The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
I’d like to pass on one of the greatest gifts I was ever given by my spiritual mentors today. Mostly, it’s a gift I have from my father. It’s a dangerous gift; a gift that in itself is frightening, and is far less common than I believed, growing up. It is the gift of not fearing the Lord.
Of course, most Christians would say they know that the phrase “fear of the Lord” as found above and in other places in Scripture means respecting Him, not “being frightened of God.” But so many people, whether Christians, followers of other faiths, or atheists are very obviously frightened of God. And like any other fear, this leads to denial, anger, viciousness, and an obsession with safety that swallows up everything else a man or a woman is meant to be. And this places the Gospel of Christ in deadly danger.
Christians who are frightened of God are the worst witnesses that Christ can have. My father knew this instinctively, yet so many do not. And in my travels I have seen, met and heard of Christians who act as though their God is so small and so petty, that He will let their souls — yes, the souls he died for — slip through his fingers as though they were game pieces. We have in the Church Christians who are frightened of people who are gay, of people who are Democrats (yes, and of Republicans), of people who dress revealingly, of people who swear. We have people who are frightened of unbelievers, and people who are frightened, laughably, of getting a receipt that informs them they have been charged $6.66 for their fast food meal. And though this is pathetic and saddening, it is not yet damning.
What is damningly worse, is that we have Christians that are so frightened of God, that they dare not investigate their own faith, and ask questions of their own Scripture. The Bible is an ancient text (actually, the Bible is many ancient texts) written in very foreign languages to people who quite literally lived on a different planet.* It demands investigation and training to read it with wisdom. As I grew in the faith, I asked questions of my father about God and about Scripture, and I got answers. They weren’t always the answers that I wanted. They weren’t always answers that were satisfying. They weren’t always answers, I discovered when I was an adult, that I could accept. But I was never made to feel like a fool or an apostate for asking them.
What a different experience this was from that of so many of my friends who went to their parents, or teachers, or pastors, and were rebuffed, shamed, or even abused for simply having questions. Who were taught that asking a question of God was somehow tantamount to disrespect, or even heresy. Who were given no mercy for the crime of being curious children. I’ve met these people again and again and most of them have walked away from God, never looking back, because God was too frightening and too arbitrary to stay around. They found that the only safe course was to deny that God exists at all, because He was presented to them as a little tin dictator, dealing out death in return for questions. But I am not sure that they are the worst off. They may hear of Christ again, from better ministers and, having had the courage once to turn away, may find the courage to turn back again to the God who offers salvation.
What is worse than this is those who stay in the Church, frightened to death of their own God, desperately singing praise and preaching a Scripture they do not understand and dare not investigate, lest the wrath of their terrible and unforgiving God fall on them. They justly earn the mockery of the world because they don’t know their own religion as well as the people who hate that religion. They become a laughable parody of the Church: a faithful, quivering mass of followers too scared of their own God to know him as well as their enemies do. And they pass along their deadly fear of the Lord.
We must not fear the Lord, but live in a faith strong enough to challenge Him. Strong enough, like Moses, to ask to see God in the face. Strong enough, like Christ, to ask for a way out when the pain of the cross seems too great to bear, and yet to continue on. We must have the strength of Job, who, when he was alone and surrounded by cowardly friends, had faith enough to demand justice at the hand of God. And to do so in the face of his friends, who feared the Lord. They feared Him so much that they dared not ask for goodness from him. No, they threw their friend Job right under the bus of karma when he was suffering, even though he had never done anything but good to them. Because if Job did not deserve the evil that was falling on him, then they would have to face the more frightening truth that they themselves might not deserve the prosperity and health they were enjoying. They would have to face the fact that tomorrow they might be where Job was now. They would have to face the terrible truth that they too lived by the grace of God, over whom they had no control. So they told Job that what was happening to him was justice, to reassure themselves.
And what did God say to these fearful men? He said “Go and make sacrifice, for you have not said of Me the thing that is right, as my servant Job has.” Job was right. He said of God the thing that was right, even as he demanded justice. And that is true faith: faith in God to be good to us. We have too many “faithful” Christians who are so afraid to do anything, that they do nothing, or worse than nothing because they fear that God is a hard master. Jesus told us what is happening to those who bury their talent, clutching their tiny bit of grace to themselves out of fear of punishment: they have no part in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 25). The world rightly laughs at this “faith” and shuns it.
It is a hard, hard thing to trust God. He expects a lot of trust, because He is ultimately trustworthy. Yet any faith that does not trust in this God is a foolish faith, and much, much harder.
Fear not, my friends. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps. But trust in the Lord is the end.
*Still the Earth. But a very different Earth. Stay focused, friends.