If I feared less, I would love more — both God and people. But it is just as true that if I feared more, I would love more — both God and people.
I’ve been praying for a while for God to align my affections and desires with his. And, based on my decades of experience pursuing God, one of the telltale signs that he’s answering my prayers is that I’m forced to face numerous situations and decisions that incite fear — the kind of fear that makes me want to withdraw from the bold words and deeds of love in Jesus’s name that these situations and decisions require. I’m learning that facing such fear, as much as I dislike it, is precisely what I need.
I could almost wish I was a fearless Christian. But there is no such thing as a fearless Christian.
No Fearless Christian
Faith and fear are often described as opposites. But in reality, that’s not how it works. The kind of fear the Bible most often addresses, whether positively (Deuteronomy 6:13) or negatively (Luke 12:4), is actually born out of faith. It results from a promise or threat we believe.
So it is not so much faithless fear that inhibits a more radical life of Christlike love, but rather misplaced fear — fear of the wrong thing. In other words, faith in the wrong thing produces the wrong fear. And faith in the wrong thing is at the root of so many of our problems, the worst of our miseries, and the heart of our sin: “For whatever does not proceed from faith [in God] is sin” (Romans 14:23).
That’s why there is no such thing as a fearless Christian. God designed us to experience fear, in some measure, because he designed us to live by faith (Romans 1:17). And the object of our faith is revealed in what fears most motivate us.
We Obey the One We Fear
Fear preceded the fall because living by faith preceded the fall.
God designed mankind to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Misplaced faith, adulterous faith (James 4:4), was what the fall was all about. “Did God actually say?” (Genesis 3:1) was the serpent’s direct assault on humanity’s faith in God’s word.
And the assault was directed right at the first woman’s and man’s fear. Would they fear missing out on God’s promise of uninterrupted happiness and blessing, and fear suffering the dire consequences of disobeying God’s holy word and thus resist the temptation? Or would they fear missing out on the serpent’s deceptive promise of the experience of being wise “like God” (Genesis 3:5–6) and succumb? The failure of faith in the garden of Eden was revealed in the failure of misplaced fear.
And now the misplaced fears we succumb to today are kinds of reenactments of that first fall. It is believing (fearing) a promise or threat coming from a source other than God — which is a fall from grace. For God has always caused his grace that unites people to him to flow through the channel of faith (Ephesians 2:8). To know God and to love God is to trust him, which will be expressed by obeying him (John 14:8–11, 15). To not believe God — to not trust his word — is to not rightly know God (John 8:15–19). And to trust God is to fear him, since we obey the one we fear.
Perfect Love Doesn’t Cast Out All Fear
If you know your Bible well, this phrase may have just come to mind: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). But the apostle John wasn’t addressing the fear of the Lord that the Bible frequently commends. The rest of the verse explains what John meant: “For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” This kind of fear is the terror of God’s condemnation experienced by the unforgiven, the “fearful expectation of judgment . . . that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27).
But the fear of the Lord that comes out of trust in him and produces obedience is a fear that we experience as joy: “Blessed [happy] is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways” (Psalm 128:1). This kind of fear is pure and clean (Psalm 19:9), the source of wisdom (Psalm 111:10), “a fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:27), and results in intimate friendship with God (Psalm 25:14), and hope (Psalm 33:18), and rest for our souls (Proverbs 19:23). Perfect love does not cast out this kind of fear, but causes it to grow in us.
That’s why one of the Spirit’s highest sanctification priorities in our lives as believers — both in the short run and the long haul — is to free us from the love-inhibiting, joy-dampening, fruit-impeding effect of misplaced fears, and teach us the fear of the Lord. He does not want us living by God-belittling, deceptive faith in the wrong things; he does not want us living in the thin, grey world of fearing the wrong things.
The Spirit is extraordinarily patient with us, and he sequences his “battles” so as not to overwhelm us. But he is relentless, because “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), and he intends, in his perfect patience and timing, to help us live in the freedom that is ours.
Don’t Avoid — Lean In
However, God doesn’t only work in spite of us, but also makes us willing participants in this Spirit-initiated pursuit of our liberation. And here’s the difficulty: when it comes to setting us free from misplaced fears, the Spirit typically delivers us from them by eventually directing us to face them.
Yes, we knew it would have to be that way, didn’t we? We knew when we prayed for freedom, we would be invited into the overthrow of tyranny. We might wish to sit out the battle, but misplaced fear, which in some measure reveals some place in us where we’re not trusting God supremely, is like our own altar to Baal. And God’s commitment to rid the deep recesses of our hearts and minds of such competitors is both for the sake of his glory and the sake of our joy. So misplaced fears can become for us our own showdown on Mount Carmel, where we increasingly learn that “the Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (1 Kings 18:39).
And the “great cloud of witnesses” of saints down through the ages say, “Amen” (Hebrews 12:1). It has always been this way. And each member of that great cloud urges us not to keep ducking our fears — not to let them keep robbing God of the glory he deserves and stealing the joy Jesus purchased for us.
As the Spirit reveals our misplaced fears, we can learn to stop avoiding them, and rather lean into them. The impressive façade of lying promises or threats will not long stand before the real power of the real God when we trust him. These fears can and will be overcome. Dread can give way to peaceful, joyful confidence in God. For the Spirit will give us just what we need, in his unexpected timing, in the moment we need it (Matthew 7:7; 10:19–20; Philippians 4:19).
The less we fear what we ought not to fear, the more we will love — both God and people. The more we fear who we ought to fear, the more we will love — both God and people. For the sake of God’s glory, for the sake of love, let us grow determined — let us become tenacious. Let us not settle in or make peace with misplaced fear governing any territory of our soul.