview (heart). Unfortunately, i have to use my worldview in order to even consider that which my heart is sensing. Strange..
        I don’t want you to think I am arguing with you…I would never doubt another person’s journey just because it hasn’t happened like mine…that would only make sense that we all don’t have the same story…

  8. Daniel February 15, 2016 at 5:28 am

    Interesting comment Kent. I’m a person who sought protection and security in my mind for many years to avoid hurt. I remain well aware of it’s limitations, and also our interest in justifying ourselves. “Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief.” I note that you focus on knowing, and not believing or trusting as Jesus highly recommended. I’d like to recommend it too, because the eventual results surpass what I ever expected when I started. Be forthright with God , and I’m confident that he’ll respond.

    • kent February 15, 2016 at 8:16 pm

      hey daniel, thanks for the comment…i guess i’m having trouble putting into words what i am thinking…the knowing i am talking about is heart knowing; not mental knowing. in fact, my point is that since we have lenses in place that focus our minds in ways that only allow us to see things that fit with our worldview, the mental knowing is unreliable…so i’m not looking to know god by taking in facts and interpreting them correctly ( i think this is what christianity as a whole has become). i think knowing god (love) starts in the heart and then the mind interprets what we sense…in other words knowing god starts in the heart and then the mind is renewed instead of what i used to believe which was that god revealed himself to the mind and then the heart was renewed. not sure i have cleared things up or muddied the waters…

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