Fearing God

Why is it that my brain switches on whenever I get in the shower in the evening? It never does that in the morning! All sorts of things go through my mind, seemingly completely unconnected with whatever’s gone on in the day – ideas for blog posts, questions about books that I read, even ideas for short stories I might one day write!

A thought that began a year ago and has come back to me recently is about wisdom and fearing God – quite a strange one to write about on Valentine’s day!

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
Proverbs 9:10 (NIV)

This text (and the similar parallels in Job 28, Psalm 111, Proverbs 1 and 15) obviously came up last year, studying Wisdom in the core module of the MA at LST. I think there are two different ways of reading this verse that say a lot about the different approaches of Evangelical Christians today.

The first is to take it at face value: we need to fear God. There is some room for a more nuanced understanding of what is meant by fear, perhaps speaking of a ‘reverent awe’. After all, it’s not just in the ‘wisdom books’ that the idea of fearing YHWH comes. Through the penteteuch and history books it is used to describe a life lived in a godly way – it’s even in the New Testament a few times. This posture of fear is the source, the origin of godly wisdom.

‘Beginning’ could be read differently, though – it could mean that it is the start of a journey. That journey could be a personal one, or in keeping with the process thinking I’ve been grappling with recently, it could be a journey that humanity as a whole is on.

In a talk titled ‘Touching the Stove’, Shane Hipps used the way his daughter is learning about the cooker in the kitchen as a metaphor for how human interaction with God has developed. While fear is a good attitude for a toddler to have toward the hot oven, for a teenager or an adult to have the same response would not be good. Despite the possible utilitarian, objecctifying direction this illustration could take us in, it brings in the idea of development. Whether we understand development individually (each of us taking a journey from fear of God to mature love) or corporately (the dominant metaphor of our communities moving from fear to love), it is the key to this alternate reading.

This choice of readings is about more than the kind of God we follow, though it is that. Is the judgement of God unrelenting punishment – is forgiveness only possible through spilling blood – or is it something closer to discernment? Is God dangerous, an untameable deity who must be placated somehow, or is he genuinely ‘on our side’ (aside: I mean all of humanity by ‘on our side’, not ‘my side’ – that really can be a dangerous teaching!)

It’s more than that – huge as the idea of what God is like – because it speaks to our understanding of how the universe works. Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors while history points a finger saying ‘you should have learned’? Is it genuinely possible to learn from those who have gone before and shown us what God is really like and explored how we can have a relationship with him? If the latter, then progress is possible, we need not continue to just fear God, but grow to a deep and respectful love.

I choose to believe today that progress is possible, that there is some directionality to the human existence – both on a micro, personal level, and on a macro, all-of-humanity level. I choose to believe that God does not want us to remain terrified, or even at an awe-filled respectful distance, he wants us as close as the tightest hug.

What do you think? Is fear a helpful way of considering your attitude to God?