And where do we find such wisdom? The writer of Proverbs tells us: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).
So to get wisdom, we need to fear the Lord. Yet when we talk about “fear of the Lord,” we risk two extremes. The first is to water down “fear” until it means only respect. At the other end is to envision an outraged God looking to wind up and zap us. Yet fearing God is not being frightened of Him. In fact Moses made a distinction between the two when he told the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (Exod. 20:20).
In Pharaoh’s day fear of the Lord kept the midwives from killing Hebrew babies, even though it meant endangering the women’s own lives to do so. The virgin Mary said that through her God would show His mercy to generations of people “who fear him.” Luke, in his Gospel, recorded that Jesus’ miracles brought fear to the people. Later he wrote that the church “was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). So apparently the fear of the Lord can coexist with encouragement.
We tend to think of fear as a bad thing. Yet fear of grizzlies prevents tourists from hand-feeding bears in Yellowstone Park. And fear of water keeps a three-year-old from jumping into a six-foot-deep pool. (Or hopefully it does!) Fear of a heart attack has motivated many of us to drag ourselves out of bed to head for the gym. In such cases fear can be a lifesaver.
In Annie Dillard’s observation relating to the fear of God she wrote, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
Add to respect a good amount of awe and trembling in the face of God’s mighty power and we’re closer to what the biblical writers had in mind. Fear of God means we have enough of such awe and trembling that it changes what we do for the better. The One who makes volcanoes spew liquid flames and waves crash cares about what we do and think. So when He talks, we’d best listen.
Do you want to be wise? Start by asking yourself two questions. How well do you know the Holy One? How great is your fear of the Almighty?