My Old Friend Fear
AUGUST 3, 2022
About ten minutes ago, we finished interviewing K.J. Ramsey about her book, The Lord Is My Courage, on Psalm 23 dealing with fear and feelings.
Given that I usually write you about issues on my mind, that one is front and center. So, let’s talk about fear.
Are you sometimes afraid . . . really afraid?
I think I told you about my friend in the hospital. When I’m visiting people in the hospital and ask how they’re doing, most of the time, I get the answer they think (after all, I’m insufferably religious) I expect. Something like, “This is hard, but I’m trusting God and have peace,” or “I’m glad I’m a Christian and can lean on God, so I’ll be okay.” But not my friend. She said, “Are you crazy? Of course, I’m afraid. People die in this place!” She was refreshing.
It’s amazing how many emails and letters I get from people expressing fear. I’m probably a good person to ask about fear under the principle that one should never ask anyone a question about a hard issue unless that person agrees (and existentially knows) that the issue is really hard. I know about fear. Fear is an old friend of mine.
I’ve often expressed my fear of flying, and people are surprised. (By the way, I’ve spent more time on planes than you would believe.) They have this spurious belief that I’m a Christian, and Christians are not supposed to be afraid. Actually, without fear, there is no courage. So, with all the humility I can muster, let me say that when you see me get on a plane, you’re looking at an amazing demonstration of commitment, faith, and courage. I wouldn’t do it for anyone but Jesus.
Most of the time, when people tell me they aren’t afraid, I don’t believe them. But who knows? There may be someone somewhere who isn’t afraid, but they’re probably smoking or drinking something they shouldn’t . . . courage, as it were, in a bottle or a toke. When you look at what’s happening in the world—the hatred, division, anger, war, gas prices, inflation, and empty grocery shelves—it’s hard not to be afraid. And then consider personal stuff like cancer, age, death, pain, and financial and family problems. I can identify with my friend in the hospital: “Are you crazy? Of course, I’m afraid.” Again, I may be just a cynical, old preacher talking, and there really are those folks for whom fear isn’t a problem. I’m just not one of them.
Before I fix your fear (and if you believe that, you’ll believe anything), let me say a good word about fear. Fear isn’t all bad. You may get robbed if you aren’t afraid of thieves enough to lock your house. You may get shot if you aren’t afraid of a gun pointed in your direction. And if you aren’t sometimes afraid of God, you’re probably worshiping an idol. It is, after all, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Fear is sometimes the “canary in the coal mine” whose death warns miners of danger . . . you wish the canary had lived, but you’re glad for the warning.
You’ve probably memorized 1 John 4:18-19, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. Fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” Sometimes that text is my experience . . . and sometimes not. But let me show you some things about that text from a preacher who is less fearful than he used to be.
The first thing you ought to notice is that the love John refers to isn’t your love or mine. It’s his love. We don’t have enough love to deal with even the fear of seeing a fly in our soup. The short and simple answer to our fear is to let God love us.
There, now that you know that, problem solved, right?
No, wrong! And you know it. Allowing God to love us sounds simple, but it’s anything but simple. Too much other stuff gets in the way. Only children who sing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” can pull it off, and most of them have trouble with it, too. So, what to do?
The most appropriate thing to do about fear is to “name the demon.” In other words, face your fear and, when possible, list your fears. John is doing exactly that when he writes about perfect love and fear. If fear weren’t a problem, John would never have mentioned it. The old English proverb—“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.”—is true, but only if you know the familiar sound of fear knocking on your door and own it. When one of Napoleon’s generals went into war, he looked down at his shaking knees and, laughing, said, “Shake, will you? If you knew where I was taking you this day, you would shake all the more!”
When we’re afraid, we tend to run from what frightens us. At least I do. With the possible exception of a gun pointed at you, a falling tree, or a bomb threat, that is exactly what not to do. (Someone has said that when Bubba asks you to hold his beer and says, “Watch this!” run away as fast as you can.) Instead of running away from what scares you, runto it, and embrace the fear. In Hebrews 12:2, the writer says that we should look to Jesus “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” The Gospel writers make abundantly clear that Jesus was afraid as he faced the cross. Jesus was “sorrowful and troubled,” his sweat became “like great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” and he asked God to remove the trauma of the cross. That wasn’t an act. The Son of God was scared spitless, and yet he embraced the cross, the source of his fear.
So, the first step is to own and embrace our fear. At that point, a principle kicks in: You take the first step, God will take the second step, and by the time you get to the third step, you’ll know that it was God who took the first step. Confession of sin presumes an awareness of the sin that needs confession. Reconciliation of relational divisions presumes an awareness of the broken relationships that need reconciliation. Repairing inflation presumes and requires the acknowledgment of the high cost of gasoline and eggs. And doing anything about fear requires the recognition that we are afraid.
Then, as it were, the “ball is in God’s court.” That’s when God begins to do what God does . . . everything. I heard a great quote the other day from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.” That’s true in the Christian walk, too. “Bullies” that frighten us (whatever they are) are a gift from God in the same way that sin, if we know it, can be a gift from God. It’s how we experience grace. Just so, fear is how we experience courage.
Okay, I’m almost finished. John mentions “punishment.” What in the world does that have to do with fear? At the very heart of almost all our fears is the realization that what we fear is exactly what we deserve. When Christians are asked how they’re doing, they often say, “Better than I deserve.” That answer has been given so often that it’s become a cliché. Just for the fun of it, sometimes I want to respond, “Not nearly as good as I deserve. If Jesus were really aware of what I’ve done for him and he really loved me, I would be rich and healthy and have hair.” But if I said that, I would know it was a lie. Even Job discovered, as righteous as he was, that it was a lie. The truth is that what we deserve is God’s wrath, condemnation, and destruction. If that doesn’t scare the spit out of you, you’re not paying attention.
Then don’t miss what John says, “We love because he first loved us.” That’s important because it’s that love that fixes fear, and God is always the initiator. Paul writes about the amazing and counterintuitive nature of the Gospel, “God shows his love for us in that . . .” (Romans 5:8). Then he mentions the cross. But in fact, that’s what God does in almost everything. God “shows his love for us” in every experience of our lives—our failure, sin, and fear. The Christian life isn’t about getting better and better every day in every way. It’s about God trying to get through to us his unconditional love, the very definition of who he is. That would be his perfect love that casts out fear.
Dr. Richard Selzer described how he performed a difficult operation on a woman’s face. While the operation was successful, it left her with a permanent deformity—her mouth was now off-center. After the initial shock of the news, her husband, standing by her bed, smiled and said, “I think it’s kind of cute.” Selzer then writes that he saw God as the woman’s husband bent over to kiss her, accommodating his mouth to hers “to show that the kiss still worked.”
That’s what God does. God greets our deformity with a kiss to show that the kiss works. The incarnation is God, as it were, accommodating his kiss to match our failure, sin, and fear.
John writes, “whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). That, of course, is a problem. We haven’t been “perfected” in anything yet, but we can start getting there. What I’ve written here won’t take away all your fear, but it will get you through the dark night when those “demons” come.
Just watch for the kiss!
He asked me to remind you.