The End of Wisdom

God formed Fear from clay in Paradise
to guard man in his nascent life:
“Eat not, lest you die.”

Fear is grace; it scents what bliss cannot.
Where danger is, Fear wards the wise.
They heed its cry. 

If we’d listened first, this trust would prove;
in folly we followed the lie.
So, Fear lies too: 

“The harmless, flee; and terrors, despise.”
Now Fear is feral and grim
and hounding you.



During a meeting for a youth group I helped lead a few years ago, we had a panel to give the students an opportunity to ask the adult leaders questions that they might not get answers to in our regular Bible studies. When one of my fellow leaders answered a question about anxiety, he observed that there was no fear in the Garden of Eden, that it wasn’t part of God’s purpose for us. I disagreed, and we cordially decided to debate it over coffee. We never did, so I wrote this poem instead.

Fear and anxiety, I believe, are emotions with a purpose. Adam and Eve both ought to have heeded fear more fully. The serpent’s ruse was not only to undermine the command itself (“Did God actually say …”) but also to hide the danger (“You will not surely die”).

Like all things created good, fear is corrupted. It is still helpful, but it’s not trustworthy, and it very often does more harm than good. Nevertheless, I find it helpful to remember that it was something created to be good and to use it as far as I can. In its proper place, it’s still the beginning of wisdom. Someone who shuns fear altogether is not what we would call courageous. The word for such a person is “foolhardy.” Our goal should not be to put fear down, but to tame it.

Here is my first draft of this poem:

Fear was formed by God in Paradise
To fertilize the tree of life:
“Eat not, lest you die.”

 Where danger is real, there fear is a grace
That sees what bliss cannot.
Heed its cry.

If we’d listened at first this trust could stand.
In folly we followed the lie.
Now fear lies too:

The harmless to flee and terrors despise.
Fear grows feral and grim
And clings to you.

I started this poem with the idea of the first line: “Fear was formed by God in paradise.” I very quickly came to and enjoyed the second. When I came back to the poem later, though, it was the last two lines that made me want to keep working on it. They seem to me a good description of what fear is and what it’s like to experience it day to day.

Broadly speaking, I made revisions with the goal of drawing out the image of fear as something animal—something tame that could become feral. I capitalized “Fear” to make it a name. The first line became God formed Fear from clay, which both fixes the passive voice of the original and emphasizes more clearly that the forming involved is like the forming of the “beasts of the field” (Gen 2:19). I brought in the words “guard” and “scent” to evoke the image of a dog at its master’s side. I briefly considered the phrase “man’s best friend” for the second stanza, but that seemed a little on the nose.

Then, of course, there is the word “hounding” in the final line. I was reluctant to give up “cling,” but I didn’t think it fit with the image of a dog. I also considered altering the rhyme scheme to allow “it’s at your heels” for the final line, but that seemed to evoke an image of terror more than the day-to-day fears many of us are familiar with. I settled on it’s hounding you with some reluctance. On the one hand, the verb is both abstract and concrete. It communicates a “persistent harassment,” as the dictionary puts it, which is close enough to what “cling” accomplished; and it rounds off the image of an animal. On the other hand, I worry that like “man’s best friend,” it’s a little on the nose.

Let me know whether you like “hounding” or “cling” better for this poem—or if you have another idea.

One of my reasons for writing this was to attempt to use the shape of the lines as a tool. In a very humble imitation of George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” I’ve attempted to represent the “fall” of fear with the shortening of the lines in each stanza. Herbert, of course, also has a return to fullness in “Easter Wings,” and the effect of the whole shape is to create something more than fall and rise in the shape of the wings.

Because the Easter Wings run both ways, and because the Scriptures also tell us that “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18), I tried to write a sequel to this poem using an inverse line structure. What I ended up writing is a Christmas carol. Christmas carols are a perfectly fine genre, though I’m not sure it’s a fitting sequel to the first poem.

“Fear Not,”
spoke sudden light
in peel that broke the silent night.

“Great joy,”
the armored choir
sang with beauty as of fire.

“Peace here;
but you must go
and bow to him whose been made low.”

“Let’s go!”
The trembling men,
as from the mountain, fled again—
to the peasant’s son whose Day
will finally drive all fear away.



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