The scriptures referenced are 1 John 4:7-21.
One of the books that has stuck with me long after I read it is Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear. A nationally respected security expert, de Becker wrote that man is the only animal that disregards his fear. In his book he advises that we listen to our fears; that they are warning us of things we are perceiving on a subconscious level. If you feel that someone you just met is getting too chummy too fast, you are probably right to be uneasy. It is a common way for criminals to catch a victim off-guard. If your boyfriend's demeanor is very Jekyll and Hyde, he is probably abusive and you should ditch him pronto. If someone keeps contacting you despite being told not to, do not talk to him, call or write back. Otherwise, you are just teaching him how many times he must keep calling in order to get you to respond.
De Becker's advice is solid, well-reasoned and thoroughly researched. He has consulted with movie stars dealing with stalkers, companies dealing with disgruntled and possibly dangerous ex-employees and the government on threat assessment. To be fearless is to be naïve and even reckless. It is a good thing to listen to your fears in situations where your physical safety is at stake.
But what about the fear of the Lord that scripture enjoins upon us? How and why are we to fear God, especially in the light of our passage from 1 John, which tells us that perfect love casts out fear?
Proverbs 1:7 says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” What does that mean? Obviously it doesn't mean to fear God the way one fears a lion or a tornado. You flee or hide from those things. You don't develop a relationship with them.
But there are things that you have to work with that, while not exactly fearing, you need to have a healthy respect for. If one works with fire or with heights or with the sea, one cannot be paralyzed with fear but neither should one take them casually or act recklessly around them. This seems to be more in line with what scripture means by “the fear of the Lord.” God is our creator and made the world to operate according to various physical and moral laws. He has the right to judge us on how closely we are adhering to how he intended us to behave. And any honest person will acknowledge that we do not always live up to our own standards, much less God's. Thus we should always have a healthy respect for him. Just as a boater or fisherman has to balance his delight in the sea with a knowledge that it is more powerful than he. He must keep in mind that he has to adapt to it, and not vice versa.
But God is not a blind force of nature but a person. Unlike fire or gravity or the sea, he is forgiving. Why should we fear him?
For one thing God is not a typical person. He is in charge, and in a way that surpasses any powerful human being. He created and is in charge of everything. And as we know, everything is connected, and sometimes in ways we cannot conceive. Quantum physicists have discovered that on the subatomic level that things are, to paraphrase J. B. S. Haldane, not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine. For one thing, changing the rotation of an electron in one place can trigger a change in rotation of another electron in another place that is not physically connected to the first. Genes are also more complicated. It used to be thought that if you had certain genes you would get a disease. Now it turns out that it is not merely a matter of having the gene but whether it is turned off or on, and apparently by how much as if it were controlled by a dimmer switch. We have also found that in many conditions a lot of genes are involved, not just one. They can be triggered by many things. You can also inherit genes that were activated or deactivated by your grandparents so that they were turned on or off when you got them. So, for instance, some cancers are inherited and some are triggered by chemicals or trauma or even by viruses. We live in an amazingly complex and intricately interconnected world.
My point is that asking God to change something is akin to asking an artist to change one thread deeply embedded in a vast tapestry. It's not that it's impossible but it will require lots of painstaking work and will disrupt numerous other threads. And those other threads are not just other parts of creation but also the lives of other people. Consequently we should not expect God to unravel all of that for frivolous purposes or merely for our whims. Prayer is not magic. We are not saying special words that will force the universe to conform to our will; we are asking our heavenly Father for things and doing so knowing they must conform to his will, not ours. We can no more presume that God will reorder creation for our personal desires than we can presume that an imminent storm will hold back so we can have a nice day on the water. If we sail off into a red morning sky we are not displaying a healthy respect for nature. And if we defy God's moral laws we are not displaying a healthy respect for him.
But what about forgiveness? Gravity may not be able to forgive you for jumping off a building with a homemade parachute but surely God will forgive you for breaking his laws. Yes, if you sincerely repent. This does not mean there will be no consequences to what you did. If you stole from someone, part of true repentance would be returning what you stole and asking for forgiveness from your victim. But what if what you did cannot be easily undone? Let's say you physically harmed someone. You broke their arm in a fight, or their spine in a drunk driving incident. If you repent God will forgive you and then you must go to that person and seek forgiveness. But the damage, both physical and psychological, remains. It may take a long time to heal. Your work has just begun.
I saw a documentary about a man who, when he was young, murdered a girl who had rejected him. And he got away with it. The police never found her body and nobody connected him to her. But it ate away at him. He became a Christian. He threw himself into ministries and good works. Still it haunted him. He married and had children and was a good husband and father and a pillar of his church. But still his victim's blood cried out to him. His conscience would not let him rest easy. Finally, after talking to his wife and children, he turned himself in. He got a life sentence. And though he gave the girl's family closure, they never forgave him. He is an example of true repentance. I'm as sure that God forgives him as I could be. But actions have consequences. This man also serves as an example of the fact that we do not so much break God's laws as break ourselves against them.
So if you want to be wise, begin with a healthy respect for God.
But do we lose this fear when we come to know God's love? Is that what John is saying in today's passage?
Yes and no. John is talking about judgment day and the fear he is talking about is being punished. Those in whom God is perfecting his love have no fear of this. Christ has taken the punishment for us, so if we put our trust in him, and let his Spirit work in us to transform us into children of God, we need not fear punishment. But we usually don't fear those we love either. However if we define the fear of the Lord as having a healthy respect for him, then that is compatible with loving him. One should respect persons one loves. And if somebody you love is awesome, then you can be awed by one you love. “Awe,” by the way, is a word that used to mean “fear.”
For those who “abide in him and he in us” our motivation to obey God is not fear but love. Naïve unbelievers think we Christians obey God because we fear going to hell. They rightly point out that fear is not the best motivation to be moral. But John takes fear off the table. We obey God because we love him and we love him because he first loved us. He showed us his love by sending his son. Jesus reveals his great love by giving his life for us.
It works this way in ordinary life as well. Children learn how to love from their parents. Children raised without love have issues becoming attached to anyone else. Children raised with warped versions of love learn from that. God shows us his self-sacrificial life-giving love through Jesus. Anyone who opens themselves to that will, in time, see that love come to perfection or maturity.
John writes something intriguing about this whole business: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” Why does John follow that first sentence, about nobody ever seeing God, with the second about God abiding in us if we love one another? Because if God is love, the eternal act of love, one way to get a glimpse of God is to love one another. The closer to perfection our love is the more clearly we see God.
Because love is the reason for our creation and because perfect love is our goal, the imperative to love is not arbitrary rule; it is an essential part of the spiritual process. That's why those who do not love do not know God and why claiming to love God but not loving those created in his image is simply lying.
Which raises the question: if this is right here in the Bible, from the first century of Christianity, why has it so often been ignored by Christians? How could they participate in the Crusades, the Inquisition, or other acts of violence? The command to love isn't a big secret. It isn't an obscure passage or in one of the less examined books like Jude. It is in one of the Johannine writings, that shares the language and theology of that most popular of Gospels, John. Right there in John 3:16, we are told that God sent his son because he “so loved the world.”And much of 1 John repeats the fact that God loves us and so therefore we need to love one another. How hard is it to get that this is the heart of the message of the New Testament?
Christians would much rather talk of righteousness and sin and salvation and faith. We would much rather judge others and condemn sinners and nitpick theology. We would much rather attack those who don't say precisely what we say or do precisely what we do. Loving others is hard. And it never ends. If you truly love someone you never stop. You don't stop loving your children when they grow up or your parents when they grow old. If I merely have to be nice to my neighbor occasionally, I can manage that. If I have to love him, it will be harder.
And now you know why laziness, under its old name of sloth, is one of the 7 deadly sins. Virtues are tough to keep up. Perseverance is not a particularly sexy virtue. But without it, virtues are mere whims, a passing urge to do good. But to stick with doing the right thing, especially as it becomes more difficult—that is true nobility. We would rather avoid the inconvenience of making a stand and holding to it. Love, when there is no promise of romance or reciprocity, tends to fade. It takes commitment and persistence. We cannot do it without the Spirit and the grace of God.
Jesus commands us to love one another. If we don't, he says, we do not know him. So to ignore this command betrays a lack of healthy respect for our God. To obey it is to live in him and to experience him living in us. Love is a direct line to God. It is our lifeline. If there is anything to fear in this world, it would be missing out on that.