The spark for wisdom, the basic ingredient for a life well-lived, is what the Bible calls the fear of the Lord. You may have heard this before: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov 1:7). Fearing God is not merely an emotion that comes over you at times - although certainly it’s that, too. But those moments are fleeting, and even imbeciles and demons are capable of fear. More than emotion, though not excluding it, fearing God is a conscious and intentional way of approaching life that will lead to wisdom, guaranteed.
So what does it mean to fear God?
To fear God is, for starters, to know that he exists. You may not even know very much about him, but you look around at the sky and the trees and you hear the thunder and see the rain, and you know, you just know he’s there, somewhere. Even unsaved people are capable of this; in fact, many - dare I say most - unsaved people do have a sense of God’s existence. God’s given each one of us that sense, and with it, the capacity for true wisdom.
It doesn’t always play out that way; all too often people take their sense of God’s existence and they short-circuit the process by inventing him for themselves. I know there’s a God, they correctly reason, and he must be like this… And that’s where imposters like Baal and Buddha start to appear on the pages of human history.
The fear of God is only a beginning. You have to know what to do with it. And in our modern western world, it’s a fragile beginning. You don’t have to try very hard if you want to get rid of it and just settle for the much simpler, less complicated idea that God doesn’t exist: What you see is all there is.
But if you simplify and settle, you’re giving up the option of ever becoming truly wise. You’re giving up the meaning of life. You’re giving up the deep understanding of how things work. You’re giving up the confidence that life in this world makes sense to your soul. If God doesn’t exist, life will be simple. And so will you. You’ll become a fool, and eventually, other people will know you are one.
Because wisdom - and folly - always, always, produce visible, measurable results in the real world.
Fearing God also includes a having a sense of his power. The way human beings initially have the sense of God’s existence is by seeing what he has made. Ancient people who knew there was a God (though they completely missed the boat on knowing who he was) knew this because they lived in a constant, intimate interface with nature.
The thunder and lightening was right outside their tent, shaking them senseless with terror. The wind and rain could make or break the year’s supply of food. The sun clearly provided life, health, and growth in such potency that too much of it proved deadly. Whoever it was who had put these forces in place and gave them their energy and movement and heat was clearly, obviously, a powerful being to be feared.
In fact, it was almost too much to imagine only one Being who could be powerful enough to furnish all the energy necessary for life on earth. Surely, rationally, there must be many powerful gods, each one governing and sustaining the power behind each of the earth’s forces. A sun god, for example. Yes, that would make more sense.
And these gods were indeed to be feared. Why? Because they had power, yes, but also because that power meant the difference between life and death for people. Which is where the ancient practice of animal (and human) sacrifice comes in. Keep the god on your side; you want his power for you, not against you.
This is the fear of God, corrupted because of human rebellion and ignorant pride. We know he’s there. We know he’s powerful. But the truth of his person and his purpose are suppressed by our wickedness. We don’t actually know him. We don’t actually know anything.
And in our modern wisdom, even the small natural human shred of divergent godly fear is squashed by intellectualism - which isn’t smart at all. We’re removed from the power of nature so profoundly that we think of these forces romantically, as if they wouldn’t kill us in a heartbeat. The ocean, the thunder, the desert - all of the power of these are lost on us thanks to our air conditioned cars, sunscreen, and microwave dinners, and with the loss of a sense of their power, we lose fear, thus losing the capacity for wisdom, which is born out of a desire to avoid death.
We think of ancient religions as primitive, childish, and wild, overlooking the fact that at least these religions - unlike our modern religion of rationalism - do the one wise thing of acknowledging the sense of God and of eternity that he has placed within us all (Ecc 3:11).
Fear? Not for us. Our modern western wisdom, in fact, is directly opposed to fear, seeking any means to eliminate all fear. Instead, the modern mind sniggers at God. How embarrassingly ignorant. And, thanks to this influence, even “religious” people don’t think of God with fear; he’s a completely harmless accessory to the good life, like whipped cream.
If the fear of God is truly the beginning of wisdom, then our ideologies have put us severely at a disadvantage. But here’s the good news: when life gets so much bigger than us that we finally see with our eyes that we just can’t figure a way out, then hope begins.
Because when that fear drives us to question, wisdom - the answer - is right around the corner, in the very heart of God.
And God wants to be known. That is to say, he wants us to have the wisdom of the knowledge of him.
But this wisdom begins with fear - a sense of smallerness, of vulnerability, of need. This past year has supplied ample fodder for wisdom...if we're willing to swallow it. I'm not saying we should be overcome with fear over the pandemic, the social unrest, the polarization of our country. I'm just saying that the precariousness of all this is - or can be - the beginning of wisdom for us. Too many people are letting their fear morph into anger. Defensiveness. We're ticked off that our former sense of control isn't working anymore. All I'm saying is that the Bible suggests another outcome for fear.
Acknowledge your vulnerability, and cast your hope in God.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:10-12)