“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” After an introduction, this is how the writer of Proverbs begins. With fear. Of God. What a place to begin. We like to think of God as a kindly father, a dear friend, a benevolent giver of gifts. We’ve pretty much moved past the old images of a long-bearded, thunderbolt-throwing dude with a serious anger issue. And then the writer of Proverbs comes along and tells us that the smartest thing to do is to fear God.
I’ve never been convinced by those who argue that “fear God” doesn’t mean that we should be afraid of God. That when the Bible says “fear God” it means that we should revere him, respect him, and recognize his transcendence. When the Bible wants to say that we should revere God, it pretty much says it like that. And when it wants to say that we should respect him, it makes it clear that’s what it’s saying. It doesn’t use codes words that mean, in normal usage, one thing but in actuality really mean something different. So I’m pretty sure that when the Bible says, “Fear God,” it means, “Fear God.” Be afraid. Quake in your boots, hide behind a tree, and cover your face.
You know those times in the Bible when people are told, “Fear not”? Like when the angel appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth? I’m pretty sure that if the shepherds had not actually been afraid, if they had said, “Hey, wow, check it out! Bright lights and a guy floating in the air! What’s up, Floating Dude in a Robe?”, Gabriel’s response would have been different. I think Gabriel would have given them something to be afraid of. You don’t speak casually to an angel of the Lord, like he’s one of your bro’s showing up at a barbeque.
But there is the kind of fear that sets you running for your life, and there’s the kind of fear that draws you in, that incites the need to come closer and find out what in the world is going on in spite of your mother’s screams to “get away from that thing!” It’s the kind of fear that causes people to stand and watch as a tornado bears down on them when they should be running for cover. In spite of their fear, maybe even because of it, they have to watch. They are drawn to the sheer enormity of the twister, the pure and utter destructive power, the beauty of its relentless and indomitable journey.
We call that “awe,” and awe is a basic and nearly universal human emotion. And awe, says James Cox in The Future of Faith, is the beginning of faith. Faith begins with that mixture of wonder and fear all human beings feel toward the mystery that envelops us.
Only fools think that we have figured everything out, or someday will figure everything out. Only fools, says the writer of Proverbs, go through this world without awe, thinking they can walk up and exchange high fives with a Whirlwind.
It’s foolish not to be afraid when there is danger about. It’s foolish to think you can become friends with a grizzly bear. Even if the grizzly is friendly, you should always be afraid.
Fear the Lord. Be in awe. Draw close to him. And when he says, “Fear not,” well, then you can relax. A little. But never so much that you lose your awe.