Psalm 34:11-14 (RSV)
Come, O sons, listen to me,
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
What man is there who desires life, and covets many days, that he may enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
The Christian gospel is typically cast by believers as “good news.” But Christianity’s critics have often said its message is in fact just the opposite. They regard it as a religion of fear that owes its appeal primarily to its ability to scare people. Take away the threat of damnation, they have said, and the promises made by Christians will cease to have much resonance in people’s lives. I suspect that as an empirical matter this claim does have some validity. Keep in mind that for much of the history of our religion its proponents have tended to emphasize strongly those parts of Christian doctrine that do in fact evoke the prospect of a Last Judgment. It has only been fairly recently that this has ceased to be the case.
Still, for me as a believer myself the idea that Christianity is fundamentally about fear has never rung true. Not in the sense intended by the critics I have in mind, at least. I grant that “fear of the Lord” is definitely a Biblical theme, and it is sometimes treated in Scripture in ways that can easily be construed as invitations to worry (and even anxiety) about one’s ultimate destiny (think of the last part of Matthew 25). But that is hardly the whole story, and it is only by dwelling on texts of that sort without taking into consideration the reassurances provided in others that one can really succumb to such fears.
The kind of fear that can be evoked by talk of a final judgment is hardly the only thing Biblical authors appear to have had in mind when speaking of “fear of the Lord,” moreover. More often than not, in fact, they seem to be referring to something quite different. Take, for example, the statement in Proverbs that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). Surely it is not fright the author has in mind there. It is more the kind of emotion we feel when encountering a person or thing that inspires respect, reverence, and even awe in us. In the dictionary I use, “fear” has multiple meanings, one of which is “reverential awe.” I think that is a good way of capturing the meaning intended by the author of Proverbs 9 – and also by the Psalmist in the text at issue here.
Surely it is right for fear in that sense to be actively cultivated by people of faith, as the Psalmist suggests; and I think it is interesting that the reason he gives for doing so has nothing whatsoever to do with Judgment Day. Rather, fear of the Lord is cast as the basis for having a life that is truly good and satisfying on this earth.
Good and gracious God, source of all that is truly good in our lives, we are in awe of you. In part this is because the enormous powers you wield, which exceed anything we can possibly imagine and dwarf the power of even the mightiest among us. But above all it is because of your goodness, which enables us to be confident that in the end nothing can separate us from Your loving care and support.