The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
The band Death Cab for Cutie has a song called "I Will Follow You into the Dark" which contains the following verse:
In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in blackAnd I held my tongue as she told me"Son, fear is the heart of love"So I never went back
Whether or not these lyrics present an experience that Ben Gibbard (the songwriter) actually lived, the sentiment they portray resonates. To many people the idea that we are to "fear the Lord" makes God out to be some tyrant who wants people to cower before Him in fear. But this image of God does not square with the God of the Bible. He is no tyrant. So how are we to understand verses like the one above?
First, we must note that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it. Thus, though it may be the beginning of a person's spiritual journey, it certainly is not God's desired end for them. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). God's greatest desire for you isn't that you would fear Him, but that you would love Him. In fact, I John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." So then why does God want us to fear Him? Why is it the beginning of wisdom?
Here I believe that another proverb can be helpful. Proverbs 16:6b says, "by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil" (see also Proverbs 3:7-8, 8:13, & 14:26-27). Imagine a young child who keeps running out into the street after his ball. His parents might try to explain to him what would happen if he were to get hit by a car, but children who are very young cannot understand these kinds of consequences yet. So eventually the parents would tell their son that they will punish him if he runs into the street again. They may promise to put him in timeout or to spank him or to take away his dessert, because these things are in his ability to grasp. From that time on (perhaps with a few exceptions) the boy would avoid running out into the street not because he feared getting hit by a car yet but because he was afraid of the punishment. Eventually, as he grew older, however, he would understand the danger of getting hit by a car and would avoid running into the street for those reasons.
Just like that young boy needs the threat of punishment to avoid disaster, even as adults we often need the same. You see the enemy has waged an excellent marketing campaign for sin in this world. He packages it just right. He plays up its temporary pleasure and free nature. He doesn't mention the pain, suffering, and disaster it brings into your life. We are often like small children staring at sin; we just can't seem to see the danger in it. We need the fear of being punished by a holy and just God to turn us away from evil. The fear of the Lord puts us on the right path. It helps us to avoid sin even if we don't yet see how destructive it is. As we move farther down this path into relationship with God we learn that He is loving, gracious, merciful, and patient. We learn that Jesus died to pay for our sins. We read about the true effects of sin in the Bible, and we become more capable of seeing through the scheme. We start avoiding sin for our own sake and for God's glory.
Although there is a sense in which we should always tremble before the greatness of God's power, the fear of the Lord is only where we start- loving God with all our mind, soul and strength is where we are headed. Fear is the first and natural response to God's awesome power and nature- loving submission is the final result of growing to know the goodness and grace of this all-powerful God.
For further reading...
- Proverbs 3:7-8, 8:13, & 14:26-27- Read more about the fear of the Lord in Proverbs.
- Deuteronomy 10:12, Psalm 33:18, & Psalm 103:11- Notice how these passages place love and fear right next to one another. They offer some good ways of considering how we continue to tremble before God's greatness while still loving Him.
- I John 4:7-21- God is love!
- Deuteronomy 6:5- Fear of the Lord leads us to obey God's commands. God greatest command is that we should love Him!