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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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