During my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, I heard of a summer job repairing the U of M stadium, the Big House. I showed up the Monday after term ended to apply for the job. The foreman snarled that the jobs were reserved for student athletes. He grudgingly admitted I could return and try the next day since a few star athletes hadn’t yet shown up.
I returned the next morning and the foreman growled, “Tomorrow!” I kept showing up, and he kept chasing me off with one-word rebukes. On the eighth day, the foreman handed me a note with “Don” written on the outside and pointed me toward the Athletic Office.
Someone led me to the office of Don Canham, the Michigan Athletic Director. He had been a star athlete at Michigan. As its AD, Canham was famous for hiring Bo Schembechler, for single-handedly increasing revenues an order of magnitude, and for his shrewd business tactics.
I knocked on his door and handed him the note. As he read it, his face reddened. Finally he exploded: “Those jobs are reserved for star athletes we can’t scholarship. And you aren’t one of them! Who the [expletive deleted] do you think you are?”
And that was just the warmup; his team hadn’t taken the field yet.
I stood mute in stunned horror as he “wove a tapestry of obscenity that as far as I know, is still hanging in space over Michigan Stadium.” It would have filled the 100,000-person Big House to capacity with a poetic profanity never before witnessed therein.
I grew up in the city of Detroit. I was mugged more than a dozen times, with fists, knives, and once even with a gun. But I was never more scared than in the middle of that seething eruption. I imagined him kicking me out of university, retracting all my credits, and blacklisting me forever. I would be ostracized and shunned, an academic pariah.
As the volume of Canham’s roar diminished, I tuned back in to hear the closing phrases of his poetic, profane rant. His red complexion lessened. He even smiled. Then he stuck out his hand:
Sam, I love to see a man who faces obstacles with dogged determination. I’d pick you to be on my team any day of the week. The job is yours. Congratulations.
We associate fear with something bad, maybe evil. Young kids fear the boogeyman and thunderstorms. High schoolers fear rejection, shame, or failure. Parents fear loss of children, ill-health, diminished capacities, and mortality. We all face a spectrum of fears, from embarrassment, to loss, to death.
And anxieties paralyze us: as our lungs are squeezed, our hearts race; as we toss about in bed, nightmares rage; as our thoughts run in frenzied fever, we can’t choose what to eat for lunch.
Yet Scripture praises fear. In one of the few places Scripture reveals the longings of God’s heart, He sighs: “Oh that my people’s hearts were always inclined to fear me.” The Psalms pray, “Let all the earth fear the Lord.” Proverbs claims that wisdom begins with fear; fear of God.
We don’t fear kittens, we fear lions; because fear isn’t so much about the bad as fear is about the powerful. But we aren’t frightened of the caged lion in the zoo, we’re scared of the escaped lion in the street; because fear isn’t just about power, it’s about uncontrolled power.
And the nature of God is uncontrolled power.
Our world has dwelt in paralyzing fear this last year: fear of COVID, fear of passing it to others, fear of politics, fear of vaccination arguments, fear of the economy, and fear of the future.
The only cure for fearing the uncontrollable bad is to fear the uncontrollable good. Because when we see the Ultimate Good in the Uncontrollable God, we will never fear the world again. We know His plans are for our good, even when we cannot understand them. Or control them. Elisabeth Elliot wrote:
God is God. If He is God, He is worthy of my worship and my service. I will find rest nowhere but in His will, and that will is infinitely, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.
If I had feared God as a college student, I never would have feared Don Canham’s wrath. In fact, as I look back, it was probably my Fearsome Heavenly Father that softened that rascal’s heart; I might have even purred.