Monday, October 24, 2011

Fear of the Lord

TITLE: Fear of the Lord
SCRIPTURE: Proverbs 9:10
Written by: Conrade Yap

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10)

Wisdom means many things to many people.  For some, it means anything that brings about a good return on one's investment. For others, it may mean improving relationships overall. Yet, for some, it means simply cleverness, wit, or a masterful stroke of intelligent move performed at the right time. Buddhists have their Buddha figure as a guide to their ultimate nirvana. Hindus use holy men and Brahmins as objects of wisdom. Many in secular circles, especially atheists use their heads, often critically, against religion. For the secularists, the atheists, and the skeptics, the Christian religion is ultimately one big lie. Christopher Hitchens blames religion for their role in much violence and 'holy wars' and claims that 'religion poisons everything.' Richard Dawkins dismisses Christianity as a belief in a 'God delusion.' For these men, the fear of the Lord is farthest from their minds, for they are their own gods.

A) Foolishness to the Greeks

Greece is famously known as the land that has produced some of the world's most prominent thinkers and philosphers. People like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates are still being studied by many people in schools, universities, and widely quoted by learned people all over the world. According to the Greeks, the word 'philosophy' comprises two words: 'philo' (love) and 'sophia' (wisdom). Literally, philosophy means the 'love of wisdom.' Paul is well aware of the prevailing cultural sentiment at that time. He writes to the Church at Corinth,

"For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness." (1 Cor 22-23)

This week, I like to reflect on true spiritual wisdom. It is a wisdom that the world cannot understand. It is a wisdom that is foolishness to the Greeks. It is a wisdom that is drastically different from worldly cleverness. It is a wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord.

B) Why 'Foolishness' is Important

Worldliness is a kind of spiritual cancer that will dominate, conquer, and kill the soul. Unlike the physical cancer where the afflicted will take pains to make plans for their loved ones to prepare for their passing, worldliness sucks a person in, often willingly and wilfully. The human body literally has millions of cells that are constantly being replenished as old ones die and new ones form. Normal cells typically know when to grow, when to stop growing, and when to die. When this normal process is disrupted, cells lose the ability to control their growth. When cells refuse to die when its time to die, or to grow uncontrollably, it infects the surrounding cells. Sometimes, the cells spread through the rest of the body to spread the cancer. Thus, it is common to see a cancer that starts in one region spreading to other parts of the human body. One way to stop this rot is chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy essentially tries to blast these cancerous cells out of the body. Modern medical technology has laser or heat-based systems that can accurately pinpoint the cancerous regions for a precise removal. Despite these advancements, cancer remains one of the top killers in the world.

If worldliness is likened to cancer, it is easy to see why it is important to recognize it, and to eradicate it. Spiritual chemotherapy is like driving out such worldliness in our hearts, and to replace it with the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of true spiritual wisdom.

B) The Triangle of Worldliness

Brennan Manning talks about worldly wisdom that is in the forms of security, power, and pleasure. I call it the 'triangle of worldliness.' Before we embark on the path on spiritual wisdom, it is important to identify what hinders us. It is crucial to see what are the spiritual cancers that can spread to infect the rest of our spiritual selves.
"Often our preoccupation with the three most basic human desires - security, pleasure, and power - is the cloak that covers transparency. The endless struggle for enough money, good feelings, and prestige yields a rich harvest of worry, frustration, suspicion, anger, jealousy, anxiety, fear, and resentment. These powerful, emotion-backed desires cause 99 percent of the self-inflicted and unnecessary suffering in our lives. They continually focus our attention on self and keep us from being transparent, dimming and obscuring 'the glory of God in the face of Christ.' (2 Cor 4:6) " (Brennan Manning, The Importance of Being Foolish, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005, p38-9)

The 'triangle of worldliness' feeds on each other. Any of them tends to focus on the self rather than on others or on God. Worldliness tends to use people as tools. It hides a false sense of security. It runs after temporal things that looks nice to have, but is utterly unhelpful. Worse, it projects a false promise that ultimately leads one toward damnation. Such worldliness can also affect Christians. According to Manning,

"The insecure Christian finds it exceedingly difficult to listen to the opinions of others. He is so uncertain about his own identity that he has to assert himself all the time, gripped as he is by the fear that in listening to others or surrendering an opinion he may lose a part of his own shaky identity." (66)

Key Point: The fear of the Lord means blasting away at the triangle of worldliness.

C) Holy Risking
Last week, the world looks in horror to see a 2 year old toddler in China being run over by a truck, ignored by 18 passers-by, and laid dying on the road, bathed in a sea of read. Little Yue Yue died in hospital after a few days. It has caused many people to reflect upon what it means to be human. Words like 'apathy,' 'shameless,' 'dehumanizing,' are commonly used to describe what happened. As many in China do some serious soul-searching, people have pointed to the presence of 'fear' among many Chinese citizens. In 2006, a kind Samaritan named Peng Yu, stopped his vehicle to help an elderly lady who had fallen by the roadside. Instead of gratitude, the woman sued the man, and won! With the knowledge that good deeds may lead to a lawsuit, many people explain away the apathetic behaviour of the 18 people who did nothing to help. If such ridiculous sentences can happen, what is the point of risking oneself?

According to the world, this seems logical. Yet, Jesus teaches us in the parable of the Good Samaritan that it is not so. When asked about who our neighbours are, Jesus relates a story where a half-dead man lies dying on the roadside, having been robbed, beaten, and stripped. A priest walks by and ignored him. A Levite walks by and does the same. It takes a Samaritan, much despised by Jews and the religious hierarchy to do a good deed. In the parable, Jesus intentionally uses the path 'from Jerusalem to Jericho.' This path is most well known for robberies and bandits. It is also reported that some people fake injury to take advantage of kind souls. Thus, when the priest or the Levite passes by the injured man, they are practicing 'worldly wisdom' to preserve their own selves, lest they be cheated. As a priest, one of the requirements of being a priest is to avoid touching dead bodies, lest their purity is compromised. In order to keep themselves ritually clean, they justify their actions by not touching a dead body, or a body that appears to be dead. Who knows? If the priest tries to help, and the person is actually dead, will it not compromise the priestly purity?

Instead, Jesus elevates the much despised Samaritan into a saint, who not only helps, but goes out all of the way to make sure the injured man is taken care of.
  • Worldliness thinks self-preservation before others; Holy risking puts others before self.
  • Worldliness avoids helping first, and rationalizes later; Holy risking helps first, and doesn't even try to rationalize.
  • Worldliness calculates gains before action; Holy risking sees human lives over and above profit and loss.
Key Point: The fear of the Lord requires holy risking.

D) Spiritual Wisdom Begins in Holy Fear

The 'fear of the Lord' goes way beyond a paranoia of a Divine God. Much wisdom can be learned from the writings of the early Christian Fathers. In the first and second century, a learned man by the name of Hermas shares this about the fear of the Lord.

"Fear," said he, "the Lord, and keep his commandments. For if you keep the commandments of God, you will be powerful in every action. Every one of your actions will be incomparable, for fearing the Lord you will do all things well. This is the fear that you ought to have, that you may be saved. But don't fear the devil, for fearing the Lord you will have dominion over the devil, for there is no power in him." (The Shepherd of Hermas Book II, link)

Holy fear leads to a proper view of life. This particular piece of advice, given to daughters and sons, is one that is bathed in much spiritual wisdom.
"We need to teach our daughters to distinguish between a man who flatters her - and a man who compliments her.

A man who spends money on her - and a man who invests in her.
A man who views her as property - and a man who views her properly.
A man who lusts after her - and a man who loves her.
A man who believes he is God's gift to women - and a man who remembers a woman was God's gift to man...
And then teach our boys to be that kind of a man." (Source: Anonymous)
Holy fear leads to risking the prospect of worldly gains, that we count all things but loss, save for the promise of Christ. We need to rise about the triangle of worldliness, and to begin our path of spiritual wisdom, beginning with the fear of the Lord, proceeding with holy risk, and looking forward to the heavenly kingdom that is to come. The fear of the Lord means knowing the Holy God more and more.

Thought: Worldly fear is often a result of ignorance. In contrast, the fear of the Lord, is a result of knowing God more and more, until the fear of the Lord, eclipses absolutely the fear of the world.


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