Armin and I were discussing the meaning of the biblical phrase “the fear of the Lord.” We were on the way to Atlanta airport in the early morning. Armin was driving. The conversation had started out with the news of conflict in the Middle East, Ebola – all the current issues – then moved to the topic of fear in Western culture. Were we in danger of becoming a society defined by fear? Then God snuck in. There is a well-known verse in Proverbs, 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” What sort of fear is this? Was our faith founded on fear? We discussed various aspects of God: the sense of God’s power, the infinite difference between God and humanity, the mystery of God, a being simultaneously overpowering and fascinating at the same time, the balance of justice and mercy, and so on.
Then, butterflies came to mind. For the last few days, I had been staying with my friend Armin and his family. As a present for his twins, Armin had bought a butterfly kit. It consisted of a fine mesh cage and five caterpillars. After a few days the caterpillars had spun their cocoons, and then, in due course, butterflies emerged, much to the awe and delight of the children.
I wondered, “What if we picture God as a butterfly? What does ‘the fear of the Lord’ mean in that case?” A butterfly is one of the most beautiful members of creation. Its wings can be a delicate tracery of colour. It flits, not flies. It never appears to be in a hurry as it bounces in a leisurely dance through the air. Yet somehow it manages to move from place to place. Its touch, if it lands on you, is so gentle.
What if God is like a butterfly? Gentle, beautiful, leisurely and more. G. K. Chesterton wrote “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Do butterflies take themselves lightly? Does God take Godself lightly?
How we understand the phrase “the fear of the Lord” has a lot to do with how we picture God. If God is like a distant, powerful judge or a fearsome warrior, then the phrase conjures up terror. But if God is like a butterfly, then this changes. I mentioned this to another friend who responded that, for her, the fear with a butterfly is of overlooking it, of brushing it away, of missing out on the beauty and delight of creation.
What does the phrase, “the fear of the Lord,” mean to you? How does the image of God as a butterfly change this?
I invite you to ponder these questions and then to take them further. Is your preferred image of God one that goes beyond the traditional pictures of God as warrior, judge, bearded old man? What light does that image shed on attributes like the fear of the Lord or the love of God?
We are coming up to the time of Christmas, when we are presented with another way of thinking about God – God as a child. We have become so familiar with this image that it has lost much of its force. So here’s another suggestion, one that might form the foundation of your Advent reflections as you prepare for Christmas: After warming up with butterflies and other unexpected images for God, turn again to the image of God as the infant Jesus. Put it alongside the verse from Proverbs. What light does this shed on our understanding of God? Of fear? Of knowledge? Of love?
May the joy of God’s presence delight you this Christmas.
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