Vividly I remember my parents, in the midst of some vacation journey, taking me as a child to see a large dam in the Ozarks (I think it was Beaver Lake Dam in Northwest Arkansas). The highway went across the top of the dam, along with a few places to park, get out, and take pictures. Of course, Dad did exactly that.
I was too short to look over the side, and I was thankful to be too short. Dad wanted to pick me up and let me look over the edge, down the sheer concrete wall to the river in the chasm below. No thank you! I yelped, bucked, and cried until he abandoned his plan and let me go. (Who would've thought that boy would earn a pilot's license?!)
It is one of my earliest recollections of fear. Mind you, my fear amounted to no judgment whatsoever regarding the moral nature of the location. I did not conclude that the White River harbored some sinister desire to slay me. Furthermore, there is no human being on the planet whom I trusted more than I trusted my Dad. I had never heard a story about boys inadvertently plummeting from dams to their demise, nor had I ever known anyone who had died after a fall from a great height. In fact, I had not yet encountered death at all, as it pertained to anyone who mattered much in my life. No statistical or experiential reason existed to justify my fear.
Yet I was afraid.
I had seen pictures of great dams before, and had watched television footage of dams in all of their immensity. None of those things made me fearful in the least. Not in the least. But here I was in the actual presence of something so much bigger than I was. Here, right beneath my feet, was power many orders of magnitude beyond such as I possessed. To be in its presence—to be so small—is to imagine dreadful possibilities and to fear.
A lifetime later, in 2002, Tracy and I celebrated 10 years of marriage by journeying to Colorado. Tourists that we were, we went to the ultimate tourist trap: Royal Gorge. Standing on that suspension bridge high above the Arkansas River, I felt fear once again, albeit with the marginal increase of courage that can come with age. The strangest thing happened, and perhaps it reveals some psychological defect in me, finally enabling those of you who are convinced that I am insane to identify precisely in what way. As I stood on the bridge and peered off into the abyss, I feared that I would jump.
I was not despondent at all—I was on a great vacation! As far as I know, I've never had a suicidal moment in my life. The thought that I would jump off of the Royal Gorge Bridge was thoroughly nonsensical. I feared it nonetheless and stepped back from the precipice.
Politicians and preachers alike speak about God. Musicians both secular and sacred make frequent reference to God. Ever and always, you can identify those for whom God is merely a concept that they have read in a book or casually absorbed from a largely theistic culture. Of their God, they are never the slightest bit afraid.
Every person who has ever truly been in His presence has trembled, not because He is evil or untrustworthy but because I am both evil and untrustworthy. Even if I live every moment of my life convinced or trying to convince others that I am not evil and untrustworthy, the moment that I am in His presence I know that I am precisely those things, and worse. Did anybody, no matter how holy, ever encounter God, or even His angels, without cowering? Aren't the first words from God in these encounters ever a statement to address the terror in God's subjects?
So I fear this God whom I know to be merciful. Entirely secure in my salvation, I am nonetheless terrified in His presence. Delighting in His presence, I fear Him still. He is not a tame lion. And yet, even while fearing that in His presence I will surely die, it is only there that I am ever surely alive.