The Fear of the Lord
Although it is implicitly hortatory, the saying presents itself as a factual claim: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10). If we ponder it for a moment, we may find ourselves puzzled. How can a passion of the soul, and a particularly irrational one at that, serve as a beginning to something so wholly other as wisdom, the calm and habitual enjoyment of the highest truth?
A partial explanation may be found by considering the virtue of docility, the disposition of the one who is teachable.
It is plainly an acquired virtue of the will and not a natural condition. Neither the young, as young, nor the mature, as mature, are teachable. The former are too spirited to receive willingly the correction that comes with teaching and have not sufficiently learned from their own experience so as to value the experience of others. The latter have learned from their experience—often painful—but are now inclined to trust their own hard-won knowledge because it is best known to them.
How, then, does one go about acquiring a disposition to be taught by the right teacher, in the right way, and for the right reason?
A clue may be seen in the essential Socratic challenge: to know the difference between what one knows and what one does not know. The cognitive difficulty of this task is immense and so troublesome that it led Plato to assert that all learning is recollection. The challenge to the human will, however, is even more difficult. The reason is that among humiliations, one of the worst is to have one’s ignorance exposed. Thus arises our deep-seated tendency to hide—even to ourselves—the scope of what we do not know.
The fear of being shown foolish is generally allied to a fear of not belonging to the ranks of those who claim to be in the know. Today, we need not seek far to find proof of this linkage. The thousands of tragic dramas on social media platforms are no laughing matter; suicides have been traced to disappointments experienced by those who have fallen into the habit of measuring their self-worth by the affirmation that their posts receive from perfect strangers. Yet the culture of politics, business, the fine arts, entertainment, the academy, and even the Church are no different. Many today seek not truth but affirmation; the fear of being exposed as eccentric, retrograde, or outside the conversation can overmaster the mind.
It is in fearing the Lord that we find freedom from the fear of men and freedom to seek the truth.
Because a fear of having our ignorance exposed makes us unteachable, if we are to become teachable, then we must trust our teachers not to disdain us for our ignorance or vindictively to add to our humiliation. But we trust those who have proved their disinterested care for our good, that is, their love for us. This the Lord has done, and once for all time, by taking on our frail flesh, laboring to teach us by his very words, and then suffering, dying, rising, and sending his Spirit. To fear the Lord, then, is to fear one whose love for us has been demonstrated. The fear of the Lord is the fear of a son or daughter confident in the parent’s love but alert and solicitous because wishing to avoid displeasing him. This disposition is the attentiveness of the student to the good teacher or of the good servant to the wishes of the master (cf. Ps 123:2).
When we listen to the Lord’s instruction, we find that he wishes us to be not ignorant, but wise, not abjectly fearful, but nobly ready to learn. One of the Lord’s exhortations to wisdom is cast in terms so fierce that it may rank as one of the most harrowing passages in the Gospel:
The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak. (Matt 12:35-36).
This is a stern admonition, to be sure. Yet it is also an invitation to wisdom.
How are we to ensure that our words are careful, that our hearts hold good treasure? By delighting in every word that has come forth from the mouth of our Teacher. The great consolation is that if we do so, we will become like trees planted by the stream, bearing our fruit in due season.
That we need this wisdom today is evident. “In a multitude of wise men is the salvation of the world” (Wis 6:24). But today we are surrounded—and led—by so many King Lears, men and women who have grown old without becoming wise. Perhaps the greatest gift that we can offer to our children is not to repeat their errors.