The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7
Let’s talk about “fear” for a minute. The Bible has a lot to say about “fear” and sometimes it can be a little confusing. On the one hand, we’re told not to fear. God did not give us “a spirit of fear,” Peter tells us. Angels tell us to “fear not.” Jesus himself repeatedly tells his disciples not to be afraid.
In this sense, “fear” is set up in opposition to “faith.” Fear is bad. Faith is good. The more I “fear,” the less “faith” that I have.
Yet, in the Book of Proverbs we’re instructed that it is the “fear of the Lord” that is the starting point for wisdom. How do we reconcile this apparent conflict?
In one sense, understanding a little bit of the Hebrew word gets us off the hook. “Fear of the Lord,” the scholars tell us, emphasizes the “awe” and “reverence” we are to have toward God. In other words, the more that I see the character of God clearly, the more freely I can worship Him, and sit under His authority. The more easily I can align my will to His and make wise decisions.
“Fear” is not so much about the terror and horror we might experience if we saw a rattlesnake on a hike or came near the edge of a cliff. When I was in college, I framed apartments. I’ll never forget the first time I tried to walk on a second story wall, with nothing but three-and-a-half inches to keep me from falling. I was terrified for a few minutes and was literally paralyzed with fear. Whether it’s snakes, heights, or the coronavirus, we all have things that scare us, primarily because we’re afraid of the harm that might come our way.
But can we make a complete separation between the “horror and terror” fear and the “awe and reverence” fear?
For as much as I’d like to keep them separate, the two types of fear still tend to bleed together—at least in my brain. When I think about “fearing” God, my mind drifts toward the ultimate fear—death itself. What happens after I take my last breath? Will that be it? Or did I somehow miss Heaven and end up someplace else? What type of fear are we talking about here?
The New Testament doesn’t mince words when it comes to the consequences of not trusting Christ. All have sinned, Paul tells us, and fall short of the glory of God. Apart from Christ, we’re condemned to an eternity far worse than anything we could possibly fear in this life. As much as I don’t want to think about this—especially for those whom I know and love who don’t have a relationship with Jesus—the Bible paints a bleak picture and gives us good reason to fear.
I think there are at least two ditches we can fall into, when confronted with this reality.
On the one hand, we can run from this truth, minimize the doctrine of Hell and anything that might cause the “horror and terror” type of fear. On the other, we can focus so much on the “horror and terror” type of fear that we’re paralyzed with worry.
Jesus offers us a way through the “horror and terror” fear to get to the “awe and reverence” fear. Here’s one way to think about the process.
The apostle John says it this way. “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” (1 John 4:18).
What does this mean?
First, I don’t have to fear in the “horror and terror” sense because Jesus took that punishment on my behalf. In one sense, the “perfect love” of Jesus cast out that fear on the Cross. God’s love and grace does not minimize the reality that we deserve to be punished for our sin, and the reality that we should fear that judgment.
Second, the more that I personally grasp that truth, the more that I am “perfected,” the more that I see the depth of what Jesus did for me, the more that I stand in “awe” and “reverence” before Him.
Third, when I see clearly what God has done for me, I cannot help but respond with an attitude of humility and gratitude.
That fear is the true starting point for wisdom.
Jesus, help me to see your perfect love for me more clearly so that I may worship you more fully and follow you in wisdom more closely.
Read 1 John 4:7-21