Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reflections on Proverbs: The Beginning of Wisdom

The Book of Proverbs is part of the wisdom literature in the Bible. Back in Biblical times, no one confused Wisdom with its ugly step-child Standardized Book Learning. (Can you tell my children have gone through their third round of standardized testing this school year? Can you tell I'm not happy about that? Good. I'm not hiding that light under a bushel.)

Back to wisdom. In the olden times, before standardized tests and institutional text books and curriculum poorly designed by committees of politicians, wisdom came from experience, study of scripture, and word of mouth passed down from previous generations. Proverbs has lots of advice for children to listen to their elders.

According to Proverbs, wisdom begins with fear of God.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
   and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Proverbs 9:10)

If you grew up in a "sinners in the hands of an angry God" church (you know who you are), then the word "fear" in this proverb may not strike you as odd. But for many of us modern-day, mainstream protestants, fear of the Lord is a hard concept.

We grew up with sweet Lord Jesus being our buddy, pal, and friend, a sort of avuncular chum, our model for behavior. Jesus loves us and is kind. He only gets angry at the money lenders in the temple. Sure, He gets impatient with the disciples and their stupidity from time to time, but He's not really a figure to incite fear in people.

God speaking out of a burning bush?  Traveling ahead of the Israelites in a thunder cloud? It's easier to fear the God of the Old Testament, isn't it?

But what, exactly, is the fear of the Lord that the proverb expresses? That's our contemplation for this week. When do you fear the Lord? What is the nature of that fear? Is it like your phobia of snakes or spiders or heights or being forced to watch Jersey Shore? How might fear make you wise? How might fear of things other than the Lord be good or bad for wisdom?

For me, fear of the Lord means being humble and awed in the face of His awesomeness. It means accepting His hugeness, His mystery, His infinite goodness and knowing in my bones that I'm just a tiny little bit of His vast and glorious creation. The beginning of wisdom is accepting that our human wisdom will never be His wisdom, accepting that we see only a piece of creation through a glass darkly, accepting that we are limited in every single way...physically, mentally, historically, spiritually, mortally.

When fear paralyzes us, I don't believe it's not fear of the Lord. God loves us and wants us to love Him and each other, and love is a verb. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." That love is active and compassionate.

A modern definition of intelligence is the facility of the mind's movement from big idea to little detail and back again. A smart person can move between the big perspective and the small details, the macro to the micro, and back again, allowing the details to influence the larger perspective and using the larger perspective to see the importance of the details. In other words, intellect is dynamic, a movement of thought, not static.

I believe God has perfection of that dynamic wisdom. He sees all, knows all, creates all...yet the fall of a sparrow matters to Him. We can never see all, and our contemplation of details is ever so limited. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to achieve wisdom as our abilities allow. We were, after all, created in His image.

But the more I know, the more I know that I know nothing. We should always be humble in our pursuit of wisdom. When wisdom begins in us, it begins with the awareness that the knowledge we seek so ardently and enthusiastically will never, ever be full and complete because we will never be God. And if our knowledge can't be complete, it will always be flawed, in a state of error, in a state of sin.

Wisdom begins with humility in the face of God's greatness. None of us is adequate in the face of God. All of us sin. Yet God is infinitely merciful, infinitely loving, infinitely forgiving.

Wisdom begins with healthy fear, not the paralyzing fear of phobia but the healthy fear of our own sin and God's own perfection.

That healthy fear grows our wisdom with a watering of mercy, love, and compassion for others and ourselves. That fear sets our feet on the path to His Kingdom.

What are your thoughts on fear of the Lord and wisdom? Do you let fear of things other than the Lord get in the way of wisdom? When do you, like Adam and Eve, want to claim the Knowledge of Good and Evil--God's own knowledge--for yourself? How are you inevitably humbled?

Please feel free to share your reflections in the comments.

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