Driven by fear or love?

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear. – 1 John 4:18 

It’s been 25 years. My doctoral studies group challenged me about fear. Every other person shared what they were most afraid of in life, but I could not think of anything. I said, “I don’t have any fears. I’m not afraid of anything.” And they told me to see a psychiatrist.

Well, I did, and the psychiatrist supported me. They planted the seed, though. Did I really have no fears at all? The group met in the summer for two years, and by the time I returned the next year, I had done some intense spiritual and personal work. Now I could identify deep-seated fears that affected my relationships and the ways in which I interacted with people.

I knew the first summer that I didn’t like heights, so I stayed away from them. I was afraid of snakes, but that seemed like a common “fear,” and I avoided them. What I came to understand, though, was that some fears gripped me deep within – fears of being embarrassed and being wrong, for instance. I’m sure most people do not like to be embarrassed or be wrong, but I learned that for me these could only be called “fear.” They tore at the edges of all interactions and at times ripped open relationships with people I cared about.

During this time, these words moved from mind to heart and became “heart words” for me. This simple thought that love drives out fear took root in my heart and began to change who I was. I still don’t like being embarrassed or being wrong, but I am learning that fear of it drives a wedge in relationships. As a husband and father, fear of embarrassment caused me to be angry and harsh at times because of what someone did that I felt embarrassed by. As a pastor, I often refused to admit I might be wrong and caused harm in those relationships.

As I write this post, the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping the world. People are dying. With some exceptions, people do not want contact with other people. People are afraid. Fear of contracting the virus and dying, unable to breathe because our lungs no longer work for us, sweeps the world. Government orders and public appeals to stay at home, if possible, and stay 6 feet from everyone if we go out, feed the fear. This fear is not about being embarrassed or being wrong, but about life or death.

The “answer” to this fear is still love. Stay home not from fear of your own health, but from compassion for other people, not wanting to spread the virus if you have been – or might be – exposed. Love drives out fear. When empathy, compassion, simple concern for others – rather than self-protection – drives our decisions for action, we are living with love and not fear. When love drives our choices, then love drives out fear.

The verse says “perfect love,” and we too often excuse ourselves from choosing the best because we are not “perfect.” We turn away from love and choose fear, deciding to protect ourselves rather than do what is good for someone else. If our choice to stay at home comes only from a need for self-protection and not from compassion for others, we are still motivated by fear and not love.

Choose love. Act with compassion and empathy for people around you. Whatever your fears may be, they are rooted in self-protection. Love moves us beyond ourselves and centers our hearts on others. In this way, love drives out fear.

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