Waiting on the Lord: Living with Hope in the Land Between

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One of the most pervasive themes in the psalms is waiting.

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly. (Psalm 5:3)

Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord. (Psalm 27:14)

We wait in hope for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield. (Psalm 33:20)

Lord, I wait for you;
you will answer, Lord my God. (Psalm 38:15)

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry. (Psalm 40:1)

The waiting described in the psalms is not some abstract waiting, but waiting that is focused on a person: the Living God. Unlike generalized “waiting for the world to turn” or “waiting for a miracle,” waiting on the Lord is based upon what we know of who God is – His character – and what God does – His activity.

Waiting on the Lord says, “I know who God is. I know what I’ve seen god do in times past in biblical history, other human lives, and in my own life. Because of that, I wait for God to meet me and act in my life.”

This sort of waiting is hopeful waiting. Hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” Hope is fixed on a future but affects the way we live now. It is both anticipation and arrival at the same time. Waiting on the Lord is hopeful because we can both rest in God in the present and trust in God for the future.

But what does it look like to wait on the Lord? Does it mean we simply stop everything and sit around until God does something? No. Waiting on God is active. We continue with our lives, doing our best to walk in God’s ways, witness to God’s character, and fulfill our responsibilities as best as we can. In the midst of that, waiting on God gives us hope that transcends our circumstances as we look for God to work in our lives.

Here are three specific ways we can wait on the Lord with hope:

  1. First, we wait on God by reading His word. The psalmist says, “I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope” (Psalm 130:5). Hopeful waiting with our hope in God means that we both hope in and live by His trustworthy word. As it says in Psalm 119:166, “I wait for your salvation, Lord,
    and I follow your commands.” The word of God gives us perspective and understanding so that we can move forward with God as we wait. Reading it regularly and transformationally helps us meet God in our waiting.
  2. Second, we wait on God in prayer. Prayer is simply talking to God – calling out to God – in the midst of our lives. It is particularly important in times of waiting because we both need to express what is happening in our lives and wait upon God to speak to us. The regularity of calling out to God in prayer while waiting helps us give voice and give ear to God: “In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice” (Psalm 5:3). As the psalms show us, prayer is a lifeline in the midst of waiting.
  3. Third, we wait on God by watching for Him. Transformational reading of Scripture changes us internally and prayer makes us attentive. From this new vantage point, we want to be watchful for God. What is God doing? Where is He at work? It is of little use if we read the Bible and pray in the morning and then zone out from God for the rest of our day. “I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). To wait on the Lord in hope means we watch with expectation for the Lord to act.

Lord, I wait for You.
There is so much happening in my life and the world today.
Give me eyes to see You and ears to hear You as I wait upon You in my life.
I trust You and I rest in You today.

Our Longing for Justice and Need for Mercy

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One of our strongest longings as human beings is a longing for justice. We long for our lives and the world around us to be bounded by what is just, right, true, and fair without impartiality.

In presidential elections, both here and around the world, we long for fairness in the process so that votes are counted and people are given necessary attention. This is why we have impartial monitoring groups paying attention to elections around the world. This longing for justice is behind the outcries that arise when human rights are violated, whether around the world or here in our own country. International watchdog groups give voice to the helpless or the ignored so that justice can be brought to bear in their lives. We long for justice because we experience injustice and sin in our world.

This is a biblical concept that flows throughout the Bible. When we wonder what God is like, we inevitably encounter the God of the Bible as a God of justice. The Torah calls for maintaining justice and dealing appropriately with the wrongs in the world: protecting widows, orphans, foreigners and the weak in the face of a difficult world. The Hebrew word, mishpat, is the word most often translated as ‘justice’ in the Old Testament. It conveys the idea of right and appropriate order of a just cause being maintained in the world. When we ask the question, “What is God like?”, we discover that at least one answer is this: He is a God of justice.

But here is something interesting. Even as we long for complete justice in the world, we encounter our own need for leniency. We call for justice for wrongs done by some to us or others, but we often hesitate when we do wrongs ourselves.

When a toddler has his toy taken by another child who did not ask, the toddler cries out for the toy to be returned. It was taken unfairly. But, it comes as a great surprise to that same toddler when he is placed in a time-out for unfairly taking a toy without asking from one of his peers later on. Justice looks good from one perspective, but looks a bit more painful when justice hits closer to us personally.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a promising life ahead of her. But when a man broke into her apartment and assaulted her on a warm summer night, she vowed to put him in jail for the rest of her life. When the police gathered a lineup of men for her to identify, she pointed to man #5: Ronald Cotton, as the perpetrator. In the 1985 trial, Cotton was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of release. Justice had been served, or so it appeared.

11 years later, Jennifer Thompson received a knock at the door of her home. She had moved on, gotten married, had children, but every day for 11 years, she had been praying for Ronald Cotton to die. The detective at her door had some important news for her. After a review of evidence through advanced DNA testing, it became clear that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant but, rather, another man already in prison, Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton was not guilty.

11 years. Ronald Cotton falsely imprisoned. Jennifer Thompson held in a prison of anger. The tables had been turned and Jennifer Thompson said, “I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame for mistakenly putting an innocent man in prison….I found it almost impossible to forgive myself.”

So, when Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were reunited, she begged for forgiveness. Ronald Cotton took her hands, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had forgiven her a long time ago.

Ronald Cotton said that both he and Jennifer were victims of the same man. They both became wounded, but they both began to heal. He said, “I choose to forgive…so that I stay free and not be a prisoner the rest of my life.”[1]

You see, we long for justice – for things to be set right in our lives and world – but we also long for mercy because we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our world and also right through us. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant who was gravely indebted to a king for a tremendous amount of money. He owed the king so much money, in fact, that as a day laborer it would have taken him about 3,000 lifetimes to pay the debt off. When the king brought this man in to settle the debt – to experience justice – the servant begged for mercy. Seeing the servant’s pleas, the king decided to cancel the debt and give the man a new lease on life. Justice was going to be served but instead the servant received mercy.

Returning home, this servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him about four month’s wages and began to choke him, commanding him to repay the debt. Although this other servant too begged for mercy, the first servant denied it and had the man thrown in prison.

The king eventually heard of this situation and called the servant in. Hadn’t this servant owed the king more than he could repay in 3,000 lifetimes? Hadn’t the king shown mercy and cancelled the debt? And now the servant had thrown another man in prison for a debt of four month’s pay? Where is the justice in this lack of mercy?

We long for justice, but human justice can, honestly, at times be unjust. The encounter with justice leads us ultimately into a plea for mercy.  We long for mercy because we know we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our own souls as well.

What good news it is that the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and a God of mercy. One of the most prevalent cries in the psalms is for mercy: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony” (Psalm 6:2). And one of the most resounding themes of the entire Bible is that God is a God of mercy:

  • “Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
  • “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (Daniel 9:18)
  • “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

It is in the character of God to be both just and merciful. We struggle to bring these two characteristics together, but God is capable of bringing both to bear upon human lives in a way that also reflects His wisdom.

Ultimately we encounter this within the work of Jesus Christ, whose ministry is one of both justice and mercy. James’ description of the Christian reality speaks to the ministry of Jesus: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Paul’s marvelous summary of the good news in Ephesians 2, finds its center in the mercy of God:

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3-5)

What a gift that our strongest longing for justice meets with our strongest need for mercy in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. What is God like? He is a God of justice and a God of mercy.

 


[1] “Finding Freedom In Forgiveness,” NPR – This I Believe, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307, November 26, 2011.

The Flesh of Our Savior: the importance of the body in Jesus’ redemption

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The entire life of faith begins with God reaching out to us first. In response to humanity’s fall from grace and sin’s impact upon this world, God sent Jesus, fully God and fully man, to live, die and be resurrected to bring us and all creation back to God through relational restoration. This is how Paul describes it:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, through for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

In the face of humanity’s sin-soaked efforts to stand at the center and push God to the periphery, in the face of humanity’s guilt and shame, God steps in to demonstrate His love by sending Jesus into our midst.

And through that demonstration of love in Jesus, sin’s disordering power in our lives and choices is broken by God’s grace.  Here is Paul again, just a few verses later:

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:17-21)

Let me summarize Paul’s flow of thought like this:

Adam’s sinful action Christ’s righteous action
Death comes to humanity Grace and life to humanity
Condemnation to humanity Justification and life to humanity
Humanity becomes sinful Humanity becomes righteous
The Law highlights sin’s victory in wrong and death Grace highlights Jesus’ victory in eternal life

Death reigned through Adam’s sin, but those receiving the grace of Christ will reign in life. Condemnation came down through Adam’s one sinful act to all humanity, but Jesus’ one righteous act eradicates judgment and opens the way to life. Adam’s disobedience made all humans sinners, but Jesus’ obedience makes many righteous. The law of God highlights the victory of sin in which human beings are trapped to the point of death.  But the grace of God in Christ has victory over sin, bringing us into eternal life.

The background of Genesis 1-3 is important here because Jesus is, in a sense, the second Adam, bringing redemption to humanity from the power of the Fall.  This is a re-introduction to the way things were supposed to be in the original creation, and the doorway into that renewal is Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus gives grace, life, and freedom from guilt and shame. We don’t have to be afraid of God or ashamed of God because of Jesus and what He has done. The access point for us to this is new life and grace is faith. We reach back to the God who first reached out to us.

The Importance of Jesus’ Redemption in the Body
Now, we all know this is really important in terms of salvation, but we may wonder what any of this has to do with our love, sexuality, and body life. 

It is important to remember that Jesus came in a body to do this work of salvation. That incarnation – that physicality – is not tangential but vital to the redeeming work of Christ. The Apostle John writes:

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Jesus came in a body because we live in bodies. His saving work – His redeeming work – had to be physical to bring God’s power to bear upon the created world. It may seem outlandish that God would draw near in a human body, but this is the way salvation works and, in a sense, must work. This is the fleshed-out reality of the title “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.”

Without Jesus’ body, there would be no redemption or salvation. John the Apostle knew this and so a major theme of his letters is counteracting the proto-Gnosticism so prevalent and popular in his day. 

“Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” (1 John 4:1-3)

The fleshy-ness of Jesus is vital to the truth of what God is doing. Why? John goes on a bit later in that same chapter:

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)

Paul told us earlier that Jesus’ death demonstrated God’s love for us (Roman 5:8), and now John echoes that, saying God’s love is shown in Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Sin ruptures relationship with God. That rupture happened through human bodies and human activity in the garden. The physicality of sin had far-reaching spiritual impact:  humanity trying to be at the center of the universe, including self-will, the condemnation of guilt, and the hiding of shame.

In like manner, Jesus dealt with sin’s impact through a human body and through human activity. The physicality of Jesus’ sacrifice had far-reaching spiritual impact: restoration of relationship with God, new life, acceptance, and freedom from condemnation.

[This post is excerpted from the message, “Redemption and Embodied Sexuality,” delivered at Eastbrook Church on November 16/17, 2019.]

The Heart of the Golden Rule

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In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summarizes the entirety of the Law and the prophets with what is known as the golden rule: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is even more simple and straightforward than another of Jesus’ pithy teachings about the greatest commandment being summed up in “loving God and loving our neighbor.” The golden rule calls us more clearly into action, while also urging us to switch our perspective in a more tangible way. The question, “Am I loving so-and-so as myself?”, becomes the much more measurable question, “Am I doing toward so-and-so what I wish so-and-so was doing to me?”

This immediately forces us to confront many issues which otherwise could be avoided. Not only are we to think, “Should I tip the server generously because I’d like to be generously tipped,” but, “If that’s what I desire under God’s guidance, then that is what I should do with God’s power.”

Consideration is limited to what we want or desire, but not to whether we should or should not put that want or desire into action. The golden rule pushes us into the territory of our hearts. It is not just what should we do, but who are we and what does that say about what we want and what we will actually do.

If I do not treat others the way I wish to be treated, then why?  Because human barriers within me stand in the way of love’s action. Because I do not see others as human in the same sense that I see myself as human. Because my love for them is too weak. The answers are as various as the human heart is various, but all of them lead us into a deep encounter with ourselves and our hearts that ultimately leads us to God and his heart.

Lord, help me to love others like You do and to love in action even as I desire for myself to be loved in action. Transform my heart, bring order to my desires, and shape me to reflect You in this world.

Knowing Who We Are and Who We’re Not: a lesson from John the Baptist

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One of the most gripping commendations Jesus ever offered was about John the Baptist when He said, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28). There was really no one quite like John, and Jesus recognized that.

Of course, the other part of that statement was this: “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John knew who he was and also knew who he wasn’t, and that shaped the way he lived.

At one point in his ministry, John said to a group of his disciples and gathered onlookers: “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him'” (John 3:28). John knows who he is and knows who he is not.

John the Apostle sets us up for this in the first chapter of his gospel when he says that John the Baptist is not “the Light”:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (1:6-8)

Later on, when John is questioned by religious leaders, he knows that he is not the Messiah,  Elijah or the long-awaited Prophet:

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah.’

They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’
He said, ‘I am not.’
‘Are you the Prophet?’
He answered, ‘No.’

Finally they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way for the Lord.”‘ (John 1:19-21)

John clearly knew who he was and who he was not.

Not only that, John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he, John, was not Jesus:

  • John was not the light, but, as we read in John 1:9 – “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” – Jesus is the light
  • John was not the privileged son, but, as we read in John 1:14, “the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” – Jesus is the One and Only Son.
  • John was not the Messiah, but more than once he exclaimed to his followers when Jesus passed by, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29)

John knew that he was not the awaited one, but that Jesus was the one the world was waiting for.

So, when John the Baptist’s followers come to him feeling out of sorts because Jesus’ ministry is increasing, John is not really bothered. In fact, he knows this is the way things are supposed to be. He knows that all of what he is doing is really about Jesus.

John the Baptist is a powerful example for all of us who follow Jesus. He reminds us that not any one of us is the Messiah, and we should live accordingly. I am not the Messiah. You are not the Messiah. We cannot solve everyone’s problems, be everywhere at once, or be the one to save the world. That was Jesus’ job. Believing this and live out of this belief  is a significant part of our discipleship.

We are not here to replace Jesus, but to display Jesus in our life on earth. The difference seems slight, but it is gargantuan in practice. In our lives we are not trying to be the Messiah, we are trying to direct people to the Messiah.

John the Baptist knew who he was and who he was not, and it set him free to minister as God would have him regardless of the outcome.

Sin’s Disruption and Disordered Love: Insights from St. Augustine

image 1 - Adam and EveWhen Adam and Eve turn from God and His will by choosing for themselves and their own will, they were in essence choosing to love themselves over God. Sin can be both the decision for and experience of disordered love.

Saint Augustine, the 4th century Bishop of Hippo in present-day Algeria, described this reality when he wrote: “virtue is nothing other than perfect love of God” (On the Morals of the Catholic Church, XV.25) Augustine is telling us that the good life – the virtuous life – is formed around well-ordered love of God. 

In light of that well-ordered love of God we learn to love everything else, whether people or things. He writes:

though [something] is good, it can be loved in the right way or in the wrong way – in the right way, that is, when the proper order is kept, in the wrong way when that order is upset. (City of God, XV.22)

This helps us to understand what happens to our love through the Fall.

It is dislocated from its proper center in love for God, and then, being out of order, it leads us to love people and things in wrong ways. And so, impacted by sin, we try to love things in ways that do not give us life:

  • A father tries to feel love and acceptance in life through others’ acclamations of his child’s athletic accomplishments 
  • A daughter tries to receive love from her mother by always doing the right thing or pursuing goals her mother likes but the daughter does not
  • A man tries to feel loved through serial sexual experiences with others but finds intimacy and love elusive
  • A woman escapes an unhappy marriage through an emotional affair but still fees empty

The catalog of ways we experience disordered love could go on and on. It is because love is disordered that the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 are so powerful and praised: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast.” The very fact that this passage is so revered tells us just how special – and perhaps rare – ordered and right love truly is.

But it is not only that we love things wrongly in our Fallen state. We also, apart from God, evaluate love wrongly in ways that reveal our utter disorder:

  • someone’s love for sports overruns their priorities and ruins their marriage
  • someone’s love for their work becomes obsessive, ruining the family they are trying to support with that work
  • someone’s love for interacting with others on social media loses all bounds, ruining their actual face-to-face friendships 

As Augustine writes elsewhere, real love knows how “to love things…in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less” (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28).

This attention to disordered love is foundational to our discussion about the ways in which we experience disorder in our sexuality and our bodies because, as Jesus says, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). That is, our outer life of action flows from the inner life of the heart and its related desires. Or, as Jamie Smith says, “you are what you love.”

We were made by God for loving relationship with God and others, but the Fall sunders that relationship and creates disorder in love.

God made us with the creational good of love to sustain and hold together every aspect of our identity, including our sexuality and bodies. But sin dislocates us, leaving us confused and muddled in the way we love things. All of this has tremendous impact for our bodies and our sexuality.

[This blog post is excerpted from my message, “Fall and Embodied Sexuality.”]

One Fear You Don’t Want to Lose: Living with Appropriate Fear of the Lord

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There are things in life that you need a healthy fear of: open flames, dangerous or abusive people, life-threatening diseases, identify theft, riding with your son or daughter behind the wheel when they have just received their temps. No, in all honesty, there are things that we would be foolish not to fear.

But what does it mean when we hear in the book of Proverbs that we are to fear the Lord?

Some people think that we are to wander around afraid of God all of our days. Some might say that we should live joyless, unhappy lives plagued by God’s arbitrary activity in the world – you never know what He might do with sinners like us. There is a sense of terror in some people’s view of God.

But that’s not what fear of the Lord means when we look at it in the Bible. Let’s read the two key verses that phrase appears, Proverbs 1:7 and Proverbs 9:10, which serve as book-ends around the first large section of the book of Proverbs.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)

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

In the Bible, the concept of the fear of the Lord holds in tension that we stand before a powerful God who also wants to relate with us.

We are talking about the God who created everything…who spoke all of creation into being with a word…we are talking about the God who has brought into being more than 20,000 species of fish, some who exist at depths of 3,000 to 6,000 feet…we are talking about the God who has brought more than 250,000 species of plants into being and who actually knows the difference between Poa protensis (bluegrass) and Adansonia digitata (baobab tree)….the God who, it says elsewhere, sustains all things, including not only our solar system but also the 200-400 billion solar systems in the Milky Way Galaxy, and the estimated 100-200 billion galaxies in the known universe.

This is the sort of God we are talking about when we approach the scriptures.

We should be humbled when we approach God. We should realize that we are very small. We should approach God with, as one Old Testament scholar writes, “knee-knocking awe.” God is truly the only awesome one. When we realize who we are dealing with in this way, then we are starting to get at what fear of the Lord means.

But here is the other side of that story. This same awesome God who with a word created such varied beauty and variety in our world and countless wonders throughout the known and unknown universe – this same God actually wants to relate to human beings; no, not just that, this same God wants to relate to you – YOU – and me.

That’s what the Bible tells us. The Bible is the story of God reaching out to human beings, starting with Adam and Eve, and carrying on through characters like Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Ruth, Nehemiah, Esther and more. This reaches its pinnacle in the awesome story of God becoming a man – the wonder of incarnation – when Jesus Christ walked our world, died, and rose again. Jesus is the supreme example of God’s outstretched hands to humanity.

That same all-powerful and tremendously creative God who should inspire knee-knocking awe in us, also wants to inspire intimate relationship with us. He wants us to have reverent trust with Him. And when we realize who we are dealing with in this way, then we are starting to get at what fear of the Lord means.

Knee-knocking awe before the only awesome God.

Reverent trust in relationship with a loving God.

True wisdom comes when we have an appropriate fear of the Lord.