“We have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. 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.” (1 John 4:14-18, NLT)
“For God did not give us the spirit of fear, but one of power and love… (2 Timothy 1:7)
Some theological wrestlings this time. I hope you are finding some good books to read, that cause you to reflect, stretch, and build some muscle in your faith. One of those books for me recently has been UNAFRAID: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith by Benjamin Corey (Harper One, 2017). Corey’s thesis is this: “We can hold a fear-based foundational understanding of God or a love-based understanding of God, but we cannot hold both. Love doesn’t fear, and fear can’t love.”
What do you think? We have after all a bible filled with the call to the fear of God, to fear the Lord, and that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. These things we know well. And we have these words above, referencing the early church’s theological wrestling with how to understand the fear of God through the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ. Their conclusion, it seems, is that love wins, and that fear is sent packing. Reflecting on these scriptures, is it sacrilege to say “I’m not afraid of God anymore?”. I wonder — maybe the truth is that it’s more of a sacrilege to trust and Jesus and hold onto fear. Wrestle with me.
And with Corey, who reflects in Christmas this way: “I ponder the reality that when God entered the human story– when he took on flesh and became one of us — the first thing the angel proclaimed to humanity was ‘Be Unafraid!’ — as God had arrived to bring great joy to all people. As I sit beside the crackle of my Christmas Eve fire, in finally sinks deep in my spirit that if the story of God began with the command to be unafraid, I should probably just accept and embrace that command…When God stepped off his rightful throne and became flesh, the angels didn’t announce the coming of a king set on destroying us….warning us that we’re “in big trouble now that dad is here“. The angels didn’t announce the arrival of a warrior God ready to slay his enemies….Instead the angels announced the birth of a baby — the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. And printed atop the birth announcement of our King were the words “Be Unafraid!”
Unfortunately, what begins as “good news of great joy that will be for all the people”, has been convoluted, distorted, and reduced to a message that’s good news for a few, and horrible news for the rest of us. It must be that eight out of ten folks I chat with have an image of God that is much more fearful or fear-filled than loving. That famous sermon, “Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God” that Jonathan Edwards preached in the summer of 1741 in New England is said to have begun a great spiritual awakening. And while many found God, they found an angry God, and not a God of love, and I would argue, not the God of the Bible who comes to life in Jesus.
The biblical idea attached to fear, found mostly in Hebrew Scripture, is of awe, reverence, and worship. But fear is often taught, preached, and understood by the church as anger — that is, that God is angry, wanting us to fall, to fail, that God is fundamentally against us. In our own evangelical tradition we attach this anger to God’s Holiness — that God cannot tolerate our sin and imperfection. The trouble is that this is not the biblical witness, which instead tells the story of God who loves us so much that God incarnates God’s own self into a human being to embrace our sins and imperfections, forgive us, and set us free! Now that’s Good news of great joy! And it’s for all people.
Love, in the end, is the holiest measure of our holy God. “God Is Love.” Love is the one word more than any other that describes God perfectly. I know I’m not there yet when it comes to “fully experiencing God’s perfect love.” But it’s a journey I’m on, and excited about. I hope you are too! Maybe this winter we could read the book and talk about our faith together!
In the meantime, What if, what if John and Paul are pleading still with us in the Christian Community to root our lives in the love of Christ, which actually is a love that cannot co-exist with fear? What if to love is to be unafraid after all?