Appropriate Fear

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If you have a desire to experience the world’s most violent weather, Oklahoma is the place for you.

As journalist Michael Lewis notes in his book The Coming Storm, the National Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK is “about as perfectly situated as an institution can be.” 

Masses of warm air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico routinely collide with cold fronts sweeping down from the Rockies.  The result, especially during the spring, are tornadoes – the largest of which pack more punch than nuclear weapons.  Texas annually sees more tornadoes than Oklahoma, but the Sooner State’s twisters are crowded into only one-fourth of the real estate. 

Tornadoes aren’t just destructive.  They’re literally unpredictable.  

Hurricanes, which are immensely larger, can be anticipated days in advance.  Satellites and ever-improving ground-based technologies have helped meteorologists pinpoint when and where ocean-going storms will make landfall, and how high the storm surge is likely to be. 

Tornadoes are different.  The National Weather Service may have a general sense that a particular day might produce a cyclonic outbreak.  But no one has yet been able to specifically predict where a dangerous storm might strike, and whether it will produce one small funnel or a dozen gigantic ones. 

Residents of Oklahoma must surely live in a constant state of dread.

Curiously, however, that’s not the case. 

As Lewis points out, millions of people who live and work in America’s tornadic “strike zone” have concluded that the next killer twister will probably hit somebody else’s house. 

True, the level of risk for Death by Tornado is small.  But it’s not zero.  Oklahomans, when asked, say they feel secure for a number of fascinating reasons. 

Some people claim that tornadoes always follow highways – and they’re in good shape because they don’t live near a highway.  Others feel confident because tornadoes have never struck their local Indian burial grounds.  Still others point out that funnels seem to dissipate before crossing a particular river.  Those on the east side of large communities feel better than those who live on the west side because twisters usually come from the west.  East-siders assume they will be protected by tall downtown buildings.

Meteorologists are quick to point out that tornadoes couldn’t care less about interstates, cemeteries, and skyscrapers. 

When it comes to rapid cloud rotation, the real action is determined by conditions in the atmosphere, not by whatever happens to be on the ground. 

Nevertheless, the residents of the small community of Moore, Oklahoma, which is just south of Oklahoma City, can be forgiven for thinking they live in a tornado magnet.  A mile-wide vortex crashed into the town on May 3, 1999, killing 36 people and injuring hundreds of others.  It was an F5 on the Fujita Scale – a storm capable of producing “incredible damage.”  Gusts that day exceeded 302 mph, the fastest winds ever recorded on earth.  On May 20, 2013, another F5 came through town, claiming another 26 lives – including seven children sheltering inside a school.  In between those two mega-storms, Moore was struck by four other tornadoes.   

It’s no surprise that Moore is the only town in Oklahoma that has adopted building codes to withstand future storms.

Residents of other communities seem to have concluded they don’t need to worry all that much when they hear tornado warning sirens.  After all, as Lewis observes, their houses have never been hit before.  Therefore their houses feel like safe havens.  “It probably won’t happen to us.  It may happen again to poor Moore.  But we’ll be OK.”

What’s the most urgent need in a tornado-prone state like Oklahoma?  It’s not terror or paralysis, but an appropriate fear – a deep-seated respect for weather service warnings that will lead people to make wise choices that may well save their lives. 

The same thing is true when it comes to our physical well-being. 

Doctors assure us that we will live longer and healthier lives if we subscribe to two Do’s and two Don’tsDo exercise more often.  Do eat more fruits and vegetables.  Don’t smoke.  And don’t drink alcohol in excess. 

We know such counsel by heart.  But the storms of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes will probably hit somebody else – or so the magical thinking goes. 

What’s the most urgent need regarding our physical health?  It’s not terror or paralysis – it really is OK to eat the occasional double cheeseburger – but an appropriate fear.  We need to cultivate a deep-seated respect for medical science that will lead us to make wise choices concerning our own bodies.  

Then there’s that other reality – the future event that has a 100% probability of happening to every one of us.     

We’re all going to die. 

Barring the imminent return of Christ, there’s no chance that any of us is going to get out of this place alive.   

We know that’s a true statement.  And we regularly receive reminders that it’s true – sometimes even dramatic “warning sirens.”  But mostly we live as if death is something that will happen to other people, but not to us.  At least not today. 

Since each of our lives has an expiration date, and one day we will have to give an account of ourselves to God, what’s the need of the hour?

The Bible’s answer may surprise you.  It’s fear – an appropriate fear – a deep-seated respect for God that will lead us to make wise decisions concerning the conduct of our lives.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10)

It’s amazing that Scripture never once tells us to fear the devil.  We are not to fear evil.  There is no need to fear death.  Jesus tells us not to be afraid of people who are seriously intent on harming us. (Matthew 10:26-31) 

But spiritual health is all about cultivating an appropriate fear of God.  That’s not to be confused with spiritual paralysis or a sense of servile terror.  “Fearing God” means choosing to take God seriously – embracing with joy his promises of mercy and grace, even while heeding his warnings when we’re tempted to succumb to disastrous choices. 

To paraphrase Augustine, the early church’s first great theologian, life really comes down to just two choices:  We can either fear God or fear everything else

That’s a wonderful thing to remember on sunny days.

Not to mention when there are storm clouds on the horizon.