Proverbs famously says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. Old time fire and brimstone preachers said this meant we were to live in fear of the coming judgment. Others, pointing to the finished work of Christ said that we need not fear judgment and that this verse was simply saying that we needed to have an attitude of reverence towards God. Or it was fear like a child has of their parents. But the word used is fear, not reverence and using fear to control children is rapidly falling out of favor.
I have come to my own understanding of this verse. I think that fear of God comes from really knowing that God does not respect our limits. This is a God who created a world of predators and prey. This is a God who made a world with mosquitoes and earthquakes. Why would God create a world like this? A lot of people embrace some version of religion which denies that God did create a world like this. All of this unpleasantness was created as the result of sin. Yet, the only remotely scriptural evidence for this is one of creation groaning which can refer to things like environmental damage done by humans. And science makes it clear that these harbingers of pain and suffering are not new or temporary. This is a world which from the beginning has necessarily come with pain and suffering. We may be heading to a place with no more tears, but it is pure speculation to think that we came from a place with no pain or suffering. It is inseparable from the created world. Even elephants mourn over their dead. (I wrote a bit about my views of original sin and the fall here: Original Sin Gets a Bad Rap.)
All in all, any promise of physical safety or material prosperity or even respectability while following God is contradicted by all of creation including scriptures and the lives of great men and women of God who went before us. Which is not to say that those who have safety, prosperity or respectability aren’t following God and those who don’t are. Because that’s just it: we don’t know. Jesus was a poor, homeless, uncredentialed, hunted man who died as a naked criminal headed for Gee Henna, the local garbage dump he pointed to in order to illustrate spiritual torment. If God can redeem that, he can redeem whatever I have going on in my world as well. Which is both hopeful and fearful. Because if it can be redeemed, God will allow it to be. It’s not that it’s His desire for us. His desire for us is that we be redeemed and living in unity with God and each other. It’s a process and a journey we all must walk and God will use whatever comes our way to draw us closer and closer to him.
And that’s why we are afraid: when we set out to follow Jesus – the word made flesh – we are tactically agreeing to forgo whatever protection from suffering we have assumed ourselves to be operating under. Anything is possible. We have been told that God is good and we believe it or we would never agree to undertake such a journey. But we are following in the footsteps of a man who suffered all manner of deprivation, hostility and violence. We are moving closer and closer to a God who make a world where life starts and can be destroyed by bacteria. So we are afraid. Not because God is not good or trustworthy to lead us through whatever comes our way, but because we are so far away from Him and our faith hardly seems strong enough to make the journey.
In reality, we never were protected from much of anything anyways. That’s an illusion we hold onto when we’re relying on the things of this world to keep us safe: our money, our good choices, our education and relationships and good reputation. The beginning of wisdom is really when we can say to God: “it’s all yours and if it is taken from me, I will survive because I will still have you.” It’s turning from illusion to reality and reality is more than a little frightening. Reality is that good people get sick, lose jobs, are victims of circumstance. (Mark Buchanan does an excellent job exploring this theme in his book Your God is Too Safe.)
But this fear is just the beginning of wisdom. It is my hope that if I continue to follow the ways of wisdom the fear will completely go away, but I’m not quite there yet. I still yearn for protection and provision according to my own desire for comfort and ease. I am hardly sanguine about the difficulties I am now facing and it does scare me to know that I have no guarantees that it won’t get worse. Yet scripture also says that perfect love casts out all fear. As low as I get, faith keeps piping up to keep me going and God has been faithful to keep me from being lost to him even in the darkest nights.
But if fear is just the beginning of wisdom, the end of wisdom is surely this:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. ~ Romans 8:38-39
Which means that if it should ever come to pass – through bad choices or circumstance or sins both by and against us that we lose everything we have ever depended on, God will still be enough. The day will come when we will be able to praise and thank him for every trial because it has been worked to produce something more wonderful than we had ever imagined possible. One day I hope to be able to look at a great trial and be awed to realize that God would see fit to offer me a reward that’s even bigger than the trial before me. But for that I will need all the wisdom I can get. So I keep turning into the fear to seek God in lowly and uncomfortable places. It’s what we are told to do:
Get wisdom, get understanding . . . Do not forsake wisdom and she will protect you; love her and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding. ~ Psalm 4:5,6-7