Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

What happens when love whispers to our deepest, darkest fears: "I see you. I've got you. You're loved"?
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A sermon on 1 John 4:7-21

I’ve shared enough of my story in the past that this probably isn’t news, but when I was growing up, if I could sum up the way I most related to my religious faith in a word, it would be fear.

In an Easter reflection at my church a few years back, I described it like this:

“Growing up, I had a sense that being right about God was the most important thing in the world, followed closely by obeying all the rules. It turned God into something of a Cosmic Vending Machine: I’d input orthodoxy and obedience like a dollar bill, and in return, I’d get peace and happiness in this life and power and glory in the next.

“The only problem was the goodies always seemed to get stuck on the way out. It left me tired, discouraged, guilt-ridden for my inevitable failings—and at the bottom of it all, I doubted deeply. Of course, that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, and I was certain that my distress was the result of my own inadequacy. I built up walls around myself so that no one would see how flawed I was. It was my own personal temple to shame.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

In preparing for this sermon, I got to thinking about the Enneagram, a personality framework that seems to be all the rage these days. I don’t know that it’s always perfectly reliable, but it has a theory that I think is interesting and helpful: it says that, to a large extent, our personalities are rooted in what is described as a “core fear.” In other words, the thing that scares you most drives you to do what you do.

There are nine different personalities and nine core fears. Maybe you can relate to some of these.

  • The fear of being wrong, bad, or irredeemable.
  • The fear of being rejected.
  • The fear of looking like a failure.
  • The fear of being plain or insignificant.
  • The fear of being ignorant.
  • The fear of being alone.
  • The fear of missing out.
  • The fear of being controlled.
  • The fear of conflict.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Yeah, me too.

Viewed from this lens, you could argue that fear is at the core of most of our problems. In compensating for these fears, in trying to push them aside or prove them wrong, we find ourselves entangled in our most intractable sins.

For example, the reformer, who fears being wrong, bad, or irredeemable, becomes angry and resentful at the world for being imperfect and lashes out and judges people (themselves most of all).

Or the achiever—me—who fears being perceived as a failure ends up believing that only the image you project matters, that you must put on a polished persona for the world, even if it means deceiving others and yourself about who you really are.

Or the loyalist, who fears being alone or abandoned, remains in a constant state of anxiety, waiting at any minute for the other shoe to drop, and tries to control what others do to retain a semblance of stability.

My 11-year-old daughter, Miriam, inadvertently gave me tremendous insight into this human tendency during a conversation we were having a couple of weeks ago. She said to me, “Mom, do you know why families fight?”

And I thought to myself, “Because they won’t leave their mother alone, even when she’s just trying to do normal human things like go to the bathroom?”

But, wisely, I didn’t say this. I asked, “Why do families fight, Miriam?”

She said, “Most of the time, when families get into arguments, it’s people trying to prove they’re right. It’s just one person saying, ‘no, I’m right,’ and the other person saying, ‘no, I am,’ and everyone goes into defense mode.”

(Yes, my 11-year-old child really said “defense mode.” Apparently, her DARE program at school taught her that. Good on them for such helpful emotional intelligence teaching.)

Then she said, “Maybe you don’t have to go into defense mode. Maybe all you have to do is listen.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

And so, friends, today I invite you to listen to the words of this Scripture:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Let me say that again, and maybe this time close your eyes, take a deep breath, and let it really sink in:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Perfect love casts out fear—and what is love?

Our text says, “God is love.”

It goes on to say, “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.”

In other words, it is not something we can manufacture. We can’t conjure up the love that casts out fear, can’t punish ourselves enough to get rid of it, can’t out-fear fear with more fear.

Instead, the love of God, the love that is God, the perfect love that casts out all fear, is the love made manifest most clearly in Jesus Christ. The same Jesus Christ who was born, died, buried, and raised on the third day.

This love atoned for our sins—which means to make amends for them, to pay for all the painful consequences they accrue—so that our sins (or the things we do out of fear) might be erased, transformed, healed.

Think of it this way. Your fear puts you in defense mode. Your defense mode leads you into sin.

Jesus interrupts the whole cycle. He comes and says to you, “You, right this minute, you are loved.”

Right in the middle of your fear.

Right in the middle of your defense mode.

Right in the middle of your sin.

You, right now, are loved.

And what happens to your fear then?

What happens when love whispers to the one who fears being wrong, bad, or irredeemable – “I will give you all my goodness, an infinite supply, and it can never go away”?

Or to the one who fears being rejected – “I will always want you, because you belong to me”?

To the one who fears looking like a failure – “Your accomplishments do not define you, my love does”?

What happens when love whispers to the one who fears being plain or insignificant – “I see all the ways you are remarkable and unique, because I created you that way”?

To the one who fears being ignorant – “It’s okay not to know—I know enough for both of us”?

To the one who fears being alone – “You are safe, because I will never let you go”?

What happens when love whispers to the one who fears missing out – “I will always take care of you and give you unspeakable joy”?

To the one who fears being controlled – “I will never betray you because I gave you room to explore”?

To the one who fears conflict – “Your presence and your voice make a difference, because I put you where you are for such a time as this”?

What happens when love whispers to our deepest, darkest fears: “I see you. I’ve got you. You’re loved”?

Our text tells us what happens.

When we are loved in this perfect way by this perfect God, we love.

We love because he first loved us.

Not because we were right or accomplished or smart or needed or unique. Not because we earned it or proved ourselves worthy of it. We love because he loved us, because that is simply who God is, and to love is simply what God does.

When you take the advice of little Miriam, turn off defense mode, and listen, really listen to the voice of Jesus, saying, “I am the atoning sacrifice for your sins; I am the one who loved you first,” you will feel your fear melt away.

And in its place, you will feel yourself being caught up into this perfect, all-encompassing, eternal love that makes space for everyone, just as it has made space for you.

Abide in this love, which means to live from it. It will change absolutely everything.

Amen.

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