“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So we read in Proverbs 1:7, but what kind of fear leads to our becoming wiser and more knowledgeable persons?
A simple example would be the fear of touching a hot stove top because we know it will scorch our fingers. Or the fear of walking alone through crime-infested streets in the dark of night without any protection. Or the fear of holding a poisonous snake when we have no experience of how to handle reptiles. These normal fears lead us to exercise extreme caution, but how does that wariness apply to fear of the Lord? In the presence of our Maker, who loves us and keeps us in being, why should we be afraid?
Our experience of fear and trembling before the mighty majesty of God evokes awe for the Sacred. We bow in worship before our Creator beside whose might we feel how small we are. Compared to the eons of cosmic evolution, of what significance is our short life? This truth makes us humble; it conveys the wisdom of accepting how fragile our existence is.
Picture the anxiety-evoking scene of Abraham on the verge of slaying his son Isaac. What awe must have filled his whole being when God said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me” (Gen 22:12). Fear of this magnitude is a deterrent force, saving us from sin and arousing compunction. Of this benefit we read in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
Fear of the Lord is the remedy for the pious complacency that prevents us from giving him the glory “…for the hour of his judgment has come; and [we must] worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Rev 14:7). Passages like these from Holy Scripture clarify why fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and why “fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov 1:7). Such fear is the motivating force behind conversion of heart. Consider the man Job, of whom it was said, “…[he] was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Jb 1:1).
To be wise in relation to God, self, and others is to say what we mean and mean what we say. Wisdom fosters a common-sense approach to life while letting us behold in awe what is good and true and beautiful. Complementing the command to fear the Lord is the compassionate reminder that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). Jesus wants us to banish the craven fear that makes us feel unforgivable. The love he gives us is so great there is no reason for us to be afraid (see Mt 28:10), for he is our light and our salvation: “Whom [then] shall [we] fear?” (Ps 27:1). To bow before the Lord whose benevolence we never doubt is a sign that we trust unconditionally in his saving power. We never hesitate to proclaim, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Heb 13:6).
How unafraid the apostle Peter must have felt when he walked across the water to meet Jesus. He only began to sink when “he became frightened” (Mt 14:30). Jesus stretched out his hand and saved him. Peter must have grown wiser because of what happened to him, He learned the unforgettable lesson that cowardice prevails when fear replaces faith. Is it any wonder that Jesus said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:31).
Moving from fear to wisdom and love helps us accept how mysterious life can be, yet we are not afraid of its outcome. We never doubt that God wills our good. That being said, it is human to be gripped by anxiety under certain circumstances, but God assures us that we do not need to be afraid: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live (Jn 14: 15-19).
To believe in the Lord is to turn fear into awe and worry into wisdom, as we pray: Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways. You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you (Ps 128:1-2).