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Monday, August 23, 2010

The Fear of the Lord

When I was small and memorizing Bible verses for Sunday school, the phrase "The fear of the Lord" was a baffling one to me.  I couldn't understand why I should be afraid of my heavenly Father, since He had never been mean to me, and had sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross so I could be saved.  Why should I be afraid of a person like that?

What It Means to Fear the Lord

I think it was my parents who finally modeled for me what it meant to fear the Lord.  I was fortunate enough to have two parents who served God and took their responsibility for me seriously.  They disciplined me when I misbehaved, and tried their best to make the severity of the punishment reflect the severity of the offense.  Because of this, I learned that they loved me, and I shouldn't doubt that; on the other hand, they did not want me to keep disobeying them, so I shouldn't doubt the inevitability of punishment, either.  In this way, I learned to fear their wrath when I did wrong, whether or not they knew I had done anything.  This healthy fear of punishment was not the same as really being afraid of my parents; I always knew what to expect, and knew that their punishment wasn't motivated by sadism or hatred.

Similarly, "the Fear of the Lord," is an awareness of God's power, and a kind of respect or awe concerning that power over our lives and His ability to see and punish our sins.  He's not a meanie, and we shouldn't doubt His love for us, but if we lack that fear of God's wrath, we don't really know Him.

Am I saying that those who "fear the Lord" are living in actual, trembling fear of God's punishment?  That takes me back to the example of my parents' discipline.  I didn't shudder in fear when I'd done nothing, but my memory of the last time I'd gotten punished for something was enough to keep my behavior in check.  Whether I was awaiting punishment or obeying my parent's wishes, I was living in awe--fear--of punishment.  Only, when I was not on the wrong side of the law, it didn't feel like fear; it just felt like wisdom, because that fear of punishment kept me from bringing down harm on myself.

In the same way, those who are obeying God have no need to live in dread--trembling fear--of God, because they have no reason to expect punishment.  God is not cruel or random in His discipline, so even those who are awaiting His punishment know what to expect from Him, and indeed should expect that punishment.  When we have respected God's laws and boundaries, however, our fear of God's power feels more like wisdom.  It's just better not to challenge God to punish us.  It hurts less to obey!  "The fear of the Lord," then, is a respect for God, not a dread of Him.

The Value of Fearing the Lord

Once I learned to fear my parents' punishment, I was able to control my behavior, and my relationship with my parents improved considerably.  They went from expressing embarrassment about me to praising me in public for behaving myself.  The benefits of this improved relationship went beyond that, though.  When I wasn't at odds with them, I could spend quality time with them and learn things from them, where I hadn't before.  Eventually I even understood the rules they had set for me.

The Bible says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline" (Proverbs 1: 7 NIV).  This was clearly demonstrated to me in my relationship with my parents.  Learning to respect my parents' rules opened the doors for learning about them, and the way the world works; similarly, respecting God's laws and His discipline opens the doors to understanding Him and the way He governs the world.  When our eyes are finally opened and we see what life is like on the good side of the law, we can see that the law is good.  Only a fool would look back and say that a constant dread of punishment is superior to obedience.

Because of this, Solomon wrote, "My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in" (Proverbs 3: 11, 12 NIV).  God doesn't set laws and enforce them because He hates us, just as my earthly father didn't set laws and punish me because he hated me.  Both my heavenly Father and my earthly one were doing it for my own good.  When I obey their laws, I see that they were for my good.  Then my love for them--both my parents and my God--deepens.

Why? Because understanding the law is understanding and knowing the lawmaker. God's laws show a friendly regard for us. Who wouldn't want to know a guy like that? And if you knew Him, wouldn't you respect (fear) His power to rule?