By Whitney Hopler, Crosswalk.com
The Bible famously declares that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But that phrase has often been misunderstood. Fearing God doesn’t mean being afraid of him. We never need to fear that God – who is pure love – will hurt us. There’s another meaning to the word that’s translated as “fear” in the Bible: awe. Fearing the Lord means having an overwhelming sense of reverence for God’s power that inspires awe in our souls.
In my book Wake Up to Wonder, I describe the overwhelming sense of awe I felt when I got close to Niagara Falls, which inspired me to worship its Creator. As I approached the falls in a boat, I experienced the raw power of six million cubic feet of water per minute cascading down around me. All of my senses were overwhelmed by wonder: seeing (a wall of white, blue, and green colors flooded my vision), hearing (a thundering sound reverberated through my body), smelling (the clean scent of water refreshed me), touching (cold sprays of water drenched my face and rain poncho), and tasting (I could taste the purity of the mist in the air). Both joy and fear welled up within me. While I loved the thrill of an adventure at the falls, I had a sense of reverence that humbled me in its presence. I knew the water could engulf me completely if I got too close. A healthy fear moved me to respect the power of the falls by keeping my distance while still enjoying their majesty. That same healthy fear – awe – moved me to praise God, whose power is much greater than even his most majestic waterfalls.
The fear of the Lord is a healthy fear that leads us to wisdom by way of wonder.
What Does it Mean that the Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom?
Fearing the Lord involves seeing how awesome God truly is. The healthy fear of awe shows us the glory of God’s unlimited power and pure holiness.
For those who aren’t close to God, seeing God’s glory brings their attention to their sins in contrast to God’s holiness. They may indeed struggle with being afraid of God punishing them for their sins. They may not understand God’s great love and mercy, but encountering wonder can give them glimpses of God’s awesome power.
People who are connected to God in saving relationships – thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice for all sins – no longer have any reason to be afraid. The confidence that salvation brings frees believers to fear the Lord in a positive way, through reverence and awe. As people who love God fear him, they feel gratitude rather than dread, and they’re motivated to worship. Hebrews 12:28-29 declares: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ’God is a consuming fire.’”
Fearing the Lord is a humbling experience for everyone. An awareness of God’s glory shines a spotlight on where we all are in relationship to God. Are we far away from the Lord? Are we close to him? What direction do we want to move in? Choosing to move closer to God strengthens our faith, which decreases negative fear (being afraid) and increases positive fear (awe).
Where in the Bible Does it Say ‘The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom’?
The Bible says, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” in two verses: Proverbs 9:10 (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”) and Psalm 111:10 (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments; His praise endures forever.”). In addition to those verses, the Bible also includes similar statements in Proverbs 1:7 (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.”), Proverbs 15:33 (“The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom, and before honor is humility.”), and Job 28:28 (“And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; And to depart from evil is understanding.’”).
The English word “fear” in those verses is translated from the Hebrew word “yirah,” which has a range of meanings in the Bible and means “awe” or “reverence” in the context of those verses. The fear of the Lord that leads to wisdom encompasses the concept of experiencing wonder because of encountering God’s glory. It refers to an awe-inspiring awareness of God’s holiness.
How Does this Fear Give Us Wisdom?
Fearing the Lord helps us understand who God truly is, which inspires us to love, obey, and serve him – and we grow more wise day by day in the process. Feeling awe from fearing the Lord motivates us to respect God’s holiness and obey his just commandments. Deuteronomy 10:12-13 asks: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?” and Deuteronomy 10:20-21 urges: “Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.”
Encountering wonder instills a healthy fear of God – a reverence for God’s awesome nature – in our souls. That is the foundation on which we can build our knowledge and grow in wisdom. Awe shows us who God really is. That healthy fear of God reveals that God is much more than just a buddy or a distant being who doesn’t care about our choices. When we fear the Lord through awe, we can see that God is the all-powerful Creator who is the source of all wisdom. It becomes clear to us that listening to God is the best choice for us in all circumstances. Fearing God helps us understand that he is a loving Father who wants what’s best for us. It wakes us up to the reality that God’s presence is always with us, and he notices and cares deeply about our thoughts, words, and actions.
When we fear the Lord, we gain wisdom because our perspective enlarges so we can see how much we need God. Seeing the wonder of God’s awesome power and holiness opens our eyes spiritually. In the face of our Creator’s glory, we can see where we really are in relationship to him – and we can be inspired to move closer. Encountering the wonder of God at work in our lives inspires us to take stock of our choices. Have we been making a relationship with God a top priority in our lives? Have we accepted his forgiveness for our sins? Have we chosen to pursue greater holiness in our thoughts, words, and actions? We acquire more wisdom as we do so.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because feeling awe expands our perspective on any situation. As awe lifts our perspective beyond ourselves to God, we become wise by directing our attention to God rather than just ourselves. We can move past our problems and toward possibilities as we allow awe to grow our wisdom, since “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Fearing God by having a sense of reverence for his wonder helps us be wise enough to stop placing limits on what our all-powerful God can do in our lives. Fearing God through awe inspires with the wisdom we need to trust God in deeper ways.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/digitalskillet
Whitney Hopler is author of the Wake Up to Wonder book and the Wake Up to Wonder blog, which help people thrive through experiencing awe. She leads the communications work at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Whitney has served as a writer, editor, and website developer for leading media organizations, including Crosswalk.com, The Salvation Army USA’s national publications, and Dotdash.com (where she produced a popular channel on angels and miracles). Connect with Whitney on Twitter and Facebook.