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Love and Fear

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My last blog provoked a response from my son, Chad. He wrote:

I found this in a book called Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, and I think it applies well to many things in our lives both as men and as Christians—perhaps there is very little difference between the two.

In the book this is part of an ongoing dialogue about the nature of fear and of true nobility.

“When I first came to Lakedaemon and they called me ‘Suicide,’ I hated it. But in time I came to see it’s wisdom, unintentional as it was. For what can be more noble than to slay oneself? Not literally. Not with a blade in the guts. But to extinguish the selfish self within, that part which looks only to its own preservation, to save its own skin.”

The narrator continues to talk about the motivation for giving up one’s self, which I will not include because their motivation is not entirely the same as ours (although a love for others above oneself does certainly play a role). But the narrator makes the point through the characters that this “giving up of one’s self” is the ultimate defeat of fear.

So going back to your comments about how we need fear to hold us when our imperfect love is not enough. This is undoubtedly true. However, our goal should be to overcome fear. Not through protestations of love but by giving up that which we have to be fearful for: ourselves. Truthfully it is in the submission of ourselves, our desires, and our self interest to God that we best show our love to him. This cannot be done out of fear. It is impossible to be motivated to give up one’s own right to self preservation out of fear for that very preservation. It’s a contradiction.

I don’t think that it is obedience that God desires of us; it is Love. God could force obedience out of fear, but fear does not motivate love. Fear motivates an individual to do the very least he thinks he can do and still get away with it.

I do not know what word the Bible uses for ‘fear’ in Greek, or if there is a better translation. Often when I read in the Bible about the fear of or for God, I think of it more as awe.

I sometimes tell a story about a time I was in a valley surrounded on three sides by an enemy that outnumbered us. When night fell this enemy thought that the fighting was over. They lit fires for their food on the sides of the mountain. We could see the campfires from dozens of enemy positions on both sides of the valley. But with the night came one of our Specter gun ships. There was no moon that night so the bad guys had no idea where the plane was. But with my Night-vision goggles on I could see a giant infrared spotlight come down from the sky onto one of the camp fires. It stayed on them for a few moments and shut off. Fifteen seconds later a 105-mm shell struck the campsite. I’m certain that everyone there was killed. This continued for more than an hour. I am certain that dozens of enemy were killed and wounded that night.

The feeling I had that night was awe at the awesome might of the U. S. military. At that moment we seemed unstoppable. That is the kind of fear I imagine is appropriate to have of God (Just multiply by 100.) It’s not a kind of fear that forces obedience but the kind of fear that acknowledges the awesome and infinite power of God.

Here is my reply:
I think you are right that fear is fundamentally self-centered. Where there is no concern for self, there is no fear. I also agree that God desires our love, but I don’t think I would oppose love and obedience. Jesus told his followers that love would prompt their obedience, essentially, that obedience demonstrates love. When we obey, even in fear of punishment, we demonstrate our love. When I was a child, I obeyed my parents sometimes out of fear, but it was not only fear of punishment; it was fear of disappointing them. It is this fear that I see as the flip side of love. Every love prompts us to hold on to something dear to us, so every love involves us in the fear of losing something precious. Part of loving God is cherishing his good opinion. The flip side of that love is fear of losing his approval.

You wrote that “it is in the submission of ourselves, our desires, and our self interest to God that we best show our love to him.” I do not think that is correct. It seems that you are saying that we demonstrate our love most by sacrifice. Yet when King Saul disobeyed God and chose to sacrifice part of his plunder to God rather than totally destroying everything as God had commanded, Samuel told him, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” In one sense, of course, his obedience demanded greater sacrifice. He did not disobey because he wanted to keep the plunder for himself; it was because he feared the grumbling of his men more than the wrath of God. He hoped to please his men by letting them keep the plunder while appeasing God’s wrath with religious observances. In so doing, he showed contempt for God by valuing his men’s approval more than God’s. That is why Samuel was so outraged and announced that Saul’s kingdom would be torn from him and given to someone else. If you are talking about this greater sacrifice, then I think you are right, but in that case, I don’t see how you can separate it from obedience. The greatest sacrifice is obedience because obedience requires the subjugation of our own desires and reason to the superior design and goodness of God.

I think you are also correct when you say that fear does not motivate love. I agree. My claim goes the other way round. Love motivates fear. Where there is no love, there is no fear. Even the most basic and elemental fears, such as fear of imminent danger, arise from a love of security and safety. Our problem is not fear, but inordinate fear arising out of inordinate love. When we love something—anything—more than we love God, then our loves and fears are out of order, and we fall into all kinds of snares that trap us in sin. That’s why the first of the Ten Commandments is to have no other gods before the Lord. If he is preeminent, then everything else in life falls into place. It’s also why the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Such love engenders a perfectly healthy and appropriate fear of God.

God is awesome. His power is unlimited. We need only look to nature to grasp something of the magnificence of his power. The first time Belinda saw the Grand Canyon, she wept to see its immensity and beauty. Yet the Grand Canyon is little more than a surface scratch on an ordinary planet in a vast universe. There is an appropriate fear of such grandeur, but even that also is a flip side to the love of our own significance.

So if love causes fear, how can it also be that perfect love drives out fear? It’s clear from the context that John is talking about the fear of punishment. Perfect love frees us from the fear of punishment. It also frees us from the fear of disappointing God because love overwhelms fear. Fear is swallowed up in love.

Chad replied:

I think that we must disagree on the definition of Love. When I speak of love, I am talking about a conscious devotion and submission to something other than oneself. This is not the same as infatuation and I would definitely not refer to a “love of security” as love. The reason I don’t include these more basic definitions of love is because to love oneself is the basic human condition. Not only is it human, but it is the way of everything in this world. Every living creature has a survival instinct, and many of the more advanced creatures are capable of feeling and reacting to fear. I hold to my statement that selfishness is all that is required for fear.

As for obedience, I did not mean to oppose obedience and love. However I think one is a symptom and the other the disease. When I say God does not desire our obedience, I mean that God does not ultimately desire our obedience. He desires our obedience because he desires our Love (as previously defined). Obedience comes through submission, through giving up oneself. Had King Saul truly submitted himself—his desires, and his self interest—he would have had no problem with obedience. It would have been his only available course of action. Indeed, it would have been the desire of his heart.

It’s not that love and obedience are opposite. It is that while obedience can be gained by love, it can also be gained by fear (as you first mentioned in your blog). However, this is my experience of obedience that is gained by fear: it is half-assed. I see it all the time in the soldiers under me. If they are given a task they do not wish to complete, they may not moan or gripe. Instead they do the minimum. They fulfill the letter and only the letter of the orders they are given. As I understand it, Jesus urged us to look to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. This type of obedience can only come from someone who is acting out of something more than fear.

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Plus and Minus

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Ever notice how every good thing has a flip side? I’m not talking about dualism, where every virtue has an equal and opposite vice. No, I’m talking about the flip side of positive motivation. The Bible is full of it. Look at the number of times people are told to fear God, and compare it to the times they are told to love the Lord. Love and fear are plus and minus, two sides of the same motivation.

I see it most clearly in my closest relationships. I love my wife; I fear disappointing her. I love my children; I fear what may befall them. I love God; I fear him.

My son is serving his second tour in Afghanistan. He has excellent training, and I know that his missions are well-planned and that he is well-protected. I also know that he is fighting against a remorseless enemy. There are people who will try to kill him if they can. I love my son, and I fear for his safety. Because I love him, I pray for him and support him however I can. But if love fails to motivate me, fear for him will still drive me to do the same things: I will still pray and support him.

I have heard it said that fear is wrong, that it cedes authority to the devil in my life. But I don’t find any biblical warrant for such a view. The Bible never diminishes the virtue of an appropriate fear. Only in one oft-quoted passage am I told that perfect love drives out fear. I confess; my love is not perfect. At times I need fear to help me stay on track.

As a child I loved my parents. Yet there were times when I was tempted to do things I knew I shouldn’t. At those times love seemed weak and inconsequential. The desire to do wrong was strong within me, and love alone was not sufficient to hold me back. Then fear came to my aid. For I knew that if my mom or dad found out what I was about to do, I would catch it. Fear of punishment saved me from doing risky things. In the same way, my heavenly Father threatens terrible punishments for willful disobedience to his instructions. His threats are not meant to chill my love for him; on the contrary, they are meant to strengthen my fear of him. If I fear him, perhaps I will not do what he has forbidden. If I fear him, perhaps I will do what he commands.

Love is strong. It is stronger even than fear. When love is perfect, it drives out fear because there is no longer any danger of the disobedience that leads to punishment. But as long as I am still fallen, still capable of disobedience, still willing to say, “Not your will but mine,” I need fear. Indeed, I pray for fear to keep me from stumbling when my love is cool or God seems distant. I would rather be terrified than lost.

Jesus told his followers not to fear those who can kill the body but can do no more. Instead, he said, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” This kind of fear leads to security and safety. It is mixed with reverence and awe. It is like the fear that prompts mountain climbers to go through rigorous training and invest in first-rate equipment. They know what the mountain can do to them. Other fears—fear of looking ridiculous, fear of embarrassment—become insignificant. In the same way, Jesus intends that our fear of God would sabotage every lesser fear. The great power of the first-century Christians was that they did not fear death; they feared God too much to fear anything else.

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My Hero

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I wrote this a few years before my mom died. I know my dad still grieves for my mom, but he has also shown remarkable resilience. He keeps busy volunteering at the library, taking meals to shut-ins—often to people younger than himself—, and taking trips to visit family. Because of his unshakable faith, he views Mom’s absence as temporary. It’s as if he plans to join her as soon as he’s finished with his work. That could still be many years, and he’s in no hurry. I have to confess also that my dad is not one to discuss such things with me or anyone as far as I know. So the feelings I attribute to him come mostly from my imagination and from projection.

My dad cares for my mom with unmatched devotion to her comfort and well-being. He never says it, but I know he is afraid she will die. He’s not afraid for her but for himself. He can’t imagine living without her.

I know what that feels like. I can’t imagine living without my wife. I don’t think this failure of imagination is the same as love. But it feels a lot closer to it than the feeling I used to call being in love.

When I was a kid, back before seat belts, six of use would be crammed in the back seat, and we would ride along country roads in Ohio back before the Interstate always deposited you not more than two miles from anywhere you were going, we would speed along over hills that left a curious lurching sensation in the stomach. It made us giggle.

“Did you lose your stomach on that one?” my dad would ask over his shoulder.

“Yes!” we would shout. “Do it again!”

And sometimes he would oblige us by speeding over the next hill, so it felt almost like going on the roller coaster at the amusement park by the zoo.

That’s what it used to feel like being in love. It was like losing your stomach on a hill in a fast-driving car. I would be giddy and giggly and say and do silly things, and nobody cared, not even the girl I was in love with. There was a little bit of fear, too, but it was the manageable, safe fear of midway rides at the county fair or monster movies on weekends.

I didn’t know back then how terrifying real love can be.

Now my dad takes care of my mom, hoping against hope that she won’t die and leave him all alone. She’s overweight and diabetic and has had health problems of one kind or another for years and years. Her own parents both died young, but his lived well into their nineties. The chances that she will outlive him are slim.

So every day he coddles her and makes her life less burdensome. He builds a ramp, so she can get into and out of the house without navigating stairs. He buys her a motorized wheelchair. He installs shelves where she can reach them. He fetches things for her and dotes on her like a young lover of bygone days. He makes all these sacrifices for her because he really loves her and has since they were both school kids in Ohio. And even though I have kids of my own and am old enough to have grandkids, my dad is still my hero.

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