The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. - Proverbs 9:10 (ESV)

This is the first post in a series on the topic of fear and its relationship to living for God through Christ. In this first post, we are going to consider fear in general. Then we will consider the fear of God, which we will follow with an examination of various other fears which we experience but which are generally not good.

Defining Fear

What is fear? Fear is a perception of a threat or danger to oneself or others. It is typically unpleasant and characterized by anxiety, worry, or apprehension.

Fear is a universal experience. I hesitate to say it is universal mostly because of the few people whom I have met who seemed unfazed by every circumstance I witnessed them experience. However, I am confident that, given the right circumstance, each of these would have also experienced fear. A person may be unfazed by most things, and yet I have a hard time imagining that someone might be completely devoid of fear.

The only people I can imagine being totally devoid of fear are those whose minds are so incapacitated by disability that they are generally unable to respond to almost any stimulus in a manner we might consider rational or sensible.

When we say someone is fearless, we normally mean it as a sort of compliment. But this does not mean that the person has no fear. That would be an exaggeration bordering on hyperbole. Why? It is because the key component in what we refer to as fearlessness is not the absence of fear so much as a disposition to face fears rather than run from them. Fearlessness is marked more by an ability to overcome fears than by a true absence of fear.

However, I am struck by the fact that there seem to be people who by all accounts seem to almost never experience fear. They will dive from cliffs, jump from planes, do and say embarrassing things, endure scorn, and scoff at authority with seeming abandon. What do we make of these people? Perhaps we could discover a scenario which they feared, such as isolation or exposure to a dangerous animal, but perhaps not.

And yet, perhaps it's possible? If not in the general population, perhaps there are some  whose neurological, endocrinological, or other systems fail to produce a typical reaction to extreme situations? And yet these anomalies would seem to prove at least that if fear is not universal then it is at least normal.

At this point it is worth pausing to ask, is true fearlessness desirable? A person like the one described above may not experience fear, and that may bring some benefit in the form of exhilirating experiences which relatively few enjoy (then again, what would be the source of the exhiliration if not fear?). On the other hand, we might imagine that a life of true fearlessness might be more likely to end sooner rather than later. It seems axiomatic to say that fearlessness and folly tend to go hand in hand.

Why is this? Fear is to our minds what pain is to our bodies: it lets us know when something harmful may happen. Except that fear, if anything, is meant to be prior to pain. Our fears tend to be of things which we believe will cause pain, and fear serves to reduce the probability of having the experience. A total lack of fear removes an important preventative for pain. Thus a lack of fear might be said to exponentially increase the probability of pain. Perhaps we could say fear and folly have an inverse relationship, at least in a limited sense. The lesser the fear, the greater the folly.

Thus, we can conclude that there is wisdom in fear. In fact, we can even say that fear forms wisdom's very foundation. The right fear of the right object in the right manner grounds and drives wise living. The problem, then, is not fear itself, but foolish fear. Wise fear is not oxymoronic; it ought to be redundant. This is precisely the message of Proverbs which tells us in 1:7 and 9:10 that knowledge and wisdom (respectively) begin with the fear of the LORD. Fear, then, is not an aspect of life to be ignored or avoided but actively embraced, so long as it is properly focused. A truly fearless person cannot be wise.

And yet, what do we make of the fact that "Do not fear" is such a common command in the Bible? Fear is not always a negative thing, at least not in Scripture, which calls the fear of Yahweh the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10; cf. 1:7). As we read accounts of interactions between God and people, fear is a common reaction (e.g. the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, Samson's parents, Isaiah in the throneroom).

Fear's Function

The fear of Yahweh is appropriate and proper, as God is the greatest possible threat to us, having infinite power and able to do with us as he pleases. Hebrews tells us it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31). A right view of God tends to evoke a certain sense of dread. And yet this is what makes a relationship with God as Father all the sweeter. The God whom we most dreaded becomes our heavenly Father whom we most love. As John says, perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).

When God commands people to not fear, it is not in reference to himself but in reference to some other fear, such as the inhabitants of Canaan (Deut. 31:6). The lack of the fear of God is not a positive thing, but grounds for faultfinding as in the case of the Samaritans (2 Kings 17:34). The great problem in worship is not the presence of the fear of God but the lack of it (cf. 2 Kings 17:34-40).

I believe we can describe fear as a function of faith. That is to say that what we fear is a result of our perceptions passing through our matrix of beliefs and desires, producing a response of apprehension, dread, worry, etc. In other words, we experience circumstances and perceptions which require interpretation. The interpretation we give depends on various aspects related to our source of strength, our dependence, and our resources.

Can we then have too much fear? If fear is wisdom's foundation, should there be any  limit to it? It would seem so, since one of fear's most common and intuitive reaction is inaction. But wisdom is characterized by right action, even at times very bold action. So unlimited fear leading to inaction could not be the ideal. Instead, fear properly regulated must not only deter foolish action but also motivate wise choices.

The Beginning of Wisdom, Not the End

Perhaps we ought to recall at this point that fear itself is not wisdom, only the beginning of it. Wisdom does not consist in fear, it only begins there. Thus fear must be delimited, bordered, held within certain bounds. And I suppose the most natural creator of those bounds would be the object of fear. Thus, we begin with fear of God, them we allow him to guide us from there. And here we have yet another reason the reading and preaching of the Scriptures is so important: they hekp us know where fear must conduce to action.

In sum, fear must not be viewed as a purely negative thing. Fear appears to be a natural faculty which must be focused on the proper object. The object of fear determines our reaction. Therefore, if we would live for God through Christ, the fear of God must be paramount for us in order that our conduct may be guided in response to a right view of God which cascades into a right view of everything else. If we fear not God, we fear poorly.

On Fear and Living for God Through Christ