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Fear as a Misnomer

One of my all-time favorite songs is “I will follow you into the dark” by Death Cab for Cutie. We hear this song often because it’s on our bedtime Spotify playlist for the girls. In the second verse, Ben Gibbard sings, “In Catholic school, as vicious as Roman rule / I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black / And I held my tongue as she told me, ‘Son / Fear is the heart of love,’ so I never went back.”

This statement sums up much of my misunderstanding in my youth about God’s love. When I was in my teens and early twenties, the idea of fear as a path to love, especially concerning God’s love, simply felt wrong on numerous levels. This idea repelled me from learning and accepting faith for far too long. Today, I view it differently, especially now that I’m a parent.

I like to read The Book of Proverbs after the New Year. After we were done listening to Luke in December, we continued our daily family Bible routine with Proverbs. Proverbs 1:7 summarizes the theme of the entire book: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” This idea, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, of love, of wisdom, is repeated throughout the entire book. I would argue that this statement encapsulates the entire message of the book, because everything else contrasts the path of the “fool” to the path of “wise,” along with concrete examples and practical advice that is still applicable today in the year 2021.

Concerning parenting, I do not want my children to fear me. Fear is certainly not the emotion I want my children to associate with me. What I strive for in building my relationship with both of my children, is for them to respect me. Similarly, when the word “fear” is used in the context of Proverbs, what I think the word is trying to say is respect of the Lord, rather than fear of the Lord. But fear in itself is not a bad thing. Fear can be good. Pixar’s Inside Out personifies fear and shows how a healthy level of fear can avert your behavior from doing something dangerous. You should have fear when standing on the edge of a cliff. Fear keeps you focused and aware. Without the fear, you might be careless and stumble over the edge.

For example, my children are two and almost four. Put simply, young children will often do dumb things because they lack the experience and wherewithal to make better choices. Whenever it is possible to allow a natural consequence to take its course, in safe conditions, that’s what I’ll opt to do. I was baking with Hazel and she wanted to try everything. I warned her not to try anything. Everything needs to cook first. Instead of heeding my warning, Hazel helped herself to baking chocolate. Baking chocolate is unsweetened and frankly, tastes pretty terrible (in my opinion) until it’s been mixed and cooked into a final product. Hazel kept trying to wipe her tongue off and I offered her water to clean her palate, but she learned from a natural consequence in the kitchen. She ignored my warning, did the unwanted behavior, and learned a valuable lesson about not sampling foods until they’re ready.

Just like fear is a misunderstood concept in the Bible, I believe the word “discipline” carries similar negative connotations. Discipline is often associated with punishment, but I think the more positive word association should be “consequence.” Every action has a consequence. Some consequences are positive, like completing all of your work early so you can relax; while some consequences are negative, like procrastinating so you’re unnecessarily stressed before a big deadline. Both of these examples are consequences as a result of behavior choices. To be disciplined is to make conscious choices about your actions towards a particular goal. Discipline, especially in this context, should be lauded, not criticized. Going back to Proverbs 1:7, even though the word “fool” can be insulting, the part about “fools despise wisdom and discipline” holds true in many cases.

What’s important to recognize, too, is we are all, at one time or another, fools. We are also all, at one time or another, wise. I don’t believe people are either wise or fool, but I certainly do believe that periods of foolishness can lead to wisdom because life’s discipline will literally or figuratively knock some sense into us and correct our path. If we learn the lesson, we become wise. If we don’t, then we may experience negative consequences once again if we repeat the unwanted behaviors. This idea does not just apply to young children. This concept applies to everyone with the pulse and strength to act and make choices.

A misnomer is a name that is incorrectly or unsuitably applied, which often leads to misunderstandings and misconceptions. In the case of many of the repeated concepts in the Book of Proverbs, including fear, discipline, fools, and wisdom, it helps to dig deeper and consider what is the idea behind the word. We must remember that the Bible was not written in English. Depending on which section, the Bible has been translated from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The selected English words may not always project the exact meaning of the translated original, so digging deeper beyond the quoted text to understand concepts that may be skewed in translation is an important practice for any serious deep-dive Bible study.


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