On Sunday, I guest preached at All Saints Church in Seattle. Pastor Bill Berger has become a friend and invited me to speak during his church’s series on Proverbs, specifically, to address “the fear of the Lord,” which is mentioned several times in Proverbs and elsewhere in scripture. Click the link above to listen to the recording, or, if you prefer to read it, the manuscript is below.
I also recommend that you check out All Saints Church’s podcast, which you may access here, to listen to other sermons in the Proverbs series and beyond!
The Fear That Leads To Flourishing (Proverbs 3:5-6, 9:10, 16:6, etc.)
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And after making the heavens and the earth, and all of the animals, and calling them “good,” God completed their creation by breathing God’s own breath—God’s pneuma—God’s spirit into Adam and Eve, calling the capstone of creation “Very Good.” And God explained to Adam and Eve what their lives were to be about, saying to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.
In the beginning, there was no fear of harm. Only flourishing. Only fruitfulness. This was how God seemed to have wanted it. Adam and Eve were meant to live in total freedom, enjoying God’s world as participants. The only fear they were meant to have was a fear of God that would keep them from knowing any other fear. This “fear” was not one of cowaring terror or hiding or dread—it was a fear that was more like awe—reverence—respect—for God that would keep Adam and Eve in perfect peace.
The fear of God, for them, would mean that they would trust God completely and obey God when, after offering them infinite yeses—the fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, every living thing that moves on the earth, every plant and (almost) every tree,—God gave them one big NO.
We don’t know when, exactly, Adam and Eve stopped fearing God, but we know what came of it. Sin. A breaking of that perfect peace. Eve, apparently, feared ignorance more than God, and so she ate the forbidden fruit. Adam, it seems, feared peer pressure more than God, because he, too, ate of the forbidden fruit, and suddenly, a new kind of fear set in. Fear of nakedness. Fear of being found out. Fear of being caught. And soon after it, fear of hunger, fear of predators, fear of one another, suspicion, and dread. Trading fear of God for lesser fears led to a great flood of awareness of all sorts of other fears. Like Adam and Eve, instead of fear and reverence for our Creator, our knowledge of self leads to a flood of fears in the created order. We are now paralyzed by our fears.
But humanity was created for flourishing, and believe it or not, God’s intention for his image-bearers did not change because of the fall. Even in our sin-soaked world, we are still meant to live fruitfully and flourish.
Human flourishing was one of the reasons God became flesh and dwealt among us. Jesus said to his followers, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. (Flourishing!) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
In Christ we are not meant to just get by, just trudge through life, just get through the day, but rather his desire is for us to experience fullness of life. We are meant to live and love and worship fruitfully.
So what keeps us from this abundant life that Jesus speaks of? What keeps us from flourishing in the way we are meant to flourish?
The writer of Proverbs gives us a clue:
- “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (9:10)
- “The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.” (15:33)
- “By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil.” (16:6)
- “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.” (19:23)
The fear of The Lord is the fear that leads to life, and misplaced fear—fear of any other thing—robs us of the life we were created for.
Now, before I get too matter of fact, making it sound easy, making it sound like, “we just need to fear God and nothing else and everything will be fine,” let me pause to acknowledge that there are a lot of totally legitimate things to fear in this life.
I was 36 years old when I got married. Many of my closest friends are women in their late thirties and forties who are still single and would like to be married. A very real fear that some of them have is a fear of growing old alone. That’s a legitimate fear.
We read about teenage girls walking home from school and disappearing, vanishing from the face of the earth, turning up ten years later and discovering that they spent a decade in chains, being severely abused in a basement less than a mile from their own parents house.
I was at a networking event the other night, where I met men and women in their forties and fifties who have found themselves unemployed, facing mortgages and college loans and shrinking bank accounts. They tried to act brave as they schmoozed and connected. But many of them are ashamed and terrified.
I lived in New York City from 1999-2011, which meant that I knew life in New York before 9/11 and I knew life after 9/11. I had friends who worked in the Twin Towers, friends who were there that day, who escaped with thier lives as fire and debris and bodies fell from the sky all around them.
New Yorkers had good reasons to fear after 9/11.
I travel for work frequently, flying somewhere usually once or twice a month. I have been on a commercial jet that had to make an emergency landing, full crash positions, and now, whenever I’m on a plane that experiences turbulence, I experience heart pounding, hand clamming fear.
I could go on. But I don’t need to, because you’re all living in the same world I am, breathing the same polluted, cancer-causing air. There is plenty to fear in this world. And these fears have the capacity to flatten us. To enslave us. To keep us from experiencing joy and freedom and fullness of life.
Misplaced fear has the power to rob us blind.
But… there is a fear that trumps all other fears. And that is what the writer of Proverbs reiterates over and over. There is a fear that leads to wisdom and knowledge… there is a fear that turns us away from evil… there is a fear that leads to life.
When we walk in the fear of the Lord, we are walking in a sense of reverence and awe and respect for God and God’s ways. This fear—this awe—this reverence infuses and informs every area of our lives, because, as we see in the book of Proverbs, God has something to say about everything, from the most intense to the most mundane aspects of life. And always, God’s instructions are meant to help us flourish. If we come to these instructions in the book of Proverbs rooted in the fear of the Lord, recognizing that his ways are higher and better than any other ways, we respect and obey his ways—and we thrive. When we walk in any other fear, putting our own ways or anybody else’s above God’s—we usually suffer.
For the sake of time and staying on topic this morning, I am not going to read through all of the passages I could highlight right now, but if you make it a practice of reading through the book of Proverbs regularly, you will find that there are instructions that will help us flourish in every area of life– in our marriages, in our friendships, in our finances, in our business practices. There is advice on how to have a strong work ethic… how to influence leaders… how to make friends. There is advice on anger management and maintaining healthy relationships by avoiding gossip and dealing with conflict in a fruitful, restorative way.
There are instructions on the importance of disciplining children for their own good, and on keeping control over our words, and on finding contentment in our lives, rather than envying others. There is even a passage that instructs to care for our animals—yes, God has an opinion on how we treat the animals in our care.
And throughout all of this, the book of Proverbs is peppered with reminders that all of the above instructions and bits of wise advice begin with loving and fearing God above all else.
We are meant to flourish. But we are also meant to contribute to the flourishing of others.
When Jesus began his ministry, he announced himself and defined his mission by reading from Isaiah 61. The passage he referenced says this:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
When we fear God above all else, we become oaks of righteousness planted by streams of water, bearing fruit and standing as a display of the Lord’s splendor. But we would be terribly mistaken if we missed the important fact of this passage, which is that the fear of the Lord empowers us not only to thrive and flourish in our own lives, but it also calls us to participate with God in helping others flourish around us as we, filled with the Spirit of The Lord, become Christ’s hands and feet and voice, comforting those who mourn and fighting for justice for the oppressed, as we build up what has been destroyed and repair what has been devastated in the lives of those around us, even for many generations.
So what does someone who walks in the fear of the Lord actually look like?
I have come up with a few attributes of someone who walks in the fear of the Lord. See how these strike you.
1. A person who fears God has peace in all circumstances, because she knows that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
2. A person who fears God demonstrates wisdom and integrity. He lives within his means, doesn’t spend more than he earns, and is intentional about being generous to others. He is as wise as a serpant and as innocent as a dove.
3. When a person fears God, her life is marked by the fruit of the Spirit—she demonstrates love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
4. A person who fears God is the light of the world. He brightens and illuminates the world, from his own home to every public endeavor he participates in.
5. A person who fears God extends mercy and forgiveness liberally. He knows that God is just, and he entrusts God to enact justice. He contemplates Jesus’s words when he said, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13, ESV) Liberal mercy, my word. A person who fears God is courageously merciful.
6. A person who fears God does not live in shame. In the fear of the Lord, she stands in total awe of the Cross. Though she knows that she has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, she believes that she is justified by God’s grace as a gift, and she receives that comprehensive forgiveness. She treasures the freedom of the Cross and is emboldened by it to trust God in all circumstances.
7. In fact, a person who fears God is able to be fearless in every other respect because she knows that she has nothing to lose. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
When fear of harm or fear of man creep up, which it will from time to time—anyone who has experienced turbulence or losing a child in a grocery store knows this is true— a person who walks in the fear the Lord fights fear with fear, grasping the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, and slaying fear of harm or fear of evil or fear of man with words like this, often uttered with a trembling voice: “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty!”
A person who fears God stands on the words of Christ, who said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” And Proverbs 28:1 says, “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.”
So how do we get there? This is all very well and good, you might be saying, but how does one get there? How do we grow in the fear of the Lord?
I am going to suggest four things from scripture that I have found to be very effective in my own life in this respect. I will say at the offset that, like every aspect of Christian discipleship and growing in grace, this is not something you do and it is done, but rather something you do and you keep on doing for the rest of your life. Discipleship is never finished in this life.
If you want to grow in the fear of the Lord—if you want to be equipped to fight fear with fear—here are a few things that will help.
First, study the word of God.
Day by day, let your life be steeped in scripture. Let it shape how you think, how you speak, and how you act. The word of God is the sword of the spirit, and it is how we fight fear with fear. Studying the word of God is how, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor 10)
Second, meditate on who God is and what God has done through the ages. Contemplate what it means that God is the Redeemer, Protector, Father, Deliverer, Savior.
My friend Angie has been growing in the fear of the Lord for as long as I’ve known her—over twelve years—and even longer than that. And from October 2011 until April 2013 she walked beside her husband, David, as he battled cancer. David died on April 12, leaving Angie and their four children, all under the age of 9. At his memorial service, Angie got up and read with boldness St. Patrick’s Breastplate, which had been David’s battle cry throughout his fight against cancer. And she sent me a card a few weeks ago, in which she wrote, “I don’t have time to say much right now, but I want you to know that everything God says about himself is true.” Walking in the reverence and awe and fear of the Lord for years prepared Angie for tribulation, and she faced it, with sorrow and tears and sadness and tremendous strength and boldness and courage and, yes, even joy.
Be in God’s word, and meditate frequently on who God is.
Pray at specific set times and pray without ceasing. Pray as you wake up and pray as you lie down. Pray as you receive meals, pray as you search for your lost child in the grocery store, pray as you balance your checkbook and notice that the numbers on the screen are red and not black. Pray as you respond to your spouse’s unkind words, and pray as you make arrangements to remove yourself and your children from a dangerous domestic situation. Pray as the airplane bumps and jostles along.
Prayer accomplishes many things, but two things in particular are these: prayer keeps you in peace as you wait for a potentially devastating outcome, and prayer equips you with strength to endure when the outcome is, in fact, devastating.
And lastly, stay tight with the body of Christ.
If the righteous are as bold as a lion, it is largely because of the pride. The body of Christ a flock of sheep, yes, but it is also a pride of lions who are strongest individually when they are united corporately. I am emboldened as a Christian by my brothers and sisters who walk beside me and encourage me and spur me on and have my back. Surround yourself with friends who fear God above all else.
I don’t know about you, but this has felt like an intense message to me. And I think that part of the reason it feels so intense to be preaching this message is that this thing—the fear of the Lord—is an anchor for our faith. It is the bedrock on which the rest of our walk of faith stands. If this thing—the fear of the Lord—is absent, anything else we might do or say is, frankly, quite shaky.
If our goal is to stand and to thrive and to flourish, our lives and our faith depend on pursuing and growing in the holy and reverent fear of the Lord.
Before I close, I want to offer a word to parents especially. I love that we had a baby dedication this morning. How wonderful for these children to have the gift of believing and praying parents, and a community of faith that is committed to being with them as they grow up in the Lord. Parents, you need to know that your children will learn what to fear from watching you. If you live in fear of financial ruin, or fear of predators, or fear of failure, or any other fear—your children will probably fear those things too. But if your children see you studying God’s word and praying, if your children see that you fear the Lord and live in the light of the perfect love that casts out all fear, your children will catch that from you, and they will likely walk joyfully in the fear that leads to flourishing.
We can fear God and trust God, because of God’s infinite love for us. “Perfect love casts out all fear.”
If you follow your pastor, Bill, on Facebook, you may have seen this illustration yesterday, and it is a favorite of mine as well. The scene comes from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter eight. The four Pevensie children have found themselves in a very strange world full of very real danger, and they are on a quest to help deliver Narnia from the evil power that is wrecking havoc on every man, beast, and even the vegetation.
They have heard about Aslan, the Christ-figure of the story, but they do not know much about him at all. After dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, the children inquire: “Shall we see him?”
“Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for. I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr Beaver.
“Is-is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Living in the fear of the Lord is not a guarantee of safety. In this world you will face tribulation. But it is a well-placed fear. It is, in fact, the only fear that leads to flourishing.
I am going to close with a passage from Proverbs 2, that I believe summarizes everything I have just been saying.
“My son, my daughter, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, delivering you from the way of evil.”