The fear of the Holy One is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
God’s praise endures forever. – Psalm 111:10
I hear pushback from the Bible’s talk of fear. How can something that makes you feel so small and scared be good? Isn’t the Bible trying to belittle us? Fear is a response to things that threaten and hurt — so shouldn’t we be encouraging love for God rather than fear of God?
There’s reason to be wary of the Bible’s counsel that fear is the beginning of wisdom — when far too many have had reason to fear ungodly, hellish violence from an authority figure, or domestic violence from the hands of one who cruelly abused our trust. Would that no one had to suffer such fear ever again.
But the Bible does not tell us to live in terror. Wisdom begins in a different kind of fear — the sudden realization of how tiny we are under a desert sky, or powerless when tossed by a mighty wave. An ancient poet wrote, “Against our will comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.” Fear is a warning of danger: it also is an alert that we are small, and in the presence of something that can overwhelm us.
Dangers abound. The mightiest warrior can be felled by a microscopic germ; the most careful precautions can be undone by random foolishness. But if freedom from fear is impossible, I can still practice discerning whether the source of fear is seeking to destroy me or make me whole.
When the Bible refers to the fear of God, imagine the heart-pounding tremble you may have experienced when first declaring your love. That’s very like the fear of God: the knowledge in your body and soul that you are giving yourself to something immense and beautiful that returns fullness of life.
Almighty God, help me to live with my fears: grant a righteous resilience against all that seeks to harm, and a holy openness to the awesomeness of your justice and joy. Amen.
John A. Nelson is the Pastor of the Niantic Community Church (UCC/UMC) in Niantic, Connecticut.