When I first sketched it out on graph paper, my flower garden was a neat and tidy thing: symmetrical, structured, basking in full (albeit imagined) sun. There were perfect little squares for zinnias, perfect little squares for dahlias, and a whole row of perfect squares for lilies. On paper, I edged the entire garden with smooth stepping stones. Each stone was settled in its own perfect square, and each square led directly to the next. I did not give my paper garden squares for weeds or squares for the groundhogs who love to eat dahlias. My children would help me weed. My cats would chase away the groundhogs.
In earliest spring my garden still resembled that paper plan, but any vision of neat grids and perfect squares was soon blurred, then completely obliterated by the living garden. Zinnias flopped onto the roses. Dahlias defied the sticks and twine I used to cage them. And a giant Norway maple cast shade onto one quarter of the plot, stunting growth and undermining my hopes for perfect symmetry. Between the weeds the children failed to pull and the floppy flowers I failed to trim, the stepping stones disappeared entirely, though I still managed to find one or two from memory.
And the groundhogs? Every morning for weeks, I woke to find one more dahlia brought low for a nighttime buffet.
For a long while, my spiritual life was a neat and tidy thing, too. In this interior landscape, every hard question had its corresponding easy answer, which encircled my soul like stepping stones. I went round and round on those answers, feeling safe and confident. But if we walk with God long enough, some of our questions will defy the sticks and twine we use to cage them. Some easy answers will go missing beneath the weeds, the drifting leaves, or the turmoil of a sin-soaked world. I was sometimes uneasy imagining new questions for which I had not yet prepared an answer, but it is the old questions that have proven to be the wildest, perhaps because they have the deepest roots. And no questions are older than the questions that first echoed in Eden after Adam and Eve rejected God’s good way.
But if we walk with God long enough, some of our questions will defy the sticks and twine we use to cage them.
Where are you? God asked Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:9).
Where are you? God asks me and you.
I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself, Adam said (Gen. 3:10).
And where am I? I have hidden myself away among these familiar answers and known paths because I am afraid. The weeds of my own persistent shortcomings have spread, and I have heard the howls of hungry animals just beyond the stepping stones. Stealing, killing, and destroying, their deeds fill newspaper headlines day by day (John 10:10). I feel threatened by the evil of a world that has turned its back on love, but I also feel implicated in it.
I am afraid of what lurks in the world. I am afraid of what lurks in my heart.
But I have recently discovered something else: I am afraid of God, too.
I have only to imagine some terrible loss or some awful disappointment to recognize that what I feel is not awe. I am afraid.
Is it possible to fear God and to love Him? I always believed this was an easy question, and in the first springtime of our faith, we need ready answers. They are our stepping stones, and I walked firmly on the knowledge that fear of God is not like other kinds of fear. It is a kind of awe. Yet the day comes when we cannot find that familiar solid ground. Our foot hovers in air, and we tremble to remember that “the Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6). He is God of the killing frost as well as the God of spring. I have only to imagine some terrible loss or some awful disappointment to recognize that what I feel is not awe. I am afraid.
Can we really trust Him? This world is choked with the brambles of injustice, anguish, and death, and God gives no guarantee that our lives won’t be touched by the same. My paper sketch was no help against hungry groundhogs, and my easy answers are no match for suffering. Like Job and David, we have questions and we have God, but we don’t necessarily have answers.
Every Eden has its crafty snake whispering questions laced with fear and doubt, but unanswered questions need not frighten us. Truth suffered and died on a cross that we might all conquer death, and Truth has invited us to walk with Him. But this requires picking up our own cross, and it is only reasonable to ask, as Jesus once did, Is there any other way? (Matt. 26:39).
I am the way, Jesus says, and that may be the only answer we absolutely need (John 14:6). Walking on easy answers can help us begin our journey, but ultimately we must step out on the Cornerstone Himself. This is a scary thing to do, and fear is precisely the right word for the experience. Fear isn’t merely a synonym for awe, as I once claimed. Standing on the Cornerstone of Christ, I have trembled to acknowledge the One who holds the power of life and death in His scarred hands. I have been painfully aware of my own weakness. I have felt both great peace and the troubling recognition that God has not promised a life without suffering.
Can we love someone we fear? I cannot love a garden snake, but, then, that snake does not love me. We love because the mighty God we do fear loved us first (1 John 4:19). We love, not because He helps us avoid death and suffering, but because His comfort is real and solid beneath our feet. And we love because we believe His assurance that all these winters are leading us to one eternal spring. I do not know what we will find beyond the perceived safety of our garden gates, but I know every stepping stone along this Jesus Way has been laid for us in love.
Illustration by Joe McKendry