Sunday, May 2, 2010

Fear and God II: Does Fear Beget Wisdom?

"Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom...."

How often does the bible juxtapose wisdom, holiness, and the general good with fear? In particular, fear of God? What exactly does that mean?  Many of the biblical references are clearly meaning fear of God’s judgment, retribution, and punishment for sin or wrongdoing. When we “put the fear of God into” someone, in our English idiom, do we not mean that we inspired that person to “follow the straight and narrow path” of right action for fear of otherwise incurring “the wrath of God”? Is there a reasonable interpretation of “fear of God” other than living in terror that by some action we might incite the vengeful deity to send a lightning bolt our way?

As a child, I understood fear.  Deeply, experientially, from the depths of my soul, I understood fear.  Nightmares and anticipation of nightmares kept me from sleeping, panic attacks and constant anxiety during the day.  Fear of social or academic missteps at school, fear of being seen by Dad’s parishioners as less than perfect, fear of God noticing the anger I harbored in my heart against being condemned from the moment of my conception.  I lived constantly in a state of hyper-vigilance against my inherent wickedness.  Always in a state of fight-or-flight terror without being able either to fight (against whom? Was I to take on God himself?) or flee (where could I go? To the ends of the earth, God will follow me).  I understood these questions from a very early age, even if I could not articulate them.

If fear is the beginning of wisdom, I should have been the wisest person on the face of the earth. As clearly as I knew I was afraid, I knew that I was not wise. Again this enormous dichotomy between what I knew and what I was taught.  Is it any wonder that I could not reconcile the Christian God with a Divine Love?

Later, in my teenage years, I suspect when the New International Version was reissued and the new word reverence replaced fear in many verses, a church teacher told me that the whole idea was not fear that begat wisdom but respect.  It made a lot of sense at the time but now I’m not so sure that the replacement was merited.  Often the context of the phrase “fear of the Lord” is clearly describing a sense of dread, a concern over punishment, a turning away from wrongdoing—perhaps these connotations can be related to respect but the more obvious word to use would be fear

Regardless of whether the original writers of all those fear verses intended to promote actual fear or respect, I still carry the scars on my psyche from our usual understanding of “fear of the Lord” and if those scars led to the development of any wisdom I now possess, it was much too high a price to pay.  


  1. As one tormented by fear most of her young life, I completely relate to this! The way I've come to understand the fear of the Lord now is 100 % wrapped up in trusting His love. A bad analogy are our authorities: if we break the law, they can and will prosecute, but if we abide by the law, they help protect us from criminals. I say this is a bad analogy because they are not perfect and don't love us. But understanding what the law does, what it's capable of, and how we are at it's mercy is akin in a very small, fractured way to understanding God. Which as it says, is the beginning of wisdom.

  2. Thanks for helping me understand, just a little, what being a pastor's child is really like.

    As always, I define words my own way,though I am told over and over that I CAN NOT do this, in fact I both can and do. =)

    I really had no concept of the words before the day God invaded my space with his reality when I was nineteen. I did have a concept of God, just not of those words. Whatever. That pretty much sums up how much thought I put into it.

    Since then, I guess I mean the feeling I get when I know something would displease the authority, sort of like the feeling I would have as a very small child when I would say "oh, you're not supposed to do/say/have that! I'm telling!"

    I guess it means instinctively or otherwise knowing that this word/action/thing would not please Abba, and I do so want to please Abba that it is to be avoided.

    But maybe it's more like I know it is completely contrary to Abba's nature, and therefore should be avoided because of my attraction to and affection for Abba and all He is.

    Is that respect?

  3. Equating (admittedly badly) God-fearing with law-abiding speaks to a different point, I think. I don't believe that our laws and statutes protect me all that much unless there's a police officer willing to stand guard at my house and escort me to and fro--there's not that much deterrent for crime in legislation. What the law provides for me, and it's no little thing, is recourse for justice when my person or property is abused.

    While God may also be Justice, and I believe he is, my appreciation and respect for that Justice is not what I perceive is meant in the many passage that discuss "fear of the Lord".

    But the fact that this phrase has so taken Western Civilization for generations indicates that it has deeply resonated in our cultural psyche. I am still looking for how it touches so many people in a positive way that reconciles biblical, psychological, and social context. And I wonder if it is a resonance that we have outgrown and I am simply an example of that changing zeitgeist.

  4. "Thanks for helping me understand, just a little, what being a pastor's child is really like."

    Not everyone has this experience, of course; my brother and sister don't remember life at all this way. But I was the oldest and my father's ministry jobs were decreasingly upfront and public so by the time, say, my sister was old enough to be feeling the PK pressures, Dad was only a deacon or elder rather than the senior pastor.

    Additionally, and I think much more importantly, I am the only one of us kids who is highly intuitive, psychic, mystic. It is not the usual state of being for a PK to be psychic and dealing with trying to deny, ignore, or integrate those experiences with fundy Christian teachings. I am working on another post that explores this source of my fears.

    But yeah, much pressure to perform as a PK. Perfectionist, peformance-based, uber-legalism, appearance of godliness--that IS the lot of every PK I've ever met, though many of them discount the effects of those pressures.

  5. While we slept last night, our truck was broken into and many thousands of dollars-worth of my husband's work tools were stolen. Fear of the Law, whether that means fear of punitive retribution or respecting the moral code, did not stop our property from assault. We were abiding in our own house, fully in accordance with all the laws of the land, but our own obedience to the Law did nothing to protect our property nor is there any reasonable hope of recovering what was stolen. I can respect the Law all I want but there is no wisdom, protection, nor even much Justice forthcoming.

    Frankly, I feel an echo of the way I did as a child when realized that Fearing God's Justice did NOT lead to wisdom, eternal joy, or peace that passeth understanding. I felt betrayed by the very system that was taught to me as my protection, my path to righteousness and eternal prosperity.

    I think Hillary was closer on the mark with the idea that wisdom is begat by experiencing God's love rather than fearing his wrath. That wasn't really what she said but my extrapolation of her comment. When we experience deeply, fully, and to the depths of our soul, the absolutely unconditional love of the Divine, there is no fear--of God, of sin, of the immoral neighbor who breaks in--sadness, grief, yes; fear, defensive anger, no.

  6. I've been insanely busy the last several weeks and apologize that I've not been able to catch up like I've wanted to. How terrible about this break-in! I'm so sorry that happened!

    Yeah, my original comment is woefully inept but thank you for your grace to me. Your extrapolation is a good one. I don't fear God's wrath because I trust Him (and His love) and seek to understand Him...and His love makes me want to know Him more deeply, more fully like you said. For me, fear as in being afraid is different than fear as in reverence / respect / recognizing that I am a wee one, but He is great; that I have a finite mind but His is infinite. That I see only this present moment, but He sees all the moments that ever will be. And in this knowing and reverence I can be at peace, at sanctuary.

  7. Well, the upside to the theft is that my husband gets to go tool-shopping, which is one of his favorite pastimes, and all on the company dime. Still, it sucks to think that one of my neighbors has so little respect for personal property... okay, I'm not going there.

    I think you are absolutely correct in the idea that trusting in/experiencing the Love of God is the antidote to being afraid.The more one can experience the Love, the less one is afraid.

    And I'm coming to see that there is a kind of continuum between fear (afraid), awe, reverence, respect, admiration, trust, love along which the boundaries between states are rather porous. So I can kinda get how "fear of the Lord" (as an isolated phrase out of its scriptural context) could be associated with the "trust in the love of God".

    But I still have trouble reconciling "fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom" in the contexts where the phrase actually comes up in the Bible--they seem so obviously about fear (being afraid) of punishment or retribution. I guess it is something I'm just going to have to let percolate on the back burner. For now it is enough to have recognized how huge an issue Being Afraid has been for me and to begin letting it go.