Over the centuries there have been thousands of books, articles, sermons, lectures, hymns, treatises, you name it, on the subject of the Bible and of Theology. Here's some more to add to the pile!
If you were to press me to describe our society in a single word, the one I might very well choose is “Fear.” North America in particular has long been subject to a mentality of constant fear, fueled by (though not exclusively) sensationalized media fear mongering. The world around us seems, for decades, to have simply moved from one fear to the next. From the fear of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War’s nuclear standstill, to the insanity that was the Y2K scare, to post-9/11 terrorist concerns, and now to 2020’s coronavirus scare. This doesn’t even begin to mention the numerous “smaller” scares like the Cuban missile crisis in the 60s, the Ebola outbreak from a couple years ago, or the bizarre and terrifying saga of Trump and Kim Jong Un’s Twitter war?
The world is constantly telling us to be afraid. The thing that breaks my heart is the degree to which Christians become caught up in, perpetuate, and at times even seem to exacerbate this culture of fear. From conspiracy theories masquerading as “prophecy watching” or political activism, to groups twisting the Scriptures from being fundamentally about faith, hope, and love into an excuse for hate, to some (often well-meaning) evangelistic approaches using hell as essentially a scare-tactic, making fear the motivation for salvation. Let me be clear: being mindful of our eschatology, active within our political environment, honest about what the Bible calls sin, and realistic about eternal judgement are all important and have their place in the Christian life. But as with anything, there’s a danger of taking things too far, making them a greater priority than they ought to be.
Allow me to clarify something else: I don’t remove myself from this indictment. I’ve been part of almost every group I just mentioned at one point or another in my life. I’ve also found myself on the flipside in the last couple of years as one who seems to be ruled by fear and anxiety in greater and greater measure. I don’t know where this has stemmed from, or why. I just know that I’ve become far more worried and fearful in recent memory, far more than I ever was before. As such, I don’t write this as someone who has deluded themselves into thinking they are outside of the problem looking in. I’m right there in the trenches with the rest of you. Frankly, that’s why I wanted to write this article in the first place.
The Bible has a great deal to say about fear, from a few different perspectives. In this article, I’m only offering some quick thoughts around one passage. In 1 John, the eponymous beloved apostle writes a section focused on love. In particular, he writes about love in chapter 4. But it is not merely a general discussion about the nature of love. The passage is presented in the framework of an imperative. In v7 he commands us: “Brothers and sisters, let us love on another.” As is often the case in the Scriptures, he does not simply let that imperative hang, but rather proceeds to helpfully describe what it means, why we can do it, and how we can bring it about. Moving down into verse 12, he introduces the idea of the Christian abiding in God and God, in turn, abiding in the Christian. This abiding, then, is the means whereby we are able to accomplish the command. How do we learn to love one another? By abiding in God. It is here that we come to the passage in question, beginning in v15:
“Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in Him, and He in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
After declaring the command, and describing the means, John then offers the results. If we abide in love, love is perfected in us so that we then are equipped to demonstrate love. This demonstration not only manifests as our love for one another, but it has a secondary effect. In v18 see love, that is true and perfect love, has no room for fear. Fear in antithetical to love. Fear means something is lacking in our love, our love is not yet ‘perfected.’
While the question is not explicitly asked of the text, the answer is clear. What are we to do about our fear? Well, we are to seek a perfected love. How do we do this? It is just as the text prescribes: abide in love. And, as John points out in the passage, God is love. So, if we want to drive out fear from our hearts, we need to abide in God.
Before I discuss what it means to “abide in God,” I want to just rabbit trail a tiny bit. There is something that is not explicitly stated in the text, and so we might miss it. The abolishment of fear is presented here as a secondary effect of our love being perfected. As I stated, fear is evidence of love not being perfected in us. There is also the primary result of a perfected love to be kept in view here: loving others. The text puts these two results, being without fear and loving others side by side, but doesn’t explicitly draw the connecting line between them. So here it is: if we are living in fear, it means we are not loving others the way we’re supposed to. Fear is the enemy of love. Whatever that fear is, wherever it comes from, however it is manifesting, you can be sure of one thing: it is restricting your capacity to love the people around you.
Back to the point, then. We abolish fear by abiding in love, that is, abiding in God. How do we do this? I’m not going to present anything earth-shattering hear. As a matter of fact, I learned the answer to this one in Sunday school: read your Bible and pray. As Christians, if we want to demonstrate love in greater measure, and purge ourselves of fear and anxiety, we need to invest in our relationship with the Lord. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, presents prayer as the direct antidote to anxiety (Philippians 4:6). And the means whereby we get to know the Lord is His Word, His special revelation of Himself to humanity. We need to be a people saturated in His word, drinking deeply and constantly of it. Abiding in God means abiding in His word.
It's a lesson that is almost laughable in its simplicity. It seems to basic, to simple, to be true or profound. But I assure you, it really is as plain as that. While we may balk at this as the “obvious answer,” how many of us have actually been faithful in following it through? What is your relationship with fear? I want to encourage all of my brothers and sisters who are reading this, especially during a season like the one I’m in while writing this: let’s do what we can to try and stem the tide of fear, rather than allowing it to sweep us out to sea, or worse being a part in making it worse. Let’s instead focus on learning and disciplining ourselves to abide in God and in His Word.