January 29, 2012

The Beginning of Wisdom

Passage: Psalm 111:10

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practise it have a good understanding.  His praise endures for ever.

Jessie Rice is author of The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community.  He has an online blog; last November he posted an insightful piece—“An Open Letter to My Fear of What Others Think.”

Dear Fear-Of-What-Others-Think:
I am sick of you, and it's time we broke up. I know we've broken up and gotten back together many times, but seriously, Fear-Of-What-Others-Think, this is it. We're breaking up.

I'm tired of overthinking my status updates on Facebook, trying to sound more clever, funny, and important. I'm sick of feeling anxious about what I say or do in public, especially around people I don't know that well, all in the hope that they'll like me, accept me, praise me. I run around all day feeling like a Golden Retriever with a full bladder: Like me! Like me! Like me!

Because of you, I go through my day with a cloud of shame hanging over my head, and I never stop acting. The spotlight's always on, and I'm center stage, and I'd better keep dancing, posturing, mugging, or else the spotlight will move, and I'll dissolve into a little, meaningless puddle on the ground, just like that witch in The Wizard of Oz. I can never live up to the expectations of my imaginary audience, the one that lives only in my head but whose collective voice is louder than any other voice in the universe.

And all of this is especially evil because if I really stop and think about it, and let things go quiet and listen patiently for the voice of the God who made me and the Savior who died for me, in his eyes, it turns out I'm actually—profoundly—precious, lovable, worthy, valuable, and even just a little ghetto-fabulous. When I find my true identity in Christ, then you turn back into the tiny, yapping little dog that you are.

So eat it, Fear-Of-What-Others-Think. You and I are done. And no, I'm not interested in "talking it through." I'm running, jumping, laughing you out of my life, once and for all. Or at least, that's what I really, really want, God help me.

I thought that Rice’s open letter illustrated well how many of the things we fear diminish, restrict, contort, and imprison human lives.  When the Psalmist declares that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” you hear a qualitatively different outcome for this fear.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning, the foundation, the framework for something great.  This fear expands, it releases to explore what is fathomless (wisdom of God), it opens us to something so vast every person can discover who they truly are, and it sets a course for life that is unbounded.  In fact the 112th Psalm (next) begins “Happy are those who fear the Lord!  You see, inasmuch as we fear God we won't have to fear anything else or anyone else.

1.  Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher and novelist, maintained that the God of whom Jews and Christians speak, the God who towers over the world infinitely can only dwarf and diminish human beings until they are obliterated.   Camus thought that to fear God is to cower before God like a whipped dog, to crumble before God in terror. Camus thought that this was all "fear of the Lord" could mean, and for this reason, he said, he was an atheist and rejected every last aspect of biblical faith.

Camus was a better novelist than he was a theologian, for he didn't understand why scripture insists that we fear God and what is meant by fearing God.  Camus never understood something that biblically informed people know profoundly; namely, there is no possibility of not fearing. Either we fear God and fear nothing else, or we don't fear God and fear everything else. But in any case there is no possibility of being fear-free.

Jesus said, "don't fear those who can kill only the body; fear him (i.e., God) who can destroy both body and soul in hell." Then is God cruel? tyrannical? On the contrary, Jesus adds immediately, "Two sparrows are sold for a penny. Yet God sees them and cares for them. How much more does God care for you. Why, God cares so much for you that even the hairs of your head are numbered." In Palestine of old sparrows were eaten just as we eat chicken. But since there's little meat on a sparrow, it takes many sparrows to make a meal. If you bought ten sparrows for a dollar, the bird-seller might just throw in an extra bird, so small and nearly insignificant was it. The point of our Lord's pronouncement is this: if God cares hugely about the smallest, throwaway sparrow, how much more does he care about us who are made in his image and whom he has named his covenant-partner?

Ninety-eight per cent of the time when the bible speaks of our fearing God it doesn't mean servile, cowering terror. It means awe, reverence, respect, veneration, adoration. Scripture makes it plain that God loves us and wants us to love him. Servile, cowering terror alone would only mean that God was monstrous and couldn't be loved. Scripture, however, is also aware that you and I are prone to trade on God's goodness, prone to become presumptuous, prone to regard his mercy as indulgence and his patience as tolerance. For this reason 2% of the time when scripture speaks of fearing God it doesn't mean awe or reverence or respect; it means plain, simple, ordinary fear.

Let's think for a moment of the people who know us best yet love us most. Here of course I have to mention my wife. Do I fear her? I don't fear that she's going to beat me up.  Therefore I don't cower before her.  But I do fear her. I fear offending her.  I fear wounding her.  Above all I fear breaking her heart.  And this is what scripture has in mind when it insists we are to fear God: we are so to reverence and adore him as to fear breaking his heart.  At least this is what scripture means 98% of the time. The other 2% it means we are to fear him in the ordinary sense of fear, just as 2% of the time I fear my wife in that I fear behaving in such a way as to cause her to forsake me.  And if my fear in this "2% sense" keeps me on the "straight and narrow," so much the better.

2. So, according to our text, the heart that fears the Lord; this person has taken up a posture that is the very fountain of wisdom.  The psalmist also declares that “all those who practise it have a good understanding”.  This foundation and the wisdom that emerges from it is something that is lived.  Wisdom is not merely a function of the mind’s discerning capacity; this wisdom the Psalmist has in mind is life lived.

Our Hebrew foreparents always knew that the Ten Commandments were far from being arbitrary and confining, onerous and oppressive; the Ten Commandments mark out the boundaries inside which there is blessing and freedom and contentment, outside which there is curse and bondage and misery. The Sermon On The Mount is our Lord's characterization of his followers. This characterization is to imprint itself so deeply into us that its hidden presence within us will make us glow. The weight and pressure of our risen Lord upon the apostles impelled them to speak his mind and heart; for this reason the apostolic injunctions on how to live bespeak the mind of Christ.  God’s wisdom is not a hidden thing.

God is creator; he has fashioned the creation in such a way that we can live in harmony with his plan and purpose and will, or we can try to live against it. But to try to live against it is to find ourselves rubbed raw, and rawer still, until life is gratingly painful, miserable, useless, and even abbreviated. In short, to try to live against the Creator's plan and purpose and will is to die.

We have no difficulty understanding all of this in the physical realm. The person who neglects nutrition, shortchanges herself on sleep, eats what is known to promote gastric distress, goes boating in icy waters without a lifejacket; when it all finally catches up to such a person and disaster overtakes him we shake our heads and say, "What was he thinking? Has he no wisdom?"

3.  I want to say something more about the fear of the Lord as it pertains to wisdom.  Inasmuch as I fear the Lord I find the seemingly odd assurance that at the same time as he rightfully is to be feared he completely has my back, so to speak.  There is this profound peace that comes in knowing that he wants nothing except my good.  As I stand before my Saviour dying for me on the cross I am assured of this deep desire of his to bring me good.

It would be obvious to you if you read Hebrew; Psalm 111 is an acrostic poem (so is the 112th).  After the initial “Praise the Lord”, each line speaking of the goodness of God begins with the succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is as if the Psalmist says that from A to Z God is worthy of praise.  Indeed, how wise it is to fear the one who wants nothing except to do you good!

For those who engage in post-graduate studies you will know that the person you choose as your thesis advisor is critical.  When I undertook doctoral studies I approached a man of significant intellectual ability to see if he would consider being my advisor; I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t somewhat intimidated, a little fearful that I might be getting in over my head.  He said yes; I was excited but quaking at the same time.  I found that he set high expectations but always with the view that I would produce a quality thesis; it called from me my best because he wanted what was best for me.  You know this in other areas of life—you are grateful to those who called you to reach beyond what you thought you could do.

When we say that salvation is all of grace; it is all of our God’s doing who saves; when we come to realize that nothing in my hand I bring—we must be careful to understand that this does not mean that we are nothing in all of this.  The God who is all in for us (what could be plainer in the cross of Jesus) calls a people to be all in for him.  A theologian (Thomas F. Torrance) of great skill put it this way: “All through the incarnate life and activity of the Lord Jesus we are shown that “all of grace” does not mean “nothing of man”, but precisely the opposite: all of grace means all of man, for the fullness of grace creatively includes the fullness and completeness of our human response in the equation.”

Consider the man with the unclean spirit that we read of in today’s gospel lesson.  He came ranting at Jesus accusing Jesus that Jesus’ purpose was to destroy him and others.  Note that Jesus released him from his torment and set him in his right mind.  God’s power is not the ability to do anything at all, rather it is the ability to achieve his purposes; you can see that his purpose in casting out of that which is unclean is for our good.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Wisdom will never be fully known if we presume that it is gained merely by ever growing mental capacity; wisdom is unleashed in us most fully because we trust the One who is wisdom.  Those who fear, revere, adore the Lord live in a larger world because they allow themselves to be open to something greater, something better, which lies deeply within even the most ordinary circumstances.

4.  One of the ways that we express our fear, our reverence of God, is in worship.  Sometimes we fell discouraged because there seem to be few in numbers; since people stay away in droves we feel that we wonder if it is wisdom to be here.

A man one day said to me (a man who does not attend church) that the church is still “the biggest game in town”—meaning that more people across our community go to church than any other single attraction.  I got thinking about that.   According to Stats Canada in 2008 there were 106.4 million movie theatre tickets sold in Canada.  In that same year about 20% of the population said they attended worship on a weekly basis.  If we counted people at worship the way we count movie ticket sales this means the church had over 300 million ticket takers that same year.

They are still many Canadians for whom the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practise it have a good understanding.