Do You Find Yourself Cringing When You Read about “Fear of the Lord”?

Proverbs 9:10 “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.”

Do you find yourself cringing when you read verses like these from the Old Testament? If God is love (1 John 4:16) why so much talk about fear?

Fear is a complex emotion. One might say that there are at least two aspects to fear.

1)Fear as a motivating emotion. For example the fear of failing an exam may motivate someone to study well. One might say that this is good fear that motivates us to do what is in our best interest.

2)Fear can also be a crippling emotion. Overwhelming fear cripples our ability for critical thinking. It short circuits the critical thinking function in the prefrontal cortex of the brain by shifting control to the reptilian part of the human brain. This causes us to go into the fight, flight or freeze reaction.

One might ask what type of fear do these verses talk about? Is it the good kind of fear that motivates us to do the right thing? Or is it the fear that cripples our critical thinking ability?

I suspect most reasonable Christians might say that the fear Bible talks about isn’t the crippling kind of fear that works turns our critical thinking ability offline.

I suspect most reasonable Christians might say that the fear that the Old Testament talks about is the good motivating fear. But I think there is a problem with this position. If one were to assert that the fear of God is the good motivating kind of fear, then this brings up another kind of question. What does this fear have to do with love?

In Star Wars General Tarkin uses fear as a means of getting people to get people to submit to his rules so there is peace in the galaxy. If God were to use similar kind of fear as a way of motivate people to do what is right, how could it be different from Tarkin? In fact Freud touches upon this aspect of authority figures using fear to motivate acquiescence, and that this cause a love-fear relationship between the Father and the children, paving the way for neurosis (internal conflict that creates anxiety). This led Freud to posit that human beings would have a love-fear relationship with all authority figures, which included God too. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that as people living in modernity we find talking about fear of God as something that is cringe worthy. We no longer live in the world were Jonathan Edwards could preach the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and use people’s fear of hell to motivate them to give their life to God.

Even if someone agrees with Jonathan Edwards that it is good to use fear of hell to motivate people, one still has to ask, even when fear is used to motivate, is it really good to use this motivating fear in the context of a loving relationship? A teacher at school may want to try to motivate a kid to study well by getting the student to fear the prospect of failure of an exam, but would a loving mother want to use fear to get her child to give her a hug? If a loving mother wouldn’t want to use fear to motivate her child, why would a loving God want to use fear of Him in the context of the relationship?

When Bible talks about fear of the Lord is not talking about the motivating kind of fear neither is it talking about the crippling fear that takes the critical thinking function offline. Rather in talking about the fear of the Lord, the Bible talks about humility before the Lord. It is the kind of humility that says – I do not know it all, so I am ready to be curious and listen to what God in His grace would reveal to me. The medieval theologians captured this rather well, they said “humility is the handmaiden of faith.” When we accept that we don’t know it all, we are then open to listen and learn, opening us up to the grace of God’s revelation.

What does it mean to live without this kind of humility towards God’s revelation? The words of Aldous Huxley, the quintessential modern thinker, spiritualist and novelist in his book Means and ends is a great example.

“I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; and consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption… For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning – the Christian meaning, they insisted – of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.”

Huxley does not want to go about the humble way of exploring to see if there is meaning in the world or not. He has not curiosity about wehter God’s way may offer a meaningful way to live. Rather, he self-assuredly and stridently asserts that there is no meaning at all. This not the way of humility. This is the way of pride. One might say that Frued’s way of approaching the world was just as less humble as Huxley’s. When the Bible talks about fear of God it is not talking about God using fear (as in fear of hell) to motivate us to do the right thing. Rather is it talking about human being approaching the world with a sense of humility and being open to listen and learn from God’s revelation. This kind of humility would lead to true wisdom! This kind of humility is the handmainden of faith.

Now when we read Proverbs 9:10 “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom,” we don’t need to cringe because this fear not as something that cripples our critical thinking, nor is it used as a means to motivated us, but, rather this is about living a way of humility . The emotion of cringe can be replaced by one of humble gratitude. We can be grateful for God creating a world where we can humbly listen to and find wisdom in His revelation in the Scriptures, in the World and in the Person of Jesus.

Author: Emmanuel R Paulpeter

I am a writer, spiritual director, life coach and a Church Planter who love all things pop culture, theology and spirituality.

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