Fear, Wisdom, Humility, Etc.

Weekly Lectionary takes a look (sometimes brief, sometimes longer, sometimes odd) at one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday (or in this case, the Sunday it's posted). This week we'll look at Psalm 111.

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" - Psalm 111:10a, NRSV

I hear and see that verse a lot. It's set up to be ubiquitous. It's clear. It's straightforward. You probably can imagine seeing it on your Facebook wall with some majestic picture of nature in the background. Hold on a second...

I just threw that together on Keynote (the Mac version of Powerpoint). Where was I? Oh yeah, it's a popular verse. And yet I wrestle with that verse a good deal. It starts with simple questions like "What is fear in this verse?" and "What is wisdom?" We could sit here for days hashing out those two. Then you consider the fact that there are God-fearers who are not wise and there wise people that do not fear God.

Don't get me wrong. It's a great verse. It's fuller context is even better. We should fear God; be in awe of God and be cognizant of God's power. And wisdom is something to which we should aspire. We all need to be as wise as we can. I think the trouble is we often dilute this verse down to "Fear God=Wisdom" and that's not quite the case.

The verse pretty explicitly states that fearing God is the beginning of wisdom. It's not the destination but rather the beginning. Wisdom doesn't get zapped into you all at once. Believe me, I wish it did. Rather, people gain wisdom on a lifelong journey. So wisdom is a modifier for someone who follows God. It is not synonymous. 

The verse goes on to state that those who practice fear have a good understanding. So now we're talking about an ongoing action. And it's important to remember that this practice is one of humility, which to me suggests that wisdom is not something wielded with arrogance. There's a difference between a wise person and a know-it-all. For starters, the latter is a pain in the butt. More importantly, the latter thinks he or she has all the answers but does not. The former knows that he or she does not have all the answers, but knows far more than the blustery know-it-all.

In fact, the wisest people that I have known would tell you that they are not wise. I don't think these women and men are being falsely humble. They seem sincere in their denials. It seems that the more people learn, the more they typically realize that there is so much they do not know. Perhaps that realization cultivates fear and awe. Maybe true wisdom looks more like ordinary humility amongst us than a sage upon a mountaintop.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And along the way, we have to study, learn from our experiences, learn from others, and walk humbly with the the knowledge that we are never going to have it all figured out. And maybe that is why the fear of the Lord can begin with that. When you start from a humble posture then you are able to maintain the humility that wisdom requires.

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