When Mercy Begets Fear

Lady Reading BibleI came across a Bible Study I’d done five years ago today. I enjoyed being reminded of what God showed me that day so much that I’ve decided to share those insights with you. Back then, I had been studying the book of Genesis, and I’d discovered that Chapter 20 is jam-packed with lessons, and a Christian could absolutely feast on them for a few days! I can’t quote the whole chapter here (at least not from the English Standard Version), but please click the following link and read the narrative:

Genesis 20

So many aspects of the situation between God, Abimelech and Abraham fascinated me, but I think writing about all of them would be totally overwhelming (and would require several blog posts). Certainly, Abimelech’s integrity impressed me, as well as God’s response to that integrity. God didn’t reward him by excusing his lustful intentions toward Sarah. Instead, He rewarded him with the opportunity to repent!
But I’m not going to focus on the graciousness of being allowed to repent today, even though the concept is beautiful. I’m more interested in verse 8, which I usually gloss over as I read this chapter. I almost missed it again when I  read it five years ago, but taking notes as I read slowed me down enough to help me pay attention to the text, so I had the blessing of seriously pondering it.
So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told all these things. And the men were very much afraid. ~~Genesis 2o:8 (ESV)

Abimelech had experienced tremendous mercy from God. The Lord, in His righteousness, could have released terrible judgement on this man (even though Abraham had indeed misled him, and did so deliberately), but He chose to exhibit mercy by permitting him to repent. When Abimelech told his household how gracious the Lord had been to him, they had a response that I would never have expected: they were “very much afraid.”

Fear in response to mercy strikes the 21st Century mind as kind of odd, doesn’t it? Rejoicing seems more appropriate to us. But then, few of us fear God under any circumstances. We use Him as a cosmic Bellboy, call Him Daddy, treat Him as a Buddy Who generally approves of whatever we do. Remarkably, we sometimes remember to thank Him for blessing us, but the idea of actually fearing Him sounds positively primitive to our post-modern sensibilities.

We forget that mercy implies the forgiveness of a debt. Debt, in turn, points to obligation to some person or institution that has power…that has authority. Abimelech’s household saw a God of mercy, and understood that His mercy indicated His authority! They knew that this God, Who had entered their lives through Abraham’s visit, imposed His moral standards on their heathen king, and could consequently hold them to His standards. Furthermore, His mercy was not to be misconstrued as permission to sin. It permitted repentance, thereby accentuating how serious sin is.

Five years later, the lesson I learned from Genesis 20:8 still convicts me. It reminds me to appreciate the repeated mercy the Lord shows me. For too many years, however, I’ve taken it for granted, and even misused it to ignore the true nature of my sin. As I praise Him now for mercifully blessing me with so many opportunities to repent, I’m filled with the beautiful fear of dishonoring Him. And I hope, by His grace, that He’ll keep me in the safety of that fear.

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