Fear Not, For I Am With You
Fear too often influences our day-to-day lives. One way in which fear impacts us is through judgment. We fear the judgment of our peers, and we fear the final judgment of God on our lives. That fear is a barrier to love, both in our personal relationships with one another, and in our relationships with God. Faith in Real Life discussed this heavy topic this week. But as Vernon writes, the day of judgment came when Jesus was nailed to the cross. The judgment rendered was that God loves us, and that there is nothing that can separate us from that. If we live into that, our relationships, both with God and with others, grow.
1 John 4:7-21
7 Beloved let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the Day of Judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
My early conception of God was abstract, distant and scary. God was ‘Omni’—omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient. Such a God could and would see through me. It was only a matter of time before there was a reckoning. Even if he was kind and loving, something I apparently did not trust, talking to God was obligatory and was more like being called to the principal’s office than conversational. This passage helped redirect me toward a God I could begin to see and relate to in ordinary life.
There are many things to address in these verses but I will pick the ones that had the greatest impact on me as my understanding and my faith was being transformed. 1. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.” 2. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 3. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment,…4.”Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
One of our most fundamental faith claims as Christians is that God creates us and we are God’s children. This claim means that our being and our worth come from God. This is a big deal. Secularly there are any number of competing faith claims—our worth can be based upon, wealth, social standing, power, intellect, beauty, strength, approval—and on and on. Each time we assign worth based upon anything other than our status as God’s children, we turn away from God. We sin. It is necessary to identify what characteristics make us different and unique but it is sinful to use those identifiers as indicators of value or personal worth.
God’s love is sure. God’s love will never end. We stand on solid ground when we trust him. Even as every secular way of valuing was ripped away from him, Jesus relied upon God. He didn’t like it. He suffered, He wanted another way. But even when he could not see a way and was in despair, he remained in conversation with God. He was ‘obedient unto death.’ Our resurrection faith is that though he died, yet shall he live.
I hope by now that these words are so familiar that you can recite them back to me. But my experience is, no matter how familiar, we need to hear the Good News over and over again. We are not loved because we are valuable; we are valuable because we are loved. That is God’s gift. We are valuable because God loves us. We are not loved because we achieved or did something. This is a simple concept but it is terribly difficult to receive in real life.
Watch how this idea is played out in 1 John. When he announces that God is love, we have a way to experience God in everyday encounters. God moves from the heavens and the mountain tops to wherever two or three are gathered in his name. The experience of God shifts from the vertical to the horizontal—the transcendent to the incarnate. We can find God in the ordinary. It is not possible to see the transcendent God; it is, however, possible to see the incarnate God. As Victor Hugo put it in Les Miserables, “to love another is to see the face of God.” He must have read 1 John.
I hope each of you has had this experience in at least one relationship. If you feel loved by someone, you can say anything to that person. You may be embarrassed, even fearful, but you confide in them with the confidence that they will not leave you—even if they disapprove or challenge you. Their love for you is not based upon what you do or say. It is based on their gift of love. They continue to regard you, continue to listen to you, continue to love you. Such relationships are precious and usually take years to develop. They grow with each self-disclosure and each time we are accepted. Researchers suggest it takes between 150 and 200 hours of direct interaction for an acquaintance to become a close friend. (That also suggests that it takes a similar amount of time to know God as someone who loves you.) This is an ordinary, observable, repeatable human process (confession and forgiveness) through which we make ourselves known to God and learn to trust his promises.
As John puts it: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the Day of Judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.” As we are known and accepted, love is perfected in us. We can risk more and the more we are known, the more love is perfected in us. That is how love works. Seeing that process in ordinary life gives us a way to see God and to understand that love is the essence of God and is the activity of God.
The problem of course, is most of us live in fear of judgment. In any given week, I will see a woman who has been holding her affair secret, a man who is afraid to ask for what he wants (that would be selfish), a man whose internet porn had gotten out of hand, a woman who was tipsy at her six year old’s birthday party, or another woman who so feared that she would disappoint, she had lost her voice in her marriage etc. Most of us live in fear. We fear rejection. We fear abandonment. We fear loss of control. And we fear trusting God with our fear. Far more than we care to admit, fear governs our lives.
Human beings NEED love. We need connection. In real life, love is literally life giving. Children who are not touched enough are diagnosed with ‘failure to thrive’. As adults, when important connections are threatened, we get crazy. The range of coping is wide, we will do anything to please, we will get self righteous, coercive, silent, depressed, rage full. It is nearly impossible to hold on to your sense of value and worth when someone who said they love you, leaves you. The threat of such loss puts us into our most fear filled fight or flight modes.
But it is not what God wants or what God promises. God wants us to know we are safe with Him. We have a human reflexive fear of the Day of Judgment. We assume it is about being measured and divided between sheep and goats. But what if the question is, Did you trust that I could love you even when you were disobedient? (That’s what it is like to confide in a dear friend.)
Whether it is in our relationships, or with our God, the more solidly we are connected, the safer we feel. We do not have to take everything personally. We are able to listen better. We are able to love better. If we pay attention to how loving actually works in deep relationships, the relationship is built upon a growing confidence that we are accepted as we are. We really can say anything and still be loved. Love casts out fear.
Love creates a safe place for us to be who we are. It transforms our focus for living. Our job is to use who we are—not pre-decide God’s approval or disapproval. The Day of Judgment has already come. It happened on the cross. It is not the human reckoning of who is enough, it is God’s promise that there is nothing about humankind he does not know and love. God has turned upside down everything we thought about good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable. God’s desire is to receive us and his willingness to love us far exceeds our imaginations. —-But if you have had someone receive you, had someone love you, when by all human reckoning you should be punished, you have seen the face of God.
This is the well we draw upon when we seek to love others. It is reliable and sure. We are called,— we are commanded —to do likewise. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Come with boldness to our God. Fear Not. Jesus is with you. Let it be so.