The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. / The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. - Proverbs 1:7; 9:10
Now that we have established a baseline understanding of fear, it seems appropriate to develop a better understanding of what the fear of God has to do with living for God through Christ.
It seems simple enough to begin with the biblical axiom that wisdom and knowledge begin with the fear of Yahweh (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Wisdom and knowledge in the Proverbs are far from being restricted to intellectual exercises or abstract reasoning. Proverbs is eminently practical. Not only that, but it also frames wisdom and knowledge in moral terms.
Between Two Extremes
We don't often do this. There is a strain of thinking in the church which views unthinking godliness as a virtue rather than a shortcoming. This seems to be a reaction against an opposing strain of thinking which views good thinking as equal to godliness. The problem, of course, is that Scripture recognizes neither extreme as valid. Instead, there is a constant push for thinking and living to be connected, not disconnected, and for one to lead to the other. Thinking should guide our conduct rather than terminate in the mind. And our conduct should be guided by right thinking rather than being separated from it.
So how are the fear of God and living for God connected? The fear of God as the beginning of knowledge and wisdom must mean several things: a true, although limited, apprehension of the Godness of God, a proper, although limited, reaction to the power and greatness of God, a respect for the sovereignty of God, and a love for God.
Interestingly, the fear of God does not conduce to hatred and avoidance, but love and nearness. The fear of God has the opposite effect of so many other fears, which repel us rather than attract us. When people fear God, they are not moved to run away from God but to worship him. The one who fears God does not look for a refuge from God, but looks to God as the refuge.
This is a significant feature of the fear of God. Fear and worship appear to be tied closely together in Scripture. The one who fears most is most likely to walk in Yahweh's ways (Ps. 128:1). A person who does not fear God lacks the reverence, respect, and awe that results from a true apprehension of God.
We may say, then, that perhaps the defining feature of fear is reversed in the case of God. Whereas fear of nearly every other kind and object tends to provoke recoil and distance, the fear of God attracts and draws near.
Fear, then, must be understood in more than one way. It is not only a negative thing to be avoided. Fear, when properly understood, is rather to be cultivated, as long as it is the fear of God. Perhaps we might say that inordinate fear of other objects is caused by a disproportion of our natural fear instinct toward other objects. The best way to "conquer" fear is not to become fearless, but to cultivate the right fear - the fear of God. The fear of God must be the fear that regulates all other fears.
It is a proper relationship to God which properly orients us to every other object. The fear of God forms the foundation for true knowledge and right action. This means that the fear of God is logically prior to every other aspect of our relationship to God.
The fear of God may not be our first experience of God, but the fear of God must be the foundation eventually for properly organizing, understanding, and reacting to God.
In this way, the fear of God is not a doctrine that may be abstracted from our life for God, but the fear of God must be seen as a necessary foundation for a life lived for God. If we would live for God, then we must cultivate a fear of God. And it must be for all of life daily rather than relegated to a few singular experiences. Those experiences must shape our understanding of God rather than being exceptions to our norm.
There is one important aspect about the fear of God that we have mentioned but not highlighted. It is that the fear of God must be cultivated. This approach is distinct from most other fears since those are usually unexplained and uncultivated. Many fears develop passively as a result of circumstances that we experience or a psychological aversion that we have difficulty explaining.
But the fear of God should not be treated this way. Instead, the fear of God should be actively cultivated rather than passively developed. This means that we ought not to wait for some experience of God in which we are overawed by a sense of his greatness or some other attribute. Instead, we should actively pursue a proper sense and understanding of God in worship by inclining our whole selves toward God in submissive worship.
So how should this fear of God affect daily life? The New Testament language of putting off and putting on is helpful here (cf. Eph. 4, Col. 3). I find in my life that there is plenty that seems disconnected from my fear of God. I just do it relatively unthinkingly, or I do it motivated by other fears I can clearly articulate.
For the things I do unthinkingly, as I grow in my knowledge and understanding of God, I can choose to add proper thinking to the things I do more or less mindlessly. The action may or may not need to be changed, but it is good for me to connect the proper understanding to what I am doing.
As to those things which are motivated by other fears, such as how I raise my children, interact with coworkers, or react to difficult news, there is much that cultivating a proper fear of God may do in order to improve the manner in which I act and react. Fears tend to determine the trajectory of my life, and so even small tweaks in the reasons I do what I do or how I react may tend to have an outsize impact over the course of time.
The fear of God is not a morally neutral thing, thus it is not optional either. The fear of God is foundational to life and fundamental to how I live.