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.