Separation vs. Alienation & “the fear of God” – Brad Jersak
“Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he FEARED.”
Hebrews 5:7 KJV
My friend Lazar Puhalo recounts his memory of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on a new-fangled invention called the ‘television. It was June 2, 1953. During the coronation of this graceful and gracious 27-year-young woman, the same style of King James language used above referred to the new queen as our ‘fearful and ‘terrible sovereign, which sounds ominous indeed. And yet, those who ‘feared her with reverence and awe’ also felt a deep love for her, however solemn and reverential the occasion.
For me, that analogy was extremely helpful. So many preachers have told us to ‘fear God, fear God, fear God,’ using the threat of punishment and ultimatums of eternal fire if you don’t. But the fact is that you cannot love someone under compulsion or threat. Such ‘love’ is nothing more than a form of psychosis on the one making such demands or an obsession in the one who consents to them.
I cite the King James Version here to demonstrate the problem. Taken literally, it represents Jesus FEARING his Father. And that FEAR is the reason given as to why his Father heard him. Isn’t that weird? Do we believe that God the Son was in some way afraid of God the Father? Modern translators (such as the NIV) chose to interpret [as all translation involves interpretation] the word eulabeias, not as ‘fear’ but as ‘reverent submission.’ That, I believe, gets much closer to the author’s intent, and better matches the actual gospel narrative, especially the evangelists’ description of Jesus’ intense prayer experience in Gethsemene.
On that note, we continually need to address the ongoing confusion of Christian lingo. In this case, it helps us to distinguish the important difference between separation and alienation. So many Christ-followers continue to believe their sin literally separates them from God … as if God is so offended by sin that it might defile him. As if the righteous and holy One cannot bear to be near sinners or even look at them. In that case, it seems an overt denial of the deity of Jesus Christ, whose touch healed sinners rather than scorching them. He sat with sinners, spoke with sinners, and even dined with them. Unthinkable to the religious fundamentalists of his day.
This belief that our sin ‘separates us from God’ feeds into the central error of penal substitution: the notion that when Jesus bore the sins of the world, God the Father had to turn his back on his Son because he could not look on sin. That’s the second grave departure from the deity of Christ. It also denotes a rending of the indivisible unity of the Triune God. In each case, the problem is our delusional belief in ‘separation.’
In response, I often remind them of the words of the fourth-century desert father, Anthony, who said, “God no more turns from the sinner than the sun ceases to shine for the blind man.” So while we may turn our backs on God, our Father never ever leaves us or abandons us. There is, in that sense, no separation. There can, however, be a profound sense of alienation in the one who turns away. Alienation is the experience of fear and isolation that occurs when we embrace the delusion of separation. If you believe your sins separate you from God, you’ll feel that alienation and either run and hide (like Adam and Eve) or you’ll dive into fruitless religious striving in an attempt to overcome the alienation, or you’ll make up some doctrinal fiction about the Cross that diminishes the full deity of Christ.
As an illustration of the profound fear we experience in alienation, I remember quite clearly the first time I lost my mother in a department store—it was circa 1969 at The Bay in Winnipeg. I had wandered to the far side of a round coat rack and lost sight of her. I began to panic and made my way to the last place I had seen her. She wasn’t there. My heart began to pound and I cried out for her, “Mom? MOM?! MOM!!!!!” She immediately heard my voice and came quickly to find me. I felt the alienation of getting lost and (I supposed) separated from my mother even though she was just meters away.
Even in my childhood, I knew I could trust my mom and was secure in her love for me. I didn’t even occur to me that she had lost or left me. Even as a five-year-old, I knew it was I who had lost her. I knew she had not forgotten, forsaken, abandoned, rejected, or disowned me. I knew even then that my sense of alienation had changed nothing in the relationship. So even the idea of separation was only locational, not relational.
This illustrates for me how in our turning away from God, we do have a very real experience of alienation. I think that’s the most helpful word. But again I insist, the feeling of alienation is real while the belief in separation is a delusion. NO, when we turn from perfect Love, Love never turns from us (no abandonment, no rejection, no separation). But yes, when we turn from perfect Love, we DO experience that painful feeling of alienation. We feel that God is absent, though he is not. Paul says, “You were alienated from God and hostile in your minds” …
This delusion of separation (the belief that God is furious, or absent, or punitive) seems to be part of what we call ‘the fall.’ What happened when Adam and Eve abandoned their complete trust in God’s perfect love? They instantly fashioned a false image of God (the angry punisher) out of the dust of their shame and felt compelled to hide.
But what did God do? God came looking for them. And when they had to leave the garden, what did God do? God went with them. This is our story. We turn to go, and God goes with us. His presence is mercy to us—and that presence is everywhere and that mercy endures forever. The Cross is Christ’s repudiation of separation and the solution to our alienation—no need for appeasement, no use striving to please him. We need only turn toward the One who never turned from us.
This being the case, John the apostle does not say, “Fear Jesus Christ, your great and terrible sovereign.” He says, rather, that the Cross of Christ shows us that “God is love … and perfect love drives out fear.” Now, before such gob-smacking love, reverent submission makes perfect sense, never driving me to hide but instead, to run into his open arms!