“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and they that live by it grow in understanding.” (New English Version).
I. Sometimes it’s good to stop and reach down to the fundamentals. The word translated as “fear” (yira’ ) can just as well be translated as “awe” — in contrast to “terror” (pachad). The first has more of a spiritual connotation, the other more a physical one.
I have often thought that we don’t, these days, think enough about the “soul.” Of course, the nature or substance or definition of “soul” is a problem, but then so is “life” itself, as an abstraction or proposition. Even if “soul” is taken to be a metaphor or a place-holder, however, it is sometimes useful to reflect on what makes for soul health. For such health is foundational to all our actions as spiritual beings — it affects the quality of our activity, our words, and deeds.
At the very least, it may be permitted to say that the soul is that which is engaged by true worship. By “engaged,” I mean to include “convicted, enlightened, nudged, reproved, refreshed” and all the other events that may happen when worship is alive and truthful. By “true worship,” I mean worship in which something happens which relates to inward growth, an encounter with an Other (other-than-our-will) which begins or nurtures or demands a change first in inward condition, and then in outward behavior.
Jesus was preaching no dualistic doctrine, when he said “Don’t fear those that can kill the body but not the soul; fear rather Him who can send both body and soul to Gehenna.” The master who affirmed God’s love for the creation is reiterating here what he said in other terms: Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all the other good things that we need for life will be added thereto, as they are without seeking, for the birds of the air and the grasses of the field. The child of God is most fully alive when their allegiance is established on that foundation.
For me, at least, the experience of awe is the starting place. While it is present, it clears away all other engagements, and presentations of self. It is anything but empty, though it is a state in which the little mills of thought and emotion cease from their grinding for a bit. As in other centering experiences, thought and emotion can be re-admitted into the inward sanctuary, once it’s been cleared. But with awe, the fear of the Lord, it is not that my little interior space is re-ordered: I am given to feel and see beyond myself, despite myself.
My earliest memory is one of awe, when I was transported by the sight of barn-swallows wheeling amongst sunbeams pouring through gaps in the roof of a ruinous barn. Freedom, refreshment, and delight.
II. The second half of the verse from Psalm 111 moves from the intensity of the experience of awe to its extension into the world. The NEV seems understated, when it says that those that live by “it” grow in understanding. The Septuagint says, “Good understanding [comes to, belongs to] to everyone who practices it (where “it” refers to the wisdom, perhaps insight, one gains from awe). The Hebrew, I think, says something similar: that “good understanding [belongs] to all who practice them” (awe and its consequent wisdom).
Thus, the psalmist, like Jesus, teaches that awe gives rise to wisdom (insight, understanding), as one lives it out in practice. We are to seek first the kingdom, but we are known by our fruits of word and deed — this is no purely interior event, but the changed heart brings forth treasures which in their measure change the world.
III. So here we come back to the importance of seeking “true worship,” worship in truth. In such worship, the divine Life is known to be at work, and in its tendering effect we have evidence, assurance, that we can grow up further into freedom, freedom in the spirit of Christ, whose law is love, and whose power comes through liberation as we accept the truth of our condition, and the promise that we can walk fully as children of the Light. As Penington writes:
He that hath the least taste of faith, knows a measure of rest, finding the life working in him, and his soul daily led further and further into life by the working of the life, and the heavy yoke of his own laboring after life taken off his shoulders. Now here is the truth, here is the life, here is the sabbath, here is the worship of the soul. (Works i:36)
I know for sure that at times I worship for myself, and do not seek to get beyond that. I may strive for silence, even achieve an inward silence, but it can be no more than a repose that asks for nothing further, a quiet that is not at all expectant. In itself, this is not bad, and rest of this kind is as necessary to the soul as sleep is to the body. But I must not fool myself: this is no more than a pre-condition for worship not the thing itself. How often I sit in meeting with no profit but repose, going from it basically unaltered, and no further along in faithfulness than before — not seeking to feel beyond the “first birth,” in which I am using my own skill and will! As James Nayler writes of the will-worship Friends testified against (“A Discovery,” p. 48.):
The first man worships a God at a distance, but knows Him not, nor where He is…and here he has fellowship with men, or with those he calls brethren . . . And thus in vain does he worship.
True worship, in which I have not only come to rest, but opened longingly towards a power or motion beyond my own, is known by its fruits, a change toward a life more and more freed from bondage:
Before any can rightly worship God, they must wait to know His Spirit, that leads to know Him and His worship, and the matter, and manner; for all who do the same thing only as to the outward performance, do not worship God, because they worship not in the Spirit and power of God Himself . . . the way to be well-pleasing to the Father, is to wait in the light, till you feel something of the Spirit of life, which is in Christ Jesus, moving in you, and then to that join, in its power to worship.
Such worship can disturb one’s comfort, and awaken one to the threatening, risky engagement with the dynamics of struggle, compassion, and witness—the Lamb’s War.
IV. As a minister, I must be honest about the condition of my worship life, and aware of when it is not true. For when I am not come to true worship, I have not come to the place of availability, receptive to guidance, and open to those with whom I worship. Not worshiping in truth, I am not serviceable.
Awe, the fear of the Lord, enables me once again to seek the place which opens to openness. I have known it, and every time I come there again, I must observe, mark taste, feel it, so that when I wander again, I know what to look for, what my soul indeed is hungering for, dull and distracted though it be.
And so I find that, whether I am in that condition or wandering from it, it is good to join with the psalmist and confess my gratitude to God, who knows how I long for the living water, and as long as I do long for it, God points me over and over towards it, directs my feet to the paths of praise.