Monday, September 3, 2018

Book of Virtues # 3 - "Fear of the Lord"

Recently, I read about…

two guys in prison, who one night decide to escape.  So they sneak past the guards, get up on the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight, away to freedom.  The first guy jumps right across with no problem.  But his friend doesn’t dare make the leap.  He’s afraid of falling.  So then, the first guy says, “Hey—I stole a flashlight!  I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings.  You can walk along the beam and join me!”  But the second guy just shakes his head.  He says, ‘What do you think I am?  Crazy?  You’d turn it off when I was half way across!”[i]

            This story demonstrates that we fear what we distrust.  The escaped convict doesn’t trust his buddy, so he’s afraid to walk across the beam of light.  We distrust the barking dog that scares us as we go for a walk.  We distrust the clown at the birthday party, because nobody should smile that wide while offering candy to children.  So it seems strange when we come across a Bible verse like Proverbs 1:7[ii], “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  We’re pretty sure we understand the second part of that saying, but the fear of the Lord is something that’s a bit hard to understand for some.  That’s because we fear what we distrust, and we’re supposed to trust God.

            It’s tough because too often we get the notion that the God of the New Testament was different from the God of the Old Testament—as if Jesus’ God is all grace and forgiveness, while the God of Moses was all law and wrath.  This isn’t true—We didn’t switch gods between the testaments—and the one true God doesn’t change.[iii]  Yet, the way God deals with people has changed from the old covenant to the new.  In the Old Testament, we read a lot about God sending plagues for judgment, and enemy nations sent to punish rebellious Israel.  Laws given to the Chosen People were harsh, with deadly consequences for sins we would consider trivial.  Even people who touched holy places and objects were struck down by God.  So, for Old Testament people, the fear of God was something foremost in their minds.  But it wasn’t a fear based on distrust.  It was a fear based on holy reverence, and an awe of a Power greater than themselves.
            I think that the reason God needed to deal more harshly with people in those days was that they were less capable of understanding Him.  It wasn’t their fault—human wisdom tends to grow by generations, centuries, and millennia.  Just as a child might need spankings when they are young (not going to get into that debate), but then grow out of that kind of discipline into something based on reasoning when the child becomes a teenager—so people from a harsher time and place needed harsher consequences for disobedience.  But as people’s understanding of God developed from the old covenant to the new, God could trust them with deeper teachings.  Instead of focusing on the easier concept of obedience like God had in the old covenant, God could introduce the more sophisticated concept of grace.  When we read about the “fear of the Lord” in over half the chapters of Proverbs, we need to keep in mind that Solomon and the others that wrote this book had a harsher, more brutal view of God than did Jesus and the apostles.  Again, God didn’t change from one covenant to the other—but people’s understanding and experience of God certainly did.

            But we are not reading the book of Proverbs from the same perspective as it was written.  When we talk about the fear of the Lord, we ought not shrink back from a divine King who might smite us at any moment.  Those who have experienced the grace of Jesus don’t need to grovel before an eternal Judge, as if their salvation was insecure.  Instead, for Christians to fear God means to have trust and reverent love for the Abba of Jesus, who is so much bigger and more wonderful than we can possibly imagine.  It’s a fear more akin to a man standing on the edge of Niagara Falls, blown away by raw power and beauty.  So it’s in that context that we receive the words of Proverbs 2:3-6:

Indeed, if you call out for insight
    and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
    and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
    and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

            Wisdom literature that invites us to fear God also gives warning to those who refuse Him:

 “Then they will call to me but I will not answer;
    they will look for me but will not find me,
since they hated knowledge
    and did not choose to fear the Lord.
Since they would not accept my advice
    and spurned my rebuke,
they will eat the fruit of their ways
    and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
For the waywardness of the simple will kill them,
    and the complacency of fools will destroy them;
but whoever listens to me will live in safety
    and be at ease, without fear of harm (1:28-33).”

            Many of you have been taught about “Bible promises,” and told to hold onto them like secret treasure.  But some of the words of scripture that we interpret as promises are actually more like generalities.  For example, Proverbs 10:27 says, “The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short.”  Or, Proverbs 9:10-11, which says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.  For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life.”  This doesn’t mean that everybody who fears God will live a long life, while every wicked person will die an early death.  If that were so, then the Bible would prove itself false when good, young, believers die.  Instead, it’s a general saying like so many found in the Bible’s wisdom literature—that if you follow God’s way, things will tend to go better for you. 

            Simply put, if you follow God’s Book of Virtues, and live according to God’s loving and wise way, you can trust that things will go better for you than if you didn’t. Oswald Chambers said, "The remarkable thing about God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else."  Instead of fearing a God you can’t trust, you can trust a God who is fearsome on your behalf.  With the mighty God on your side, you can…

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).

[i] Reworded from a post by bdk3clash at 2:42 PM on September 30, 2010
[ii] Scripture quotations are from the NIV.
[iii] Malachi 3:6; Psalm 102:27; James 1:27; Hebrews 13:8

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