May 7, 2021

What Does It Mean to “Fear the Lord”?

In part two, we looked at Ephesians 2, where Paul describes our dead state before knowing Jesus. But he goes on to describe life when Christ rescues us:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved . . .”

(Eph. 2:4–5)

True wisdom does not begin with us. It doesn’t begin with pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps to do better and live morally upright lives. It doesn’t come from mere rule keeping. Wisdom begins with God. Wisdom requires Jesus. Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. Our key verse from Proverbs says:“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov. 9:10)

”Fear the Lord

To get and live out wisdom begins with a fear of the Lord. In his recent book, Rejoice and Tremble, Michael Reeves defends & explains this term ‘fear of the Lord’. I’ve found it really helpful as we often don’t seem to know what to do with this phrase. Reeves says that there are different kinds of fear of the Lord; there is a sinful fear that is afraid, and runs from Him, hiding and disliking His rule. But there is also a right fear that actually draws us to God.

Sinful fear is propelled by the lies of the enemy ever since the garden. Healthy fear is not afraid and is the work of the Holy Spirit. It comes from love of the Lord. The fear I felt as a rule-following kid was a wrong kind of fear because it relied on my own strength. That fear comes from pride. This right fear actually draws us to God and is secure in God. Reeves says:

“The living God is infinitely perfect and overwhelmingly beautiful in every way and so we do not love Him aright if our love is not a trembling, overwhelmed, and fearful love. In a sense then, the trembling fear of God is a way of speaking about the intensity of our love for God. The right fear of God then is not the flipside to our love for God nor is it one side of our reaction to God, it’s not that we love God for His graciousness and fear Him for His majesty, that would be a lopsided fear of God. We also love Him in His holiness and tremble at the marvelousness of His mercy. True fear of God is true love of God defined.”

The essence of wisdom, the starting place of wisdom, is the fear of the Lord which is bound up in our love of the Lord and draws us to Him. Like the picture of wisdom in Proverbs, God seeks out the simple, invites us in, pours out His love and He is perfect, terrible, wonderful, and merciful. If our background is foolishness then yes, we will have a fear in the face of His perfection & brilliance; but wisdom, which He offers to us freely, runs to Him. Folly, afraid of His perfection and brilliance, flees and hides.

If we want wisdom, and the abundance and good that comes from living wisely, then we need to start with a fear of God. In Christ, God can rescue us from being dead in folly to being alive in Him.

Asking for Wisdom

As I was writing this, I was struggling with putting the pieces together and was telling a friend about it. We’ve been studying the book of James together with the women at our church. James has a lot to say about wisdom. So, when I told her I was struggling to get my thoughts together, she immediately said, “Have you asked for it?”

My friend was referring to the comforting promise given to the believer in James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” This promise is simple. If you want wisdom, ask for it. But we forget so quickly. We start to rely on ourselves and get in a tizzy. We forget that we can go directly to our heavenly Father Who created all things and knows all things, and ask Him for wisdom.

At the root of this is humility. Asking the Lord instead of trying to go it on our own takes humility. A life of wisdom requires constantly running to the Lord—we don’t move on from that. Where as a kid I thought it was all about moral rule keeping, it was actually about relationship with the only One who can give wisdom. This brings us to our third point: We live out wisdom through a transformative relationship with God.

Transformative Relationship

As you ask the Lord for wisdom, running to Him in love and humility, recognise that He is transforming you. Asking for wisdom doesn’t mean receiving pat answers on what to do. God is much more interested in changing your heart and teaching you His than He is with passionless, robotic obedience. God does desire our obedience, but out of a response of love for Him. He desires our hearts.

Jen Wilkin tells us that often, when we think we’re praying for wisdom, we’re actually praying for knowledge. We’re praying for what to do and want a direct answer. But that’s not wisdom. Wisdom is knowing how to apply the knowledge we have to the best end. Often, we have the knowledge we need, but we’re afraid to apply it and make a choice. Asking for wisdom will not result in step-by-step instructions for every life situation and challenge. That just makes good soldiers or Stepford wives.

Tim Keller has this to say about it: “[Wisdom] is making the right choice even when there are no clear moral laws telling you explicitly what to do…no Bible verse will tell you exactly whom to marry, which job to take, whether to move or stay put.”
God didn’t design the Bible this way. He designed it to make Himself and His ways known to us. Though we won’t get bullet points or checklists, God is faithful to lead us in the fear of Him, to trust Him, and learn His ways through His Word.

The Role of Love

Love letters that go down in history aren’t cold lists of facts or rigid instructions. That would be really weird. Rather, they express knowing and delight in the beloved that comes from time and attention. God wants us to know Him. Yes, this does result in changed lives, priorities, and behaviour—but none of that comes primarily out of rule following. God wants us to love what He loves and hate what He hates, so He shows us His character gives us opportunities to grow in Christ.

Romans 12:2 says not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. As we spend time with Jesus in the Bible, we learn God’s ways, we learn His character. As we run to the Lord for help with wisdom, He changes our hearts by His Holy Spirit through His word. This kind of transformation doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t come through pat answers. It takes time and relationship. It comes through running to the Lord over and over again, soaking in His Word, and learning His ways.

When we ask for something, a godly virtue like patience, God doesn’t just give us patience. He usually gives us grace to see our impatience and our need of Him to learn patience. He gives us opportunity & help to grow in it. Our hearts and lives change as the Spirit bears fruit in the process of learning to be patient. (So be careful what you ask for.) Relationship and transformation builds through time as we learn someone’s heart. God wants relationship with us, He wants to teach us His heart and to change ours to reflect Him.

When the world offers something tantalizing, God wants us to learn to run to Him out of love and trust, not to just remove every issue like a helicopter parent. How will we ever grow in love and godliness if we never face the challenges of a broken world? When we face temptations to gossip, to stay in unhealthy relationships for fear of loneliness, to give in to the website clicks that take us down Instagram rabbit holes of envy or the twisted hook of pornography or the escapism of an unhelpful story, wisdom remembers the character of our God, that His grace is sufficient, and His love abounding. It decides trusts Him, even though our flesh is screaming for something else. Wisdom admits our lesser joys, our ugly idols, and it runs from sin into God’s loving arms. It asks for help. And when we fail, wisdom runs us even faster with our failure to His arms in repentance, for forgiveness and grace.

God is transforming us to live wisely through relationship with Him, not through pat answers. To live in wisdom, we need to fear the Lord and ask Him for help. But living wisely can still be a weighty thing. Next week, in the final instalment in our series, we’ll look at what to do when living wisely is difficult.

This is part two in a series on Wisdom and Folly, based on the book of Proverbs. You can read part one here and part two here.

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