Love Casts Out Fear
1 John 4:16b-21
Love Casts Out Fear
April 2, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
Here's how the great preacher William Sloan Coffin put it: "I am sure the Bible is right: the opposite of love,” he said, is not hate but fear."1
And here's how 1 John puts it: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." I believe that with all my heart. That said, I want to acknowledge that there is a relationship between fear and love. Scott Bader-Saye points out that there is a sense in which love is actually born of fear. We love something and therefore fear losing it. And the more we love, the more we have to lose, and therefore the more we are subject to fear. But this does not mean that fear is love. Rather, Bader-Saye concludes, "fear is the shadow side of love."2
Fear is at the root of our worst behavior; fear is what can divide and separate us from one another. "You know what jealousy is, don't you?" asks Fred Craddock. "It is fear of the loss of love. Why are people greedy and . . . get as much as they can? It is a fear, a fear of insecurity. Why do children cheat at school? A fear of failure. Why does anybody tell a life? A fear of punishment."3 We could go on. Why do people drink? Fear of feeling painful feelings. Why do we criticize people whose ideas are different from ours? Fear that we're not as right as we like to think. And why do we reject and push others away? Fear of being rejected and pushed away ourselves. Fear is at the root of what we call sin; fear causes so much of our worst and most destructive behavior.
Fear is also a deeply spiritual problem. “Fear,” writes James Martin, “is dangerous because it turns us away from God.”4 We’ll talk more about this next Sunday. If we don’t have a fundamental trust that God will hold us and love us come what may, then we are always unsettled, tempted to see a threat in every situation and to take every matter into our own hands.
Over the years, when I have failed to love well, it's usually fear that's been in the way. You know, I may look confident up here, on a good Sunday. But a lot of times I fear that if people knew what I’m really like, they might not want to have anything to do with me. And that fear is not unfounded. So sometimes I keep people at a distance—to make sure they can't see what I'm really like. The trouble is, across all that distance, it's pretty hard to love and be loved. Fear gets in the way.
And there's a part of me that's afraid I haven't measured up, haven’t proven myself. And if I can't accomplish enough to feel good about myself, then I'm tempted to try to make myself feel better by bringing someone else down—by criticizing someone, trying to show someone up. But it turns out that for some reason other people don't like that very well. They don't find it loving. Go figure. Fear gets in the way.
If you read 1 John, it’s clear that it was written to a church under threat, going through a crisis. Heresy, oppression and division are some of the things they were experiencing.5 Given how stressed and frightened that church must have been, Will Willimon points out, it is all the more impressive that 1 John urged them not, ‘Be on guard!’ or ‘Defend yourselves!’ but rather [simply], Love!”6 Love one another; love the way God loves. The answer to division and distress is not to strike back, not even to protect yourself, but to love all the more. You’ll remember that Jesus commanded us to love not just those who agree with us, and not just those who are can disagree without being disagreeable. We are commanded to love even those who act like enemies to us. That may not be the answer we’re looking for, but it’s the only answer Jesus has.
There is no fear in love, 1 John says, but perfect love casts out fear. Let me think with you about what that means.
One thing that means is that if there is fear in a relationship, something other than love is going. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any love in the relationship; but if there’s fear, love isn’t all that’s going on. If you’re afraid of someone, it’s not love, no matter what he says or how much he apologizes. And if every single thing you do as a parent is to protect your child from harm rather than to help them grow or give them joy, then you’re parenting not out of love but out of anxiety. The same is true of our relationship with God. The “fear of the Lord” means being in awe of God, not being afraid of God--there is no fear in love. If you find yourself fearful in a relationship, stop and ask yourself what’s going on there that isn’t love.
Love is not a form of grasping or of holding on ever tighter, but a form of letting go. In The Phantom Menace, one of the Star Wars movies, Anakin Skywalker is being examined by the Jedi Council:
Yoda: How feel you?
Anakin: Cold, sir.
Yoda: Afraid are you?
Anakin: No, sir.
Yoda: See through you we can.
Mace Windu: Be mindful of your feelings.
Ki-Adi-Mundi: Your thoughts dwell on your mother.
Anakin: I miss her.
Yoda: Afraid to lose her I think, hmm?
Anakin: What has that got to do with anything?
Yoda: Everything! Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”7 When there is fear in our love, one teacher says, we “find ourselves unable to rejoice in the presence of what we love, because we are too afraid of losing it.”8 There is no fear in love, the Bible says, but perfect love casts out fear. The answer is not to strike back, not to defend ourselves or to hang on ever tighter to what we’ve got, but to love, to let go.
John Wesley taught the doctrine of “Christian Perfection.” To this day, United Methodist clergy are asked at our ordination if we’re “going on to perfection.” And we are meant to answer, “Yes, by the grace of God.” (Some of us have a very long ways to go!) By this he did not mean that Christians could be free from error or weakness or temptation. Nor did he mean perfection in the sense that no further improvement is possible. What he meant was that a Christian’s heart could become so filled with Christ’s love that increasingly there’s no room for anything else—no room for pride or resentment, no room for selfishness or impatience. When it comes to fear, the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away. May I say that again: the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away.
As a pastor, I’m privileged to have sacred conversations with people at critical times in their lives: when they’re getting married, when they’ve lost a loved one, when they’ve had a near-death experience. And never once in any of these conversations has anyone looked back at their life and said, “You know, Pastor, I just wish I’d been more scared.” No one has ever looked ahead and said, “You know, Pastor, from now on I want fear to run my life.” Oh, there’s an appropriate caution in life, of course. ‘Foolhardy’ was not what 1 John had in mind. But yes, love is risky. Yes, love for those who mistreat us is hard. Yes, love leaves us open to being hurt and taken advantage of. And yes, love is what makes life matter. To be filled with love is the only way to get beyond fear.
Sam Wells tells a legend about John the Evangelist, who by tradition is the author of John’s Gospel, the book of Revelation, and the three letters of John. One of his followers came and spoke to him, “Master, why is it that you always write about love? Why don’t you ever write about anything else?” St. John paused for a long time, waiting for *his disciple to work out the answer for himself. Finally he answered the question. “Because,” he said, “in the end, there isn’t anything else. There is only love.”9
If there is only love, there is no place for panic, no space for anxiety, no room for fear. I want to love like that! Don’t you?
1 William Sloan Coffin, Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 27.
2 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 40. See also 39-40, 58.
3 Fred B. Craddock, "Faith and Fear," The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 34.
4James Martin, “From Fear to Calm: Spiritual Direction on Stormy Waters,” The Christian Century (April 16, 2014), 33.
5See D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 18-21.
6 William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 11.
7 Quoted in Bader-Saye, 47.
8 Bader-Saye, 58.
9Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 30.