Wisdom: What is It? by Tim Keller (What is the Fear of the LORD: Negative Fear vs. Positive Fear)

Notes from Tim Keller’s Sermon “Wisdom: What Is It”

(First my own comment. These notes that I take on Keller sermons are always somewhere between transcript and paraphrase. Do you want to know which one? You’d have to listen to the sermon and compare, which is probably not worth your time. I take these notes as notes, so I can record and go back to ideas I have and get while listening. If you’ve got time to do one, just listen to the sermon. 🙂 )

Wisdom is about learning how the world works. You need to make a decision that will be a fork in the road for your life but the options are not necessarily morally different. How do you choose?

We are all born simpletons. We care too much about what others think and because of that we are too swayed by our peers.

Fools are people who don’t care enough about what others think. They can’t benefit from the learning of others and therefore take broader learning into account. They are too wise in their own eyes.

Tim referenced Jerome Kagan a developmental psychologist who did work on temperaments. He referenced an article in The Atlantic. This one seems to be it from 1994. The title of the article is “How We Become What We Are” . There is also a good piece in the Boston Globe by Kagan on the same subject. 

We are wired to respond to threats in three different ways:

  1. Flight: to be anxious and withdraw from perceived threats
  2. Fight: to be aggressive with perceived threats.
  3. Philosophical: to try to calm down and patiently evaluate a perceived threat.

Each approach is best depending on the nature of the threat. It takes training in wisdom to learn how to evaluate threats.

Because these are temperaments, it is important to train children to evaluate threats otherwise they will simply respond according to their temperament.

The culture is also against us. The culture says “be yourself”. Well, sometimes your innate temperament will lead you wrong.

CS Lewis “The Abolition of Man”: The ancients saw man’s need to conform himself to reality by sometimes doubting himself and learning virtue and wisdom. Today we see the problem as how to subdue reality to our will and the answer is technique.

Christians commonly approach decisions they need to make by saying “I want to discern God’s will. How can I pray to discern his will?”

Tim’s response to them is usually never satisfying. Prayer is a big part of becoming what God wants you to be. But as far as the Bible is concerned discernment is about becoming a wise person over many years. Cultivate wisdom in yourself and then chose what is best.

It sounds very spiritual to imagine that the key to decision making is laying everything out in front of God and having God inform you as to the right choice to make, but you are doing exactly what your culture wants, you are applying a technique.

(OK, my own comment. Tim’s approach is a technique too, but these two techniques reveal two assumptions. One is that God gives us a brain to use and cultivate throughout our life. The other is that God sometimes wants to drop in and change our course. Both are of course true, again it takes wisdom to know the difference. I’ll tend to side with Keller on this one given. What the “spiritual” approach seems to assume is that God wants to get specific with us on lots of options. Maybe God does, but if so we should assume he’s also present in the long, slow path of developing wisdom.

It seems to me what we are really talking about here are two different cultures. It also seems to me that Luhrmann’s work is helpful here in terms of communal cultures. Again, the question becomes “how does God work”. I think the weakness of the chatty God community is that stuff coming from God should of course be privileged. Some of what Luhrmann points out is that even in the chatty God community there is a culture of ignoring or re-interpreting what was thought to be divine revelation based on subsequent events.)

The problem is that we are all fools by nature, but how can we find wisdom, how can we begin the search?

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction”

Through paradoxical fear, and the foolishness of grace. 

Isn’t it strange that “fear” here is a positive thing? Two ways

  1. If you go into the presence of someone you really distrust you may be afraid.
  2. There is another way to be afraid of a person you trust.

Lord of the Rings actors were in NYC and Christopher Lee (plays Saruman) when he was young ran into JRR Tolkien whose works he loved. Lee was trembling and I almost knelt.

When you find yourself in the presence of someone you so revere, someone you are in awe off, you tremble. It is a positive fear. You are afraid you will disappoint, dishonor this person. The positive fear is all about love. It is a joyful fear. This is what the fear of the LORD is.

If you had that kind of fear, do you realize how different that kind of fear is from just believing in God. Most people in the world are believing God out of negative fear.

If you have this positive fear he will make you wise.

You won’t care too much about what other people think because you care about what the LORD thinks. You won’t be a simpleton.

You also wouldn’t be an obstinate fool because you wouldn’t are what you think anymore. You wouldn’t have that insecurity that needs to be right. You wouldn’t stand upon your own dignity. This would be the beginning of your wisdom.

The only way to get it would to be absolutely sure that God will not hurt you. To be sure that despite your flaws he won’t condemn you.

The difference between just knuckling under and obeying out of compliance and joyfully following God is the difference between positive fear and negative fear. You’ve got to know that there is no condemnation for you. Put it in the context of the whole Bible. There is positive and negative fear in the Old Testament. In the new Testament there is positive foolishness.

Positive Foolishness

Paul talks about the foolishness of the cross, the foolishness of Christ, the foolishness of grace.

When Jesus comes he says “I’m coming to be the king.” In the world’s eyes you come as a general to smite evil doers. Or as a philosopher to instruct everyone. Jesus goes to the cross and by the world’s standards it is foolishness.

The reason we see the cross as foolishness, when we look at all the evil in the world…

Everyone has a theory about what is wrong with the world, and its never us, it’s “them”, Democrats or Republicans. We are wise in our own eyes, we are fools.

Only by going to the cross and taking our punishment could God be able to end evil without ending us.

Paul says the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.

If you want to become a Christian you need to become this kind of fool

You need to see that you’ve been wise in your own eyes and embrace the foolishness of the cross. You’ll look like a fool especially in a place like NYC but you’ll know there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Psalm 130:4: Because you have forgiven me, therefore I fear you.

When I see your grace I’m afraid of disappointing you (God).


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Sermon Illustrations and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Wisdom: What is It? by Tim Keller (What is the Fear of the LORD: Negative Fear vs. Positive Fear)

  1. Pingback: Notes on “Wisdom: How To Live It” by Tim Keller | Leadingchurch.com

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