r m p






                                         Nothing to Fear


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 67:1-8

New Testament Reading: 1 John 4:13-18

I would like to share with you a few thoughts on our New Testament reading. It contains one of those really ringing statements that detaches itself from its context and stands out in your memory. It begins to reverberate and to beget kindred thoughts, a brood of implications. The particular gem I have in mind is this: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear... He who fears is not perfected in love."

What led the anonymous Elder to frame these immortal words? Like radio host Harold Camping, the biblical author is muchly concerned with the soon-coming end of the world. The prospect of such a thing might well be enough to give one a case of the jitters. But he assures his readers that they should have confidence--or at least that there is a way to get that confidence.

He says we can have confidence in the face of meeting God if we have come to love him. If you do not wish to fear God, there is one alternative. You cannot defeat him, but you can love him.

That is always the way with an enemy, isn't it? You can at least hope to defeat him, or you can love him. And the latter is preferable. Because if you defeat an enemy, he is still an enemy, waiting for another day. But if you love your enemy, as Jesus commands, you may win him over, and then your enemy is truly set at naught: enmity gone, he has become a friend.

1 John says that God was at enmity with the human race but that, instead of defeating them, which he might easily have done, he decided to love them into submission. "We love," says the author, "because he first loved us."

But it does take two to play that game. God's love awaits us, beckons us, says the Elder, but we shrink back in fear. Perhaps because we hide our guilt or shame. And we feel that God is not large-hearted enough to rise above that.

My own most profound religious experiences are dreams. In one of them I found myself fleeing God, ascending, as it happened, a winding staircase that led up a narrow tower through a series of seven doors. I knew he might overtake me at any moment, but to the top I hastened! I didn't know what I would do when I reached it, since I would have trapped myself there on a perch with no exit.

But as I made ready to open the last door, I was suddenly aware that God had outwitted me, that he waited for me on the other side. I opened it, expecting to face the divine wrath. But instead, what I beheld, as I bowed down before the hem of an incandescent robe, was a bathing flood of warm and soothing light: the light of the Love of God. There had been nothing to fear at all. I had been fleeing away from the wrath of a God who only pursued me in love. It was my love that had been deficient, not his. It was not perfect, so there was room for fear.

One caution: there is, I believe, a fear of God that no religious spirit must ever overcome. It is what the Bible calls "the fear of the Lord." It is holy awe at the uncanny presence of the divine.

I have known this fear as well. In another dream I found myself at the center of a forest glade, watching the swift approach of a figure through the circle of encompassing trees. Their limbs were bare with winter, so the figure was easily visible. As he came closer I began to realize that this was none but Jesus Christ himself. Not a phantom, not an imitation, nor even a vision, but the man-god himself. With each step closer, his visage, first dim and pale, took on the full colors of vivid life--and I felt holy terror! Instantly I awakened with heart pounding, sweating, gasping for breath. I knew the panic of Simon Peter when the nets bulged preternaturally with fish: "Depart from me, O Lord!"

This feeling of holy fear is largely absent from contemporary religious experience, I think. I occasionally feel it in connection with Holy Communion. And nothing expresses the hint of numinous chill better than Tersteegen's communion hymn "God Himself is With Us."

If we lack this fear because we think it incompatible with the love of God, we will not long love God. We will sink into the familiarity that breeds contempt. "Me and Jesus," good buddies. God is my copilot, my chauffeur.

But if we do have a sense of the holy fear of God, our experience of the love of God is not jeopardized. Indeed, or so the mystics tell us, the flaming fury of the divine is one and does not change. It is all our part whether it be divine love or divine wrath, and neither is easy to withstand. Charles Finney testified how he was overcome one day, at a factory of all places, with the surging current of the love of God--and begged for surcease! It was ecstasy such as no man might bear.

William Blake hymned the marriage of heaven and hell. Can it be that they are indeed one? That the fire of damnation is simply the flame of the divine ardor rejected by the one who flees in fear of it?

So one may even fear the love of God if one's heart is not venturesome Godward. It is a fearful love, a consuming fire.

But the Elder, the author of 1 John, means to contrast the fire and ice, the antipodes of love and fear that meet on a common plain of battle. As either advances, the other is made to retreat. If either gives the other so much as a toe-hold, its opposite will become a thorn in its side. Just as the Gibeonites spared by the Israelites in the Book of Joshua became an everlasting bane unto them.

I mean that if love allows the smallest place to fear, fear will poison love. One will no more love without condition. Doubt and suspicion will grow and corrupt love. You know what I mean. You have found out what happens when a spore of fear comes to take root in romantic love. Love becomes disrupted, relationships spoiled. Love is cruelly crushed in a killing vice of insecurity and jealousy.

But there is poetic justice: should fear admit the tiniest particle of love, it will find that love-atom a burning coal to sooner or later dissolve fear's chill igloo. You fear someone and so you relegate him to the status of foreigner, deviant, enemy. But if one day you should observe some glimmer of shared humanity, if you should begin to empathize in a moment of pain, fear will begin to crumble, to give way to love.

If the Irish Protestant has a moment of compassion for a Catholic mother bereaved by a terrorist bomb--the Protestant realizes that the Catholic is the same as she. And that single glimpse of shared empathy is a coal of love. The fear begins to melt. In the same way, I have often wondered if the thaw and melting of the Cold War had some connection with the outpouring of American aid following the earthquake in Soviet Armenia.

Insofar as you love, you do not fear. In the measure that you fear, you do not love. 1 John calls for the "perfecting," i.e., the completion,  of love, so that no room is left for fear. We have seen too many examples of perfect fear which has left no room in the inn for love. But examples of the other are rare and costly: a perfect love with no fear, like a perfect diamond with no flaw.

Perfect love is simply incompatible with any atom of fear. As soon as love floods in with perfection, fear is utterly displaced. "Perfect love casts out fear." The Greek words are the same as when the gospel text has Jesus "cast out" the crippling devils, the unclean spirits. And isn't that what fear is? In his science fiction epic Dune, Frank Herbert has the alien messiah, Paul Muadib, exclaim: "Fear is the mind-killer!" That's what it is, a compulsion, a disabler. And it must be cast out, thrown out, if one is to breathe the clean air of love.

The confounded disciples of Jesus ask, after an unsuccessful exorcism, "Why could not we cast it out?" His answer: "This kind [an epileptic spirit] comes out only by prayer." If we are bound and possessed by fear, despite our attempts to banish it, "why can we not cast it out?" The answer is "This kind cometh out only by love," love in its perfection. That is the prescription of 1 John.

I have spoken of the love of God. Let me speak briefly of the love, and therefore of the lack of fear, of two other entities: the Truth and the Future. I do not digress, I assure you. For these are but other names for a God who, as the Holy Quran says, is so great that no one name can confine him.

Did you ever seek more truth only to shrink away once it appeared that the truth you approached might endanger beliefs you already held dear? So suddenly you decided that you had enough of the truth, that you didn't need to see any more, lest perchance you lose what little truth you have. But in that fateful moment you  exchanged the love of truth for the fear of truth, a devil's bargain, surely. You decided that you love a particular theory, opinion, doctrine more that all else, even if it should not be the truth after all.

And all at once the prophecy of the prophet Coleridge has overtaken you: "He who begins by loving Christianity better than the truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all."

Consider well the warning of the prophet Tillich that it may be the doubter who is the apple of God's eye. The doubter may in fact be the greatest lover of truth: he will never easily accept any supposed truth without microscopic scrutiny. He fears only the danger of accepting some counterfeit in the place of the truth, so much, so perfectly does he love the truth. The doubter takes up the cross borne by Socrates, by Diogenes, by Jesus, all of whom answered questions with more questions. They knew that truth is a path to be trod, not a bed of certainty in which to fall asleep.

God is Truth; Truth is God, a Moebius strip, a palindrome.

But God is also our future. To trust God is to trust the future. The future is the Savior and the Judge predicted by John the Baptist: He who is to Come. We must go forth to meet him, whatever astonishing gifts he may hold, in perfect love, fearing nothing. The cross was the gift of the future to Jesus. And he strode forward to embrace it with arms stretched wide. We must go forward, greeting the future with glad embrace, if we are to continue to live at all. There is simply no place else to go.

Have you ever spoken with someone considering suicide? You probably have. Sadly, it is quite common. What has happened in such a heart? That heart has learned to look at the future with fear. Perfect fear has cast out love.

To love the future you need not believe that it will bring no unpleasantness. It will. But to become the person you can enjoy being, in whom you can rejoice, you must pass through the furnace of testing. And remember, it is the one who endures to the end who will be saved.

I mean that if you shrink back and return to the past, where you cannot return, you will only stagnate in an empty well of fear and bitterness. You must press on if you are ever to get to what lies on the other side of the wall of flames.

You must be able to say to the future, "At thy right hand are pleasures for evermore." Can you say that? You can, if you have decided to love the future. Perfect love will cast out fear, and the path will at last be clear.

So love and fear are like matter and antimatter: each must sooner or later annihilate the other. They cannot co-exist. It is only a question of which it will be that will eliminate the other. And that, it seems to me, is your decision.




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