Most people live their lives with some kind of fear. Some have a fear of heights, others a fear of closed in spaces, some fear flying, others fear public speaking. In fact there are lists of hundreds of different fears that people have. People have had fun naming all these fears. Some of them are quite bizarre
Abluthophobia – the fear of washing or bathing
Blennophobia – the fear of slime
Cacophobia – the fear of ugliness
Chronontrophobia – fear of clocks
Ecclesiophobia – fear of church
Ephebiphobia – fear of teenagers
Homilophobia – fear of sermons
Phobophobia – fear of phobias
Let’s be clear: some fear is good. God has given us the fear emotion so that our body will spring to action; the fight or flight response. When we are afraid, adrenalin kicks in and we are ready, we are alert, we are focused. As we grow up we must learn about a healthy fear of fire, electricity and other things that are dangerous. So, not all fear is bad.
There are some today who seek to live with “No Fear”. Their approach is to adopt a feeling of recklessness and apathy. These people say things like, “Whatever” all the time. They have no fear because they just don’t care. Living with “no fear” in this way is not positive but is actually reckless and destructive. These people would benefit from a little healthy fear.
However, there is fear that incapacitates us. It paralyzes us from doing things in life. It makes us tentative, unsure, and hesitant. This is the kind of fear from which we need to be set free. John tells us how to do this in today’s text. I must warn you that his prescription is not what you would expect. John is not going to tell us to get counseling, read a book, or even to “face our fears”. What he tells us is that our fear is the result of a wrong relationship with God. He says if we love God and love each other fully, fear will disappear from our lives. Notice some important principles John makes.
BIBLICAL LOVE HAS TWO DIMENSIONS
In verse 16 we are told, “God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them”. In verse 20 we read,
20 If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? 21 And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters.
John wants us to understand that the kind of love God requires is BOTH vertical (toward God) and horizontal (toward others). It is not that we are to love God OR love each other . . . the true believer must do both!
John argue that if you say you love God but are indifferent to the people around you; then you really do not love God. If we loved God, we would love those whom God loves. In fact, says John, it is actually easier to love flesh and blood people than it is to love the Lord who is Spirit.
People who have been divorced and have children generally don’t marry someone who does not love their children. Our children are so much a part of our lives and heart that if you reject my children, you have also rejected me. If you care about me, you will care about those whom I care about.
Jesus told us that the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and then to love our neighbor as ourselves.” The first step then is to truly love God.
Let’s look at it negatively. We cannot love God if we are going to continue to love sin. We cannot love God is we are only going to be interested in Him when we “need something”. Too often we are like the husband who tells his wife that he loves her but is cheating on her with other women. Sometimes we are like the parent who declares that he/she loves their child but is abusing them. We say that we love God but in truth, we are only saying what we think we are supposed to say. We don’t love God at all.
If we look at loving God positively we are helped by these words from Neal Plantinga,
In other words, you shall love God with everything you have and everything you are. Everything. Every longing, every endowment, each of your intellectual gifts, any athletic talent or computer skill, all capacity for delight, every good thing that has your fingerprints on it—take all this, says Jesus, and refer it to God. Take your longing, and long for God; take your creaturely riches, and endow God; take your eye for beauty and appreciate God. With your heart and soul and mind, with all your needs and splendors, make a full turn toward God. [quoted in Yancey, Prayer Does it Make Any Difference? p. 324]
But this is only one side of the coin. We must love God and if we do, we will love one another. John has hammered at this point again and again. Yet, does it disturb you that we still find ourselves somewhat indifferent to the plight of starving people, to the horror of the Aids epidemic in Africa, and to the plight of people who are living on the streets?
If we are to truly love, then God must place His love in our hearts. We must learn to see other people as souls. We must see the need that others have and recognize that they are victims of sin (either their own or the sin of society around them) and of Satan. True love for others looks beyond the attractiveness of a person’s exterior and sees the value of a human life.
I think we resist love because we are afraid (don’t miss the irony). We hold back because we are afraid of being hurt, being taken advantage of, or being misunderstood. Most of us have been wounded by someone we dared to love. We have tried to reach out to others and been attacked or rejected. As a result, we withdraw. We hold back. We extend love cautiously.
The Bible tells us to look at the example of the Lord. He was mistreated, rejected, and even killed. In spite of all of this He continues to love us. If we have the love of Christ in our heart we will stop looking at ourselves and focus on the needs of another. We will cease to be so concerned about ourselves and start caring about other people and the Kingdom of God being manifest in the world around us.
BIBLICAL LOVE GROWS OVER TIME
It would be easy for us to be discouraged at the first point. But don’t miss verse 17,
17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect.
The word “complete” (also translated “perfect”) does not mean “that which is flawless,” but that which is “mature.” We won’t have a love that if flawless in this life, but we should have a love that is growing more mature every day. Biblical love takes time to grow.
I have observed something disturbing that often happens to Christian people. The more “mature” they become in their knowledge of the truth, the more hardened they often become toward others.
- We are quick to divide over minor theological differences when love should lead us to work hard to understand those differences.
- We divide over styles of worship when love should be most concerned with what would reach another even if it isn’t our preference.
- We form into circles of power-brokers when we should be trying to find ways to listen to others and include them in the work of reaching the world.
- We whisper about our brothers and sisters (secretly taking in delight of the fact that they have fallen and we now appear, by comparison to be better) when we should be weeping over their struggles and trying to help them.
Have you seen the same thing? Some Christians seem to become mean and nasty. Why does this happen? John tells us that love grows as we walk with God. As we grow in our relationship with Him our ability to love should also grow. So, the hardening that often takes place among “mature” or “veteran” Christians must be an indication that they have actually stopped growing and have become complacent. We have learned the lingo, we have achieved a measure of status and we mistakenly feel we “have arrived”. We are recognized as spiritually mature but in reality we may actually be spiritually stagnant.
Think about an athlete. The people who become superstars are the ones who practice, practice, and practice. They concentrate on timing and on improving every element of their game. If they focus on fundamentals, the rewards will come. Even after the rewards come they continue to work hard because they know the fundamental things are what will keep them going. As they become well known they practice that much harder because more is expected.
Think about a musician. The musician becomes skilled by playing scales, working on technique, and putting in hours and hours of practice until they are able to play their instrument as if it were a part of their body. If a musician stopped practicing because they had reached their goal of getting into the symphony, they wouldn’t be part of the symphony for long.
It is the same way in our walk with Christ, as soon as we forget that our relationship is dependent on the Lord; as soon as we begin to drift from the fundamental elements of faith, as soon as we stop working at our relationship with Christ, our Christian walk will begin to decay and we will drift back into the self-absorption of the world.
BIBLICAL LOVE BRINGS ABOUT A NEW CONFIDENCE
As we move toward this state of mature love John says,
18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 19 We love each other because he loved us first.
‘Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matt 10:28).
Why does love for God and love for our brothers and sisters help us banish fear from our lives? It seems to me that most of the fears of life are tied to our fear of death or rejection. We are afraid of heights, dark alleys, tight spaces, and a host of other things because we are afraid of dying. We are afraid of public speaking and other public activities because we are afraid of failure. We are afraid to be vulnerable and honest with others because of the fear of rejection.
When we turn to Jesus for salvation and new life; when we open up our lives to the ministry of His Spirit, we deal with both those issues. First, we find supreme acceptance by God through the blood of Christ. Once God has accepted us it doesn’t matter what other people say.
Think about it this way. When you are at work, if the boss is happy with your work, it really doesn’t matter what your co-workers think about you. If you spouse thinks you are attractive, it doesn’t matter what others think. And when the Creator of the Universe loves us as we are, it really doesn’t matter how others respond to us.
Second, once we have eternal life through receiving and trusting the work and sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, death loses its sting. If we are confident of what will happen to us when we die, we no longer fear death. We may still be (I still am) nervous about how we will die but even then we know we will not be alone. We don’t have to fear death because we know we will “live even though we die.” (John 11)
As you read through the history of the church you read hundreds of stories of believers who have given their life in the service of our Lord. They knew where they were headed. They were sure of eternity and that set them free to live and to die without fear. They were living for Jesus so death and rejection had no power to threaten them.
As we seek and learn to live in the love of God which leads us to love others, we will find that our fears will begin to disappear. When we face that thing that makes us afraid we will learn to rest in the strong hands of the God who loves us. Our confidence and love for the Lord will overwhelm our fear.
Think of the mother who nurses the sick child who has an infectious disease. Is she worried about the possibility of catching the disease from the child? No! Her love for her child casts out fear. Her focus is singular: she wants to help her child get better.
There is a movie out on the life of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer lived in the days of the Third Reich and wrote the classic text “The Cost of Discipleship”. As a Christian he refused to compromise his Christian faith and spoke out against the abuses and barbarity of Adolf Hitler. In fact, Bonhoeffer was actively involved in trying to help the allies and at one point was even part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer had every opportunity to go live in America but he chose to stay in Germany so he could be with his people and represent Jesus Christ even though he knew it may (and did) result in his execution. There is a powerful scene in the movie.
As Bonhoeffer lies in his darkened prison cell, he hears through the cement wall the weeping of a prisoner in the adjacent cell. Speaking through the wall, Bonhoeffer identifies himself as a pastor, assures the man that he is not alone, and asks if he would like to pray. The muffled reply comes back, “I don’t believe in God.”
When a German guard looks in and learns that Bonhoeffer is trying to pray with his neighbor, he responds, “Kitchner? It won’t do any good. He’s going to be shot any day now.”
Undaunted, Bonhoeffer leans against the stark cell wall and calls out to the prisoner, “If you can hear me, put your hands on the wall as if we were touching. Mine are here too.” No hands appear on the other side.
As the guard looks on through a peep hole, Bonhoeffer prays, “Lord, it’s dark in me; in you is day. I am alone, but you will stay. I am afraid; you never cease. I am at war; in you is peace.” Slowly we see a pair of hands reach up and touch the wall opposite of where Bonhoeffer’s hands are.
As dawn breaks, a single rifle shot shatters the morning calm. The same German guard, now more somber and less cynical, appeared at Bonhoeffer’s cell. “I thought you might like to know. The boy from the next cell—he was very calm. It surprised everyone. He was executed this morning.”
When we are connected to the Light of Life, that Light drives out our fear.
Let me conclude with some action steps for eliminating fear from your life.
- Be honest about your fears. Be honest with yourself and with God. Consider whether your fear is actually the result of a lack of mature love. Ask God to help you to love and trust Him so completely that your fears will be swallowed up by His grace.
- Consider fear a spiritual problem. Every time you feel churning within, remind yourself to rest in the hands of the God who loves you and has prepared a glorious place for you. Take those things in your life that you cannot change and mentally put them (and you) into God’s hands.
- Memorize Biblical promises such as “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil . . . for you are with me.” (Psalm 23) and “Fear not! For I am with you.” (Isa. 43:5) The key to handling the fearful times of life is to know that we are not facing them alone . . . God is at our side. He will see us through the trial or He will lead us home. It is win/win. If you know you can’t lose you have nothing to be afraid of.
- Dare to step out in faith. When I find myself getting overwhelmed with fear (I’m called on to do something outside of my comfort zone; I’m in an unfamiliar surrounding; I don’t know what I am getting into) I remind myself to trust God for protection and for strength. Every time I have trusted God rather than give in to fear, I have grown in my relationship with God.
- Remind yourself that the people who cause you fear are actually people who afraid themselves. Most of them are people who need to know the Jesus that lives inside of you. I’m not suggesting that we abandon good sense (which is to stay away from those who are violent) but I do suggest that as you respond to even an antagonist in love, you will find that (sometimes it takes awhile) the barriers are torn down and a bridge is built. Fear can often be replaced by friendship.
Truthfully, we will probably never live completely without fear. However, our goal should be to address our fears with faith so that those times of fear are short-lived. We do this by clinging to the love of God and by extending that love to those around us. As we do this, we will find that we are no longer alone. We will discover that the world is no longer such a scary place. And fear will be replaced by faith.