top of page

Whitewashed Churches and the Mystery of Loving and Fearing God

Love God, says one. Fear him, says another. Which is right?

Perhaps the question is, Which comes first? We are accustomed to hearing that we should begin with the fear of the Lord. It is, after all, ‘the beginning of wisdom’. And so we tell people about God’s power and his sovereignty, about his holiness and justice. We talk about judgment and wrath and fill people’s hearts with fear. And just when they are gripped with sufficient terror so as to ask what they must do to be saved, we tell them of God’ s great love, about how He came to give His life for them, and how He wants them to be His children. We can hardly blame people for not being too eager to be adopted by such a capriciuous father!

Some Christians are so ashamed of this picture of God– even though it is so obviously a caricature– that they wish to never speak of fearing God. God is all sugar and spice and everything nice. God affirms everything about you; He celebrates you and validates you, and encourages you to follow your dreams. He may even make a few of them come true. (There are versions of this ‘God’ in both the prosperity gospel and in the progressive one—an unlikely parallel I’ll explore more some other day.)

But this view will not do either. C. S. Lewis wrote, in a letter to a friend, that if we never ‘fled from His presence’, then we should suspect those moments when we seemed to delight in His presence ‘of being wish-fulfillment dreams’. If nothing in God makes us even a little afraid, then we are not yet in awe of Him, not yet recognizing Him to be totally ‘other’. Lewis goes on:

‘…nothing which is at all times and in every way agreeable to us can have objective reality. It is the very nature of the real that it should have sharp corners and rough edges, that it should be resistant, should be itself. Dream-furnitue is the only kind on which you never stub your toes or bang your knee.’

This notion of the ‘hardness’ of real things is beautifully depicted in ‘The Great Divorce’, a book written as a response of sorts to Blake’s poetic proposal of the marriage of heaven and hell. There must be something to fear about God in order not to make Him out to be a tame lion, a safe God crafted in our image and not ‘wholly other’. And yet, servile fear cannot be the basis of any truly Christian action, not even worship or obedience.

The Reformers knew that the best motivation for any sort of action was not fear, but love. Cranmer, the English Reformer, famously said that ‘What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.’ Like Augustine, Cranmer believed that righteousness was a matter of loving rightly, not simply acting rightly. If behavior is the point, any motivation will do. But if love is the hinge on which all the law hangs, then any preaching or singing or painting about God must begin by awakening the heart to love Him.

See the picture above? It was taken from a chapel in Stratford-Upon-Avon in England, Shakespeare’s hometown. The painting above has been washed over with white centuries ago. Then, in a more recent attempt to recover the art, the paint was removed to reveal the traces of the picture. This is a depiction of how it might have looked originally:

Paintings like this one were common in Medieval churches. They showed what a Christian should do—pray, give, serve, and so on. And if he or she didn’t, judgment awaited. (This all sounds strikingly like my Pentecostal childhood experience in church, but that too is a story for another day!) The English monarchs, Henry VIII and his son Edward the VI wanted the country scrubbed of Catholic trimmings, and these paintings were among the first to go. Stark white walls replaced beautiful art in churches from towns to countrysides. While there certainly may have been political motivations, there were not aesthetic ones. It wasn’t that they hated art or preferred whitewashed walls to intricate painting. In fact, the main motivations were, arguably, theological.

I heard Ashley Null—renown Cranmer scholar—give a lecture about how the English Reformers painted over these pictures because they didn’t want people to walk into church motivated by fear. Cranmer, Null argues, thought allurement not judgment was how God called people to Himself in Christ Jesus. God wants to woo us, not threaten us. After all, the best way to awaken a heart to love, is to let it be loved.

Though the walls remained white—it is not easy to find an artist to quickly create new masterpieces—emotions were not left unengaged. Beautiful words were the paint of choice. One of Cranmer’s ‘innovations’ in the liturgy was ‘The Comfortable Words’. Null explains that the the four selections—two from the Gospels, two from the Epistles—move from human longing to Divine longing, and then from the human condition to Divine redemption. Here they are:

Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.

COME unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (St. Matt. xi. 28.)

So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (St. John iii. 16.)

Hear also what Saint Paul saith. This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim. i. 15.)

Hear also what Saint John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins. (1 St. John ii. 1, 2.)

After which the priest would say, Lift up your hearts. The people would reply, ‘We lift them up unto the Lord.’ The priest would call again, ‘Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.’ And the people would give God thanks right there and then. The only response to such love is to lift up our hearts in thanksgiving and worship.

To fear God or to love Him? Certainly it is both. But the love of God is where we begin and end. Lewis sums it up: ‘The soul that has once been waked, or stung, or uplifted by the desire of God, will inevitably (I think) awake to the fear of losing Him.’ It is the very love of God’s presence that makes us fear His absence.

Thank God it is His love that ensures that nothing—on earth or in heaven, in the present or future—can separate us from Him!

3 views0 comments


bottom of page