‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Proverbs 9:10
Fearing God is not outdated. It is a healthy, necessary ingredient in our sanctification, and requires us to strip away our self-deception.
What good fortune! Christians have in our heritage the wisest man who ever lived. No one exceeded Solomon in wisdom (1 Kings 4:31), and he possessed not only the wisdom of men but the knowledge of God.
Solomon concluded that if man lives for himself alone his life is meaningless, and twentieth century philosophers have not improved on this conclusion. Only in relation to God does man have a purpose, and that purpose is: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Now, if Solomon accurately summarized man’s whole duty, are we neglecting any of it? We Christians preach the commandments, but do we fear God? Or did this concept apply only to Old Testament life?
The word of God stands, and we find that not only is this fear commanded, but the wisest man who ever lived says it is the key to the rest of our understanding of God. It is the beginning of wisdom.
If we would know God, we must learn something of the fear of the Lord. In the Old Testament, fear is what kept the people of Israel faithful to God (when they were faithful): “Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29).
In the New Testament, fear brings the trembling sinner to Christ, for Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15).
We must not overlook the reformers’ joyful rediscovery: The Christian need not fear death again, for we have our salvation secured by faith in Christ. “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship” (Romans 8:15).
What place, then, has the fear of the Lord in the life of the Christian? Certainly the first Christians didn’t sweep away the idea as neatly as we moderns have. Godly fear seemed to give vigor to the growth of the early church, which “was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31).
Peter instructs Christians to “love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king,” and to “live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear” (1 Peter 2:17, 1 Peter 1:17).
Fear of God in the New Testament is always used in a positive way. It is a good thing to have. But there is another fear that we are not to have: the fear of men. “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Paul gives perhaps the clearest view of the purpose of godly fear in the Christian: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 7:1, RSV). Paul identifies reverent fear as a necessary ingredient in sanctification. Not only is this fear the key to our knowledge of God, it is essential to our maturity as Christians.
Down through the ages, Christians have seen the wisdom of Solomon’s insistence on maintaining a healthy fear of God. Thomas Merton, who made a study of the subject, tells us that in monastic tradition the fear of the Lord is often called “dread.”
Dread is the tension between who we are and who God is. The experience of dread, Merton says, is the “awareness of a basic antagonism between the self and God due to estrangement from him.”
Fear of the Lord produces humility. The anonymous author of Cloud of Unknowing defines humility as “nothing but a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is.”
This medieval divine describes two causes of humility:
One is the degradation, wretchedness, and weakness of man to which by sin he has fallen. He ought to be aware of this, partially at any rate, all the time he lives, however holy he may be. The other is the superabundant love and worth of God himself: gazing on which all nature trembles, all scholars are fools, and all saints and angels blind.
However, Merton admonishes, “There is no good in a morbid self-hatred which sometimes passes for humility.” We must be careful not to carry around our own judgments of ourselves. These are often distorted, manifesting either a too negative or too-positive view of oneself. Paul said, “I do not even judge myself” (1 Corinthians 4:3). Let God alone be your judge through the standard of his word: “the perfect law that gives freedom” (James 1:25).
We are to embrace and obey the Lord’s commands with soul-gripping reverence: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). The fear of the Lord should motivate the Christian, not paralyze him, or leave him where he was. Nor is this goad of the soul aimless in purpose, or merely a punitive irritant.
Sometimes the fear of the Lord, through the action of the Holy Spirit, will convict us of specific sin. Other times it will check us against temptation, careless thoughts or words, or against “drifting away” (Hebrews 2:1) from what we know to be God’s will.
The proper response to the fear of the Lord is neither inertia nor frenzied activity in the name of obedience or dub. God’s purpose is not to run us ragged. We may need to confess sin. Or we may need to change an attitude, renovate a lifestyle, or become more consistent in the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study.
But after we have taken care of these obvious things and have eliminated causes for our hearts to condemn us (1 John 3:21), we may find that dread remains. We sense infidelity to a truth deep within us. This sense—different from anxious, false guilt—is not to be ignored as an emotional crack in our otherwise rational theology. We are not to shrug off the persistent inner tension that tells us too great a distance exists between us and God. We must turn directly to the One who is sending the dread. We must turn to him in prayer, with our Bible before us. There is something we do not know, and we must find out what it is. Or, more precisely, there is Someone we do not know, and we must find out who he is. Remember that Job pressed God with the question “Why?” but God answered the question “Who?”
Reality and love
The fear of the Lord draws us directly to the Lord himself. We must know God! But Paul says we cannot know him through the intellect: “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2). We can know something about God—his attributes—but we cannot know God himself through the accumulation of spiritual knowledge.
A. W. Tozer writes, “For millions of Christians, God is no more real than he is to the non-Christian. They go through life trying to love an ideal and be loyal to a mere principle.” Nor does Bible knowledge constitute knowing God, as Tozer says: “It is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God himself.”
Knowing God, writes Thomas Merton, “is not a knowledge of an object by a subject, but a far different and transcendent kind of knowledge in which the created ‘self’ which we are seems to disappear in God and to know him alone.” We seek to experience the reality of Paul’s statement, “You died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
Paradoxically, this knowledge of God comes not so much through our knowing him as through his knowing us. “It is in proportion as we are known to him that we find our real being and identity in Christ,” Merton says. Our aim, he writes, is “to come to know him through the realization that our very being is penetrated with his knowledge and love for us.”
And what causes God to know us? Paul answers, “The man who loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:3). It is the yearning, passionate, consuming love of the soul for God—driven by the dread of not knowing him—that causes God to know us in intimate relationship.
Saint John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, echoes Paul: “For it is love alone that unites the soul with God.” The author of Cloud of Unknowing writes, “The soul is made sufficient to comprehend him by love. To our intellect he is incomprehensible: not to our love.”
The same writer reminds us, “The nature of love is that it shares everything This is the way it must be between us and God. We must share with God the object of his consuming love—ourselves. It is for you and me he sent his Son; we are to be his bride. We should seek “God himself and not what you can get out of him.”
Thus we discover that while we sought God in fear—recognizing in sudden dread the awful possibility of sleeping through his passion, of eking out the rest of our lives in lukewarm, passionless unfamiliarity with the glorious One who is called the Way, the Truth, and the Life—he has been seeking us with holy, fathomless, consuming love which, when first encountered, makes us shrink and gasp: “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).
But as you yearn for God—and pray that he will increase your yearning if your heart is cold—you will first notice much more of yourself than him. Tozer says, “Self is the opaque veil that hides the Face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never by mere instruction.” We must ask God to make us authentic before him. We must pray for him to show us our sin and to strip away all our self-deception.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me.
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Read your Bible as you pray and seek God. He uses the sword of the Spirit to cut away the layers of deception that cover your heart. Augustine confesses, “I much fear my secret sins which Thine eyes know, mine do not.” You must learn to pray until you hear God walking in the garden, and in fear you become conscious finally of the extent of your secret deception and pride. Then the covering will fall away like scales from Paul’s eyes and you will see the horror of naked sin.
This sin is hard-core rebellion against the one true God. It is coiled in the heart of everyone of us.
‘Be appalled at this, O heavens,
and shudder with great horror,’
declares the Lord.
‘My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
Two sins: The first is rebellion against God. We are unwilling to trust totally in his living spring over which we have no control, unwilling to come to him for our drink of life every day. The second is attempting to capture the life-giving water on our own terms save it, contain it, make it an object to serve us. But we discover one day that just as manna rots when kept overnight, so standing water spoils, and our manmade substitutes for the living spring crack and spill.
The sudden recognition comes—all is lost! I now know what I deserve! “What a wretched man I am!” anguishes Paul. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). But without a moment’s lapse, the answer gushes from his heart like the living Spring found once more: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Do not expect God to be passive as you search for him. You will wake in the middle of the night restlessly aware of him. “Love wakes much and sleeps little,” says Thomas a Kempis. Sometimes your search will be painful. He has much work to do in your heart. Ezekiel 36:26 describes major surgery—a complete heart transplant, not just a bypass operation: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul challenges us,
Whoever wrestles with God in prayer puts his whole life at stake. If a person does not have the courage to go the limit, it is best in that case to stay with the prudent and untroubled request which has no importance and which guarantees psychological tranquility.
You may say, “But God already knows me. Was it not he who made me? Why should I struggle to uncover what he already knows?”
You miss the point. For to be known by God is also to see yourself through his eyes. Only he knows what is in your heart:
The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
‘I the Lord search the heart
and examine the mind.’
As you ask God to show you your secrets, he will begin to show you his awesome holiness and inexpressible mercy. You will begin to know God and understand the depths of his salvation. For the Spirit which searches you is the same Spirit which searches the depths of God himself. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).
Discipline and love
We must ask God to judge our hearts with his perfect judgment, for in the same moment we hear his judgment in the secret of our heart, without a breath of hesitation we feel his saving arms around us, plucking us back from the deserved outer darkness into the circle of his love. “When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32).
As you seek God, don’t be surprised if trials come. Be assured that you can trust him in the midst of them, for, as Saint John of the Cross teaches, “He never mortifies except to give life, nor humbles save to exalt.”
Paul gives the comfort, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). And Peter: “The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10).
What is the outcome of this “dark night of the soul”? The removal of dread, for one thing: “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18), or in Saint Benedict’s paraphrase, “Perfect love casts out dread.” Nothing but love can cast out dread. The uneasiness in our hearts confirms God’s word that even if we have all knowledge of spiritual things—if we have all our theology in order—but have not love, we gain nothing and we are nothing.
We have no other reason for being except to be loved by him as our Creator and Redeemer, and to love him in return. There is no true knowledge of God that does not imply a profound grasp and an intimate personal acceptance of this profound relationship.
But is the knowledge of God some heady mystical experience undertaken for its own sake? No. Seeking God must spring from a desire to please him, not the desire for an experience.
Many saints of history have taken a detour to disaster at this point. They have become enraptured by the experience and have shifted their attention from God himself. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Once again, we find that to avoid disaster we must appeal to the fear of the Lord. If we love anything or any experience more than God, we have made an idol and we have lost the way. But God “is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones” (Proverbs 2:7-8).
Most often, knowing God will lead to practical action—action taken for personal holiness or for bringing God’s reality into the world. If you find within yourself a heart cold toward God, or complacency, or indifference to the suffering of the world, you can ask God to give you his holy fear.
His call to you may originate in an unexpected place, and not from the familiar ground of your daily devotions:
Wisdom calls aloud in the street,
she raises her voice in the public squares;
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out,
in the gateways of the city she makes her speech.
God may call you to specific, merciful action in the world, and this will be no less the way to know him.
It is the merciful who are rich in truth. Unless we learn the meaning of mercy by exercising it toward others, we never have any real knowledge of what it means to love Christ. Christ’s love in our own lives acts dynamically to reach others through us, thereby revealing him to us in our own souls.
In typical wisdom, Solomon described man’s whole duty as first to fear God and then to keep his commandments. One foes not keep a command without fearful respect for the commander. Similarly, one does not know Christ without obeying his commandments: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21).
We often complain about chronic defeat by a habitual sin which “the Lord just won’t take away no matter how much I pray.” We think God is a teddy bear. We would do well to pray for the fear of the Lord to come upon us so we may look our Commander full in the face. For we have not yet “rasped the cost to himself by which we even live and breathe. Nor have we been flooded with horror over what he has saved us from—and which others around us may not escape. An adequate, reverent fear will help us deepen the lordship of Christ in our lives.
Godly fear is necessary for holiness. But lest we distort the Christian life and lose our joy, we must be reminded that love, not fear, is to be the dominant attitude of our lives. As Merton explains,
The Holy Spirit does not abolish the old law, the exterior command: He makes that same law interior to ourselves, so that doing God’s will becomes now no longer a work of fear but a work of spontaneous love.
Do you find your heart cold and your lifestyle complacent? Is God distant? Then you can ask him to place his reverent fear in you. It is a choice to be made. All are fools who “hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord”; and “the complacency of fools will destroy them” (Proverbs 1:29, Proverbs 1:32).
Rejoice, then, because you can touch and taste the Reality which Solomon and all the prophets could only glimpse as a distant silhouette, the One “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
He will be the sure foundation for your times,
a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge;
the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.