The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
Trembles and Shakes
Two mentors, a film professor and a critic, shaped my college years, graciously introducing me to a number of esteemed people in their circles. Most of these experiences are filed away, their details fading with age. But two dinner parties, one hosted by each mentor, will remain vivid in memory until I die. Famous filmmakers were guests at both, but they couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
The first involved a two-time Oscar winner whom my professor had written about extensively. An unexpected invitation to join him for dinner with the director and a few friends set off trembles. Being all of 19, I was in no way prepared for such august company. “I’ll embarrass you,” I sputtered. But he insisted and the big night arrived. Meeting the great man spun me into such a daze all I recall is locking my knees to keep standing. By the time we sat down, however, he had so gently disarmed my fears the dinner turned into one of the loveliest evenings of my life.
The second director—genius to some, violent misanthrope to others—showed up at the critic’s apartment without warning, knowing she often hosted long movie discussions over casual suppers. The thrill of meeting him proved short-lived. He was drunk, surly, and disinterested in a movie the rest of us watched while our hostess finished cooking. When a promo for a recent Western came on, he reeled off curses at its “pretty-boy” outlaws. We ignored him—until he aimed a pistol at the TV. Unsure of what he’d do next, I offered to get him a drink just to escape the room. Safely in the kitchen, I told the critic, “He’s got a gun!” She told me to calm down. “It’s fine. He’s in my house.” She marched up to him and said, “You have to leave.” The infamously macho man promised to behave. “Now!” she said without raising her voice. The night ended with soured regard for the filmmaker, but trembling respect for the critic.
Two Kinds of Fear
These stories exemplify two kinds of fear frequently mentioned in the Bible: fear of God and fear of people and problems. Without distinguishing them, we’re apt to read admonitions to embrace fear in one passage as contradicting commands to reject fear in another. For example, Deuteronomy 6.13 tells us, “Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.” Yet almost every time God or His messenger comes on the scene, the first thing we hear is, “Fear not.” In 2 Timothy 1.7, Paul says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (NKJV) So what do we do with Proverbs 3.7: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil”? Though they appear directly opposed, they’re aligned, because they refer to opposite fears. Solomon’s fear is good: trembling with awe when we contrast our weakness and knowledge with God’s power and omniscience—the sort of fear I experienced at the first dinner party. Paul’s fear is bad: shaking with uncertainty brought on by unanticipated threats—what I felt at the critic’s dinner.
Good Neutralizes Bad
Psalm 111.10 declares, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.” Governing our lives by God’s principles begins with acknowledging His supremacy in all things. The scope of His authority exceeds our logic, requiring us to accept it by faith. Standing before God demands relinquishing all desires to control, influence, or predict life’s outcomes. Our wishes concede to His will. Our worries yield to His Word. Our wants submit to His ways. It’s a fearful thing and until we realize its benefits, we can’t begin to comprehend it. Yet it only takes entrusting our problems to His care just once to know when we fear God, He disarms our jitters. His first words are “Be not afraid.” That’s why fear of God is good. And after we learn this, we find something that makes it even better. Good fear neutralizes bad fear.
As light drives darkness from the sky, good fear drives bad fear from our hearts. The more we fear God the less we fear anything or anyone else. David writes, “The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27.1) When fears barge in on us, we alert the One we fear most. From God’s stronghold, David says, “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear.” (v3) God is our fortress. Fears that shake us don’t faze Him. We’re in His house. He sees they leave. And, as always, we tremble before Him.
Whatever or whoever "they" are.
(Tomorrow: Let It Grow)