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Asking the Question
Recently a friend and fellow retired peace officer posed a question to me that I have heard in one form or another since I began to grapple with philosophy, theology, and human nature (especially as I sat in the interrogation room many times with some of the most incorrigibly inveterate and not ‘God fearing’ people you can imagine). He asked,
“I was just reading a book that referenced ‘good God fearing men.’ As I pondered that term I wondered if I was ‘God fearing’ and I realized I'm not. I feel like I'm more ‘God appreciating.’ In my mind, the first obeys God's moral directives for fear of God's retribution. The second obeys God's moral directives out of an earnest intent to please God. It may seem a minor difference in point of view, but it seems significant to me; kind of the difference between a child who behaves for fear of being spanked or the adult who acts morally and ethically ‘because it's the right thing to do’ or ‘goodness is its own reward.’ That kind of thing.”
As I have grappled with his thoughtful question, I reflected that while he has a trenchant observation, I could not help but think it incomplete (okay, maybe not incomplete but needing to be fleshed out a little).
When folks approach me with a question, whether in the field as a chaplain, after a service on Sunday, or in other places, I often ask, “Why do you want to know?” Often our questions reveal that there is something underneath that we really want to know. Now, I won’t ascribe anything to my friend in that regard. But, for others who have asked (and for me when I have asked), it often has come down to just where do I stand with God – where do I stand with the One who put breath and heartbeat in me? This often treads on ground of who ultimately has authority in my life, and how much (if any) ‘free will’ do I really have, especially in spiritual matters.
While I can’t do justice to this these topics in this short article, my hope and prayer for you chaplains and for you peace officers is that it will pique your thought process and help you to see that not only do you need spiritual back up for the noble calling you have taken as a peace officer, but that you have it in the ultimate Peace Officer, Jesus, who in His life, death, and resurrection has taken on the ultimate bad guys of sin, death, and the devil (the retribution or wrath we deserve); and, He has reshaped what the ‘fear of God’ means (our response to His grace) for those who have Him as their back up.
Fear that is Fitting
Although, the question has us grappling with the spiritual, we know that the physical is often a picture or a manifestation of what is going on in the spiritual arena. When you go through the academy and in-service training and are brushing up on Officer Survival Skills no one says, ‘have no fear!’ No, instead we are trained that we should be attuned to that ‘fear hair’ on the back of our necks that sticks up when things ‘just aren’t right.’ This kind of fear keeps us alert and can save our lives.
Similarly, proper understanding of “The fear of the Lord” is key as we wrestle “not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world's rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
“The fear of the Lord” is often stated in the Old Testament. Translating the original Hebrew word for ‘fear’ into the English can be difficult as there is not just one English word that covers its meaning. For our contemporary ears the word fear often is thought of as negative – that is, to be afraid of something or someone. The Hebrew word can mean just that – Genesis 32:11 says, “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, and the mothers with the children.” (Here, Jacob is preparing to meet his brother Esau from whom he had fled because he had scammed Esau out of his birthright.)
Yet, this word fear can be nuanced as well. Pointing to a person of high rank or position, it takes on the notion of standing in awe – in reverence – before that individual. This is what God is after as our Creator and Redeemer. For me I ask of myself, am I treating Him with indifference or treating Him lightly – you know, as the ‘grey bearded friendly grandpa in the sky’ or as ‘Christ my buddy’ or am I giving Him His due as my Maker and the One who has freed me to live life as He sees fit?
More illustrative of a fitting “fear of the Lord” is seen in Abraham. His ‘fear hairs,’ on the back of his neck, stood up as he came into the beat in which Abimelech held sway. Abraham sensed that the king and his people were ruthless and would ambush him just to get his beautiful wife Sarah. Genesis 20:11 – “Abraham said, ‘Because I thought, 'Surely the fear of God is not in this place. They will kill me for my wife's sake.'”
The Ultimate Peace Officer – the Chief of Peace – wants us to have a healthy reverence of Him so that we respect, honor, and remember Him and His Word much like Abraham did.
On the Beat
So, where does this theological rubber hit the road of law enforcement? We who do and have done law enforcement know and appreciate authority and the need to respect it – and the one holding it. (Check out the story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s servant in Luke 7:1-11). That first century peace officer recognized authority when he saw it and gave it the accord for which it called. Jesus commended him for his great faith. Ultimately, faith (trust) is the thing He wants from His people which shows itself in respecting, honoring, and remembering Him and His Word.
As a young officer, I, like many others, kind of saw myself as “10 feet tall and bullet proof.” I was going to save the world, or at least my little corner of it. But, we know how that works out don’t we. As God’s Law confronted me, I discovered that I came up way short and I wasn’t going to save anything – in fact, I had a decided lack of spiritual survival skills. The biggest one was pride which said, “I don’t need spiritual back up.” Despite the fact that I would not hesitate to call in physical back up when needed. But, as He worked on me and my spiritual survival skills, I came to appreciate Martin Luther’s take: “The devil and his cohorts can do no worse than slay us bodily. They cannot touch our souls at all, as Christ says when He comforted His own, Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Martin Luther’s Works 43:174)
Finally, I do think God wants us to ‘appreciate’ Him. St. Paul wrote as much: “... give thanks in all circumstances ...” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) But, as we take on His spiritual back up we live “earnestly to fear God and, at the same time, to have great faith and to trust that we have a gracious God on account of Christ; to ask for and to expect with certainty help from God in all things that are to be borne in connection with our calling; and, in the meantime, diligently to do good works for others and to serve in our calling.” (Augsburg Confession: III, art. vi, par. 49)
Brothers and sisters in blue, I want to encourage you to serve in your calling with the fitting fear (of God) that will help you not only survive your shift, but your career, and this life.
Stay Safe and watch your six!
(And remember, the Devil brings a knife to God’s gunfight!)
Rev. Frank C. Ruffatto, Executive Director & Chaplain, Peace Officer Ministries, Inc.