“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10)
That never made sense to me. It’s a common theme in the bible, occuring twice in those words and many, many times in other variations. And it’s one of those pithy statements that I heard occasionally growing up from elderly Christians of my aquaintance. But I was taught in Sunday School about a God whose greatest characteristic is love for all creation, especially his children. God was a loving father, we were taught, who saves us and heals us and takes care of us. Why should we be afraid of him?
I know some Christians believe in a terribly wrathful God just looking for excuses to condemn and smite people and send them to Hell, but that’s never been part of my personal piety. After all, no matter how angry God sometimes gets, no matter what we do, he still loves us.“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17). Or, in the words of Jesus Loves Me (verse two), “Jesus loves me when I’m good/When I do the things I should/Jesus loves me when I’m bad/Even though it makes him sad.” Another favorite hymn growing up was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Why should I fear my friend, my father, the one who created me and loves me and takes care of me, even when it costs him?
Why is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? Psalm 111 was the Psalm of the week last Sunday, and it got me thinking about this.
Yes, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Yes, Jesus loves us, and loves us so much that he died to save us. Yes, the Holy Spirit surrounds us and guides us in love all the days of our lives. But the problem with focusing on our loving relationship–God our Father, Jesus our dear friend–is that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that God is not just a nice person living up in the sky. He’s not just a human who really likes us. God is greater than that. God is greater than we know, greater than we can know.
Consider the mystery of the Trinity–Father, Son, Spirit, three distinct persons who yet make up one indivisible God. When Saint Augustine, one of the greatest theologians ever, tried to understand this mystery, he was given a vision of a little boy digging a hole on the beach and trying to fill it with water from the ocean. Of course the water all drained out through the sand, and the sand kept filling in the hole as the edges of the hole collapsed. “You have set yourself a difficult task,” Augustine said. “No more difficult than your self-appointed task of trying to understand the Trinity,” the boy replied. If we can’t even understand the form of God, how can we understand deeper things about him?
Familiarity breeds contempt. When all we remember about God is that he loves us, when we think we understand him, it’s too easy to think of God only as God fits into our own needs and desires. But God can’t be limited that way. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It doesn’t mean that we have to be afraid that God will abuse or abandon us. It means, instead, that we need to remember that God is beyond our understanding. We see through a glass, dimly; God sees all. We cannot know what God intends for our lives and the whole world. We can’t control God’s power. If a little awe at God’s greatness helps us remember this, that’s a good thing.