“Fear – of God – is the beginning of Wisdom.”
Over the last twelve months a reoccurring word that punctuates our world is FEAR. With the uncertainty of the pandemic, in the shadow of violence in the streets, with a failing economy, the promises of an unknown vaccine and a plethora of questionable promises from our leaders, who has not experienced some level of fear and anxiety for ourselves and/or for the world around us?
In the biblical sense, there are two kinds of “fear.” First, in the Old Testament, the “fear of God” is highlighted, especially in the “wisdom literature.” Over and over again, the people of God were taught to “fear the Lord your God and serve him only” (Dt 6:13).For example, we read:
“Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him” (Ps 128:1).
“Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the Lord evil is avoided” (Pr 16:6).
“The fear of the Lord leads to life; then one rests content, untouched by trouble” (Pr 19:23).
“Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life” (Pr 22:4).
This kind of fear (of God) is not a frightening experience, but a reverence, respect and awe for the Almighty God. Indeed, to understand God correctly, with all his power and divine attributes, is to stand in awe of him. Furthermore, to put God into this holy, separated perspective places humanity in its proper perspective in submission to him, as he so rightly deserves. “Fear the Lord your God” still leads to human wisdom – that we are not God, and we are not in control of the universe.
Second, the human emotion of fear is characterized by panic or distress as a result of an anticipated danger or pain. Over the centuries, people have misinterpreted the first kind of fear and have fostered the second kind of emotional fear. In the past, this kind of fear was often used from church pulpits to frighten people into obedience. Many people have been told that a relationship with God is based on judgment and apprehension. Threats of the flaming fires of hell and the wrath of God only made greater the divide between the Mighty God and his ordinary people.
In the same way, this emotion has been used by politicians to sway people to “their side.” Thus, “one of the problems that we are facing in public life across the world is that too many of our leaders galvanize their support by stirring up fear of what ‘the other side’ stands for, or of what the ‘opposition’ might bring about” (Chalmers). Arguments and counter-arguments among leaders and among regular people (often based on false hear-say) threaten, accuse, and convict one another with fear and oppression. Winston Churchill was right when he said, “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”
A Scottish pastor, whose formal title is The Very Reverend Dr John Chalmers, explained to us why love overcomes fear. In a magazine article, Dr Chalmers reminds us that in the first epistle of John, the writer said, “And so, we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 Jn 4:16-18).
Now, as Christians, if we are “like Jesus” in our visible love of others, it is a sign from God that he lives in us (by the Holy Spirit, 1 Jn 4:13). There is no fear, then, of final judgment, because genuine love confirms our salvation. Ultimately, all love is from God; our love is sourced from his love. We cannot humanly muster up enough love and forgiveness by ourselves to overcome all the fear in the world. But, “everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world – even our faith” (1 Jn 5:4).
The Bible teaches us that we must properly understand the nature of FEAR – one kind that is the beginning of wisdom (“fear of the Lord”), and the other kind that paralyzes, oppresses, and condemns. Do not get them confused; in fact, the tiny little phrase “do not be afraid” occurs in the Bible more than 350 times! John does not say that God is fear, or a tyrant, or a demanding despot….no, God is love. At the center of the biblical narrative is the assurance that God loves humanity, and the idea that he is an oppressive force is just a mistake. So, we reciprocate that love back to God by choosing to be obedient to his will. Thus, if we continue to choose to live in fear in this world, we will never fully realize the extent to which he pours out his love and grace upon us.
In his first Inaugural Address, during a complicated time in our history, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Amen.