“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”
Sunday 19 August 2018
I am sure that many of you remember the Irish comedian, Dave Allen. Dave Allen was fond of impersonating the Reverend Ian Paisley as a fire and brimstone preacher. I won’t try to do the accent, but one of Allen’s gags based on Ian Paisley that has stuck in my mind is one where he portrays Paisley terrifying the congregation with what terrible things that await those who are unforgiven sinners at the day of judgement. He builds up to the line that they will cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.
At this point a timid member of the congregation speaks up: “But Mr Paisley, I don’t have any teeth.” To which the swift reply comes: “Teeth will be provided!”
We can all laugh a little at this description of a God that strikes fear into our hearts. But if we are really honest, we have probably all heard God portrayed as someone to be feared at various times of our lives and it may well have left a residue with us of a God that commands and demands our fear.
The phrase, the fear of the Lord, crops up often enough in the scriptures. For example, we find in Psalm 111:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. It sounds like it is not meant to be a bad thing if it is the beginning of wisdom.
After all, in the First Book of Kings, God praised Solomon for asking for an understanding mind so that he would be able to discern good from evil in the governing of the people. The scriptures tell us that: “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this”.
So if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom – something highly to be desired, what exactly might it be?
Let me read to you a passage explaining the fear of the Lord by Michael Casey, a contemporary Australian spiritual writer:
“First of all, fear of the Lord does not primarily indicate an attitude of being afraid of God; it is closer to being afraid of ourselves, of our own weakness and inconsistency”. Casey then goes on with an example of what he means by this.
“Persons with osteoporosis may be very much afraid of a fall, knowing that the brittleness of their bones will make even a minor accident into something very serious. This is a wholesome fear that is based on an acknowledgement of real frailty. When we speak of “fear of the Lord”, we are, in the first place, referring to a kind of caution or care that follows the recognition of the precariousness of our virtue. We acknowledge that without God’s ongoing help our efforts at living a spiritual life will be destined for failure”.
This is plainly a different sort of thing to the notion of fear that is understood as a cowering from God because God is waiting to get us. I remember a visiting preacher when I was teenager pouring fire and brimstone from the pulpit like Dave Allen’s Ian Paisley. And this preacher came out with the extraordinary image that life was like speeding down a very steep hill on roller skates with hell at the bottom. His punchline was that the important thing was being able to somehow stop before we inevitably ended in hell. This sort of the fear of the Lord is hardly beginning of wisdom.
Michael Casey centres the notion of fear of the Lord in the domain of our self-knowledge, in our awareness of our frailty. He writes:
“When we are conscious of our inherent limits and liabilities, we stand humbly before the Lord, in truthful poverty of spirit, dependent on divine mercy and not our own merits”.
It is almost as if we would be better to speak of fear of ourselves rather than fear of the Lord. What I suggest that it leads us to is the encouragement that we look honestly and searchingly at ourselves and the way that we live. In becoming more aware of our own weakness and inclination to sinfulness, we in fact enlighten ourselves as to our true relationship with God. Dare I say, we gain the wisdom of our dependence upon the loving God who is our creator and redeemer – the God who will continue to lure us towards him no matter where we may have put ourselves through our human frailty.
Listen to Michael Casey again: “To live ‘in fear of the Lord’ – let me repeat – is not to be afraid of God but to have such a strong feeling for our own need of God that we desire more earnestly that God will stand by us to protect us, to guide us, and to give us energy to complete the journey that, by grace, we have begun.”
When we hear Casey say that God will give us the energy to complete the journey, how appropriate it is that we also heard in the gospel reading the words of assurance from Jesus: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because it allows us to frankly address our personal frailty and so turn receptively to God who sustains us throughout every trial and continues to nourish us through the gift of his son, Jesus, who is the bread of life come down from heaven.
Nowhere is this need of our fear of the Lord more clearly expressed than in the Prayer of Humble Approach from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen