My grandmother is a worrier. She’s never met an outrageous possibility she couldn’t be anxious about.
If you ever walk anywhere by yourself, you’ll be mugged, kidnapped, or worse. If you ever ride a roller coaster or travel on an airplane, fiery death is imminent. The tiniest thing will keep her awake at night convinced her most horrible fears (and I can’t even imagine her most horrible fears) are coming true.
We’ve had countless conversations over the years trying to remind her that fear and anxiety are not of God, and that Christ calls her and empowers her to have a spirit of peace. She doesn’t have to live in fear of everything. It’s holding her back.
Unfortunately, my grandma is not alone in this. While her example might be an exaggeration, that same spirit has overtaken white Evangelical Christians in America.
In 1 John 4:18, Jesus’ brother writes that “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” For a long time, I didn’t really understand these statements, as I didn’t understand the connection between love and fear. But as I take stock of my faith and really analyze its core, I’m discovering for the first time the depths of love referenced by Jesus and His early followers. I’ll write more extensively on this at a later point, but the word love has a very shallow meaning in our culture compared to the love Jesus refers to.
Perfect love equals God. Just a few sentences earlier in the passage, John writes that “God is love,” a sentiment echoed countless times throughout the scriptures. So when he says that perfect love drives out fear, it’s referencing the love that quite literally is God. That’s far more powerful than what we picture with our culture of bad Hallmark movies (I apologize for the redundancy in those words) teaching us about love.
Perfect love is fully relational and sacrificial. It is active and bold, because it is an experience of God’s true nature and being. There is no room for fear. It’s like the kid who stands up to the bully because he has an army standing behind him. By yourself, fear makes sense. With that level of power at your back, who could possibly be afraid?
Similarly, God’s love is not of this world. That might seem obvious, but we’ve dramatically missed this point. See, we try to take our best version (or sometimes nowhere near our best version) of God’s love and play it out in the context of this world. That doesn’t work, because it keeps our minds and hearts focused on the temporal nature of the world around us. And that’s exactly where we’ve missed the point.
One of my favorite passages in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount comes in Matthew 6:25-34, and it’s all about worry. Jesus speaks extensively about how ridiculous worry is in the context of faith in God. He asks a very powerful question that we usually gloss over: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Finally, he closes the section by saying to “seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Summary: seek God, and everything else will fall into place.
There’s a distinct separation here between the temporal and the eternal. God is eternal, as is the kingdom. And when I say eternal, I’m not focused on a specific length of time as much as the simple fact that eternal is beyond time while temporal is by definition limited and temporary. Jesus is telling us to focus all of our efforts on that which is not temporary, and God will take care of the rest.
This doesn’t mean you’ll have the most extravagant life on earth or might never suffer any hardships; quite the contrary, Jesus warns His followers that they very much will. What it does is frame your focus on something that will make those hardships simply fade away in your experience. That’s what we see with the history of the early church: Jesus’ followers boldly stepping into a world of persecution because their focus was on sharing God’s love rather than the challenges they were experiencing.
Similarly, fear and anxiety reflect a nature of doubting. When Jesus calms the storm (Matthew 8:23-27) after His disciples all panic, He replies “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” A while later when He walks on the water and they panic thinking He’s a ghost, He tells them not to be afraid. And when Peter steps out of the boat to walk with Him, it’s when Peter’s focus turns away from Jesus that he begins to sink. Jesus’ response: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
God is love. Jesus is love, a love that embodies ultimate sacrifice. A love that recognizes that everything we experience in this world is temporary, but the very nature of love is eternal and so far beyond our world that we can’t begin to understand it.
When we take our eyes off Jesus, we fall short of the love we’re called to. We can’t love our enemies, neighbors, and literally everyone on earth by our own power. Love is an eternal thing that transcends our temporal beings. We can only do it through the power of Jesus, who asked God’s forgiveness for the people who were nailing Him to a cross literally while it was happening. That’s love, and it’s only possible when our eyes are fixed on Jesus and His Kingdom, which is very much not temporal in nature.
Way back in Genesis, God promised Abram (soon to become Abraham) to make him the father of a nation. As time passed and Abram remained childless, his faith wavered. Eventually, he and his wife chose to take matters into their own hands by using a servant woman to provide Abram with a child. Abram and his wife intended well as they sought to bring God’s will to fruition, but they were taking matters of God into their own hands and carrying them out through earthly means. That resulted in Abram fathering two nations that have been at war for thousands of years.
We’re doing the exact same thing today. In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul explains that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity [or fear], but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline.” Yet instead of keeping our eyes on Jesus and living out a love that only works when we focus on Him, we’ve trained our eyes on the earth and are trying to take matters into our own hands. Instead of trusting a supernatural love to carry us, we’ve allowed fear of what we’ve deemed to be existential threats in our temporal world to distract us.
We’ve sacrificed the eternal love that ignores all worldly conditions on the temporal altar of political power to try to bring about our image of God’s kingdom on earth. But God’s kingdom wasn’t ever meant to be of this temporal earth, and it’s never been in our nature or ability to bring it about on our own.
“You of little faith, why are you so afraid? Why did you doubt?”
I hear those words of Jesus calling to us today. We’re so distracted by the circumstances surrounding us on this earth that we lose sight of our eternal call. Instead, we take it into our own hands, seek to pass laws that will ensure our nation and culture look like what we imagine (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) a nation that follows God should look like. We’re trying to create symptoms, not the cause.
That’s exactly how the Pharisees developed their culture thousands of years ago, and most people today view them as the villains of the Bible. They were the ones Jesus rebuked regularly. Their hearts started out in the right place, but they sought to reach and experience the eternal through temporary means.
Jesus offers us a different way, a way He followed all the way to the cross. His disciples followed that example, often to similarly tragic fates. They knew the battle wasn’t temporal, and that winning had nothing to do with their current culture or nation. They kept their eyes and hearts focused on God, lived out His love, even in the midst of torture and death.
Consider the example of Stephen, widely considered the first Christian martyr, in Acts 8. He kept his focus on the eternal, had a vision of Jesus, and prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers as they killed him. He knew there was nothing to fear. He was focused on that perfect love. Jesus even told his disciples before his death that “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)
So today I repeat Jesus’ simple question: why are we so afraid?