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Is there Wisdom in Fearing God?

What can we learn from this ancient understanding of our divine relationship?

by Carol Howard Merritt

Psalm Reading: Psalm 111

For Sunday, Jan. 29, Year B − Epiphany 4

In the midst of premarital counseling, I spoke to a young couple about the plethora of things that cause hardship in marriages—trying to discern and mark the bumps that might be in the road ahead.

Filled with Fear

We covered family of origin and attitudes toward money. We talked about children. Did they plan to have them? What if they weren’t able to have kids? What sort of parenting styles made sense to them? How would they discipline their child?

The groom-to-be looked at me steadily and said, “I was afraid of my dad. All he had to do was walk in the room and I was filled with fear. I never want my child to look at me the way that I looked at my father.”

When I had my own precious daughter, each time I looked at her sweet face, I felt consumed by my love for her. As she got older, and I noticed slight pangs of fear in her eyes, I hated them as much as I thought that I would.

God Had Teeth

I remember these moments when I read, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The words make me wince. I grew up as a

conservative evangelical where I heard this verse constantly.

God had teeth.

Fear and trembling were the appropriate response to God’s presence. I lived with a palpable sense that I was a sinner in the hands of an angry God that must be feared.

Interpreting “Fear”

As I grew older and my faith changed, I learned to interpret the word for “fear” in different ways—awe, respect, or reverence. After all, neurologists tell us that imagining an angry, vengeful God can make us angry, vengeful people.

But even modern translators seem to go back to “fear.” The fealty exchange seems clear in the poetry—fear God and God will feed and protect you. You will become wise.

The Hardest Question

Do we play semantic games when we try to explain the words away? The mention of fear is typically wrapped up in abusive relationships, but we can also fear disappointing someone we love dearly. Has our understanding of our divine relationship evolved in some way?  I wonder if it is important to fear God?  Does it really make us wise?


Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at TribalChurch.org.

Comments

  1. cheryl says:

    I just preached a sermon yesterday (third time ever) and I’m just stunned someone has already thought and wrote (or videoed something) about this weeks text–I haven’t read anything yet–I’ve just been watching videos–remember “video killed the radio star!” I literally just got out of my pjs, but I have had about a gallon of coffee it’s not llike I’ve done nothing today.

    peace

    cj

    at my seminary we have these “things” called D. Min students, and when I say it reall fast it sounds like Demons. So we have three Demons at my school–they actually look quite elegant.

  2. Wes McGee says:

    Carol,

    Great piece. In my opinion, the semantic gymnastics come from peoples view of God as being the punisher nonpareil of biblical history. To me, God seems more the disciplinarian than a punisher. Unfortunately, our society has co-mingled these terms until they have become virtually indistinguishable. Punishment is often meted out with a desire to “make them pay” for their indiscretions. God uses discipline to teach us valuable lessons and bring us back into a right relationship with Himself. God loves us and provides a means to return us to His fold; this does not negate the consequences of our actions. David sinned mightily against God, but after repenting God accepted him and still called him a man after his own heart. Nevertheless, David’s child with Bathsheba died. Many times when we blame God for punishing us what we are experiencing are the consequences of our own sins. I feared my father to a certain degree but I have never doubted my father loved me. This is the type of relationship I think we should aim for. Again, love your insights. You’re interesting and you make me think. That is the greatest compliment I pay.

    Best Regards,

    Wes

    Twitter: @jameswmcgee

  3. i think God works in mysterious ways…pretty original, eh? so….there is wisdom in any thinking about God…love, fear…I think Jesus spoke in riddles just to get us thinking….perhaps teh prophets did the same in the Old Testament…but, our thoughts about God are not always helpful, at least from our perspective…does that mean our idea of helpful is different from God’s idea of helpful? if I knew the answer to that I’d be writing a blog….thanks for the article….it got me thinking…charlie

  4. Rebekah says:

    I’ll be contrarian here – if I fear God I am trapped in my own fears, and nothing approximating love can occur. It is only when pure gift – of life, and love – is clear to me, that I can be freed to love. Our lives are given to us – not just lent.

    If love of God has anything to do with our faith, then fear must be removed. Whatever the psalmist might say! (Although I need to read up on its biblical context…awe or fear? My OT prof was clear it was awe.) And that love means we can love our neighbours, really, truly.

    If you don’t care if I love or not, then keep all the fear of god you want – it’s always proven useful in inducing conformity. Just I won’t believe you when you try to tell me you worship a god worth bothering about.

  5. Don says:

    I think for me I have tended to see the word “fear” as pertaining more to mystery than anything else. There’s something deeply luring about mystery – it attracts, but one knows that one is in the presence of something beyond one’s grasp. That’s the wisdom – to be open to mystery and its possibilities. Listening to people I often feel that we just know too much about God. Thanks for a great post.

  6. Aric Clark says:

    Two readings: one historical and one postmodern.

    1.The language of “fearing” the Lord is typical of near-eastern treaties between a suzerain and their vassal kings. Such treaties are very similar to the mosaic covenant in form – they contain a list of obligations of the vassal in return for a promise of benevolence and peace from the suzerain. If the obligations are upheld there is usually a list of blessings which will accrue to the vassal. Obedience to the covenant is typically called “loving” your Lord. If the obligations are not upheld then there is a list of curses which will befall the vassal (see Deuteronomy 28 for a list of blessings and curses). The beginning of wisdom is “fearing” the Lord because you recognize that obedience may not actually result in good crops (a typical blessing), but you’re pretty sure that disobedience will result in military reprisal (a typical threat). A wise person knows to be obedient out of fear, even if the Lord isn’t particularly lovable. Israel is constantly under the suzerainty of various empires and knows they are cruel. Applying this language to God is a way to say that we have a better and more ultimate Suzerain in heaven – one who is suzerain even over Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and so even the bullies who beat up on us had better look out for YHWH.

    2. Jack Caputo is fond of saying “God doesn’t ‘exist’ God insists.” That is, God is not an object which we can focus on or contemplate. God is an Event which comes upon us completely without our control. The Event is always transformative and always outside our grasp. We can’t grab it and hold it under a microscope and examine it. When the Event comes into contact with us it is often experienced as disruptive. Niebuhr once said that God was a void who destroys every conception and idea of God we have. God kills our idols, even the idols of our mind and heart which we cherish. This God, the God who is met most profoundly and dramatically in the cross of Christ and there most powerfully in the cry of dereliction “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” – that God occasions fear in the wise, because though there is hope that the future to which God is leading us is a good one, maybe the best of all possible ones, there is no route into that future that does not involve death to the self.

  7. Rebekah says:

    Hmmmm. Re: Aric Clark’s comments:

    1) If the “fear of God” in the psalm is rooted in the suzerain-vassal relationship of the times, is it “only”/”yikes! there’s power here!” a metaphor?

    2) I am afraid of what’s going to happen to me in experiencing the God Event (life?) (my atheist friends would like to know the difference). I’m not afraid of the God-Event per se – I’m afraid for the self. Being fearful of God seems silly to me, like cowering before a hurricane.

    By the way, God has killed off so many idols of god, I’m not sure if there’s much God left. When does kataphatic spirituality become atheism?

  8. Rachel says:

    When I lived in Chile, I got familiar with the Bible in Spanish. They have two words for fear. One is the traditional way we think of it, but the other translates more closely to “tremble in awe.” The Scripture always used the second word for fear. I think there may be some wisdom in this–may we never forget or lose our sense of awe with God.

  9. Larry Patten says:

    Carol…thanks for your thoughts about “fearing God.” Didn’t Annie Dillard say something about putting our seat belts on as we deal with Creator/creation? As much as I also cringe with describing God with fear, it challenges my faith. The ancients did fear God. God and gods were seen as other, different, dangerous. On my best days, as a lover of God and follower of Jesus, I may resist the “fear” label, but it helps me remember I AM the creation. Maybe also I remember how little I know. Again, thanks!

  10. Contemplating the encounter with God is like walking in the dark. I fear the dark, I fear what I cannot control and cannot fathom. I fear deep water where I cannot touch the bottom. I fear so many things that are beyond me and in this way I fear God. It’s not awe. I feel that too at times, but I also fear That Which Is Beyond My Control. I don’t fear my car, or my own driving (though I likely should…ha!), but I fear other drivers. I am cautious. Compared to other drivers on the road, God is quite a bit more significant and thus to be feared. I don’t know what God’s gonna do yet.

    And, yeah, Annie Dillard…Helmets, I believe. No more pill box hats and white gloves.

    I fear God…I cannot control Her.

  11. Davis says:

    You can’t “play semantic games” with translations. Until you understand the Hebrew, and more inportantly the Hebrew that was used in that time, you have no clue. Perhaps instead of worring about what neurologists tell us or how you “feel” about the scriptures, you should use the Hebrew, read what commentators throughout the ages have thought and learn some humility.

  12. Jim says:

    So here is the Strong’s entry for the Hebrew word we translate as “fear” in Psalm 111: http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3372&t=NASB

    I have always wondered why, when the messengers of God show up, the first words our of their mouths are often “fear not!”.

  13. Rebekah says:

    Hee hee hee…this is a lovely conversation!

    1) If the context of fear as used in Psalm 111 is indeed as Aric Clark says, the claim is that my god is a stronger bully than the other gods. As one who accepts a hermeneutic of suspicion, and who has personal experience of religious people’s succumbing to the temptation to bully in the name of god, I can compassionately understand Israel’s desire for a bigger bully, but I do not accept it as wisdom.

    2) But also as one who accepts that wisdom means my world must be torn down, I also would love to know if there is a connection between god and fear, beyond awe and beyond bullying. I haven’t seen that reflected yet in these comments. And Strong is no help here, as one could argue either awe or fear. There are several Hebrew terms translated fear: the transliterated version of our term at the end of the psalm is Yir’ah, Strong’s # 03374. I do not have my Brown Driver Briggs handy, nor do I have a theological dictionary of the old testament, but if someone does, can you enlighten us?

  14. Aaron Billard says:

    I really, really appreciated this article because I get asked about “fear God” all the time.

  15. Miriam Shelton says:

    I didn’t preach on the Psalm today, but instead drew a contrast between the responsibility of discerning whether the “word of God” we hear is authentically from God (in Deut reading) and being freaked out by fabulous preaching, undeniably from God (Mark passage). It seems to me that the fear implied in these passages is not a passive thing, as some comments above seem to imply. They do not posit the individual as a mere weakling in the hands of a perhaps angry God, but rather as active responders to a communicative God. The fear is about US, not about God, a fear of failure to respond adequately, or the consequences of mis-discerning, or of not measuring up to our part in the bargain, being afraid to be transformed, and moved by God. We are invited by God to be collaborators and that can be a far scarier thing than fear of reprisals.

  16. Murray says:

    You got it right in the end. Awe. Respect. Reverence.

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