In the midst of Jesus’s ministry, He called His twelve disciples to Him and gave them power to cast out unclean spirits and sicknesses, then sent them out to various cities. Before they left, He gave them a sort of locker room speech:
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles…And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved…And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:16-18, 22, 28)
I like to picture Jesus stopping here and then being kind of “Woo! Put your hands in, ‘Disciples!’ on three…” and the disciples just kind of blankly staring at him, processing the world’s worst pep talk as their level of panic escalated. They had signed up to be spiritual rock stars—casting out demons and healing the lame and people begging them for relief from a lifetime of pain, not hatred and persecution and martyrdom. To them in the middle of Jesus’s ministry, crowds of adoring followers trailed them wherever they went. His words must have seemed unfathomable.
But Jesus didn’t end on that downer. He continued:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore: you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31)
There are many Christians who believe that if their faith is strong enough, God will protect them from every bad thing. But that’s not what the bible tells us. Jesus told His followers not to be afraid when bad things happen, that He is with us no matter what. He didn’t say that bad things wouldn’t happen to us—in fact, as evidenced by the verses above, He pretty much promises that they will.
When fear drives us…
“Pain-free, problem-free” was never, and has never, been the promise. What is the promise? Eternal life if we persevere in following Him, and a measure of His spirit to guide and bolster us until He returns to claim us. As Jesus was taking the disciples through the Passover and preparing them for His departure, He promised to send the holy spirit to them, and said, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). Years later, Paul describes the qualities of God’s holy spirit and tells us that it must be working in us and bear fruit—it’s not just some passive warm and fuzzy feeling tucked away in a corner of our mind. The first fruit he lists is godly love, or agape (Gal. 5:22). In writing to Timothy, he provides an even better description in the form of contrast: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (II Tim. 1:6-7).
We all have fears. Big fears like our loved ones dying, terrorist attacks, not being able to pay the bills, pain, being alone, collapsing economies, or death. Smaller fears like botching a project at work, being taken advantage of, putting our foot in our mouth, making the wrong decision, or forgetting to do something we promised we’d do. They’re the things that keep us up at night, gnawing at the edges of our minds as we play out different scenarios, thinking through what could go wrong or what we did wrong, the possible consequences of each minute decision. Fear is a natural part of being a human being, and a perfectly sane response to danger. But when fear becomes a driving factor in our lives, it is in direct opposition to the fruits God expects us to be producing.
Fear causes us to be short-sighted. Faith looks ahead to the ultimate outcome and trusts God to handle the details. Fear drives us to lie in order to keep our job. Faith leads us to tell the truth, trusting that God will take care of us and knowing that we can get another job if necessary. Fear is not simply a personality trait or a choice, it is a symptom of a larger problem in our life, and we are commanded not to be fearful repeatedly in the bible:
- “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev 2:10)
- “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. ‘And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.’” (I Pet. 3:14)
- “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Josh. 1:9)
- The aforementioned Matt. 10:29-31
Our relationship with God begins with faith, and it is a critical part of conquering fear. However, Paul tells us that out of faith, hope, and love (agape), love is the greatest. Faith is the absolute belief without physical evidence that God is real, that He is powerful enough to do what He says, and that He is faithful to fulfill His promises. Hope is what this faith produces in us, the confident expectation of a coming reward. This is a case where our English definitions can get us into trouble. This hope is not a substance-less, childish wish—like faith, this kind of hope is a rock-solid, tangible thing. Hope is born of faith and manifests itself in love.
Where agape leads us…
Then what is love? Paul says in Romans that “love is the fulfillment of the law,” hearkening back to when Jesus told His followers that all the law and the prophets hung on the two great commandments—to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as your own self (Rom. 13:10; Matt. 22:37-40). In fact, Jesus said that their love for one another would be the identifying trait of His disciples through the ages (John 13:35).
This is kind of hard for us to understand today, because the word “love” in English is a soft word, a feeling that we have for friends or family or our spouse. Because of that, we often miss the power of what Paul is saying here. It was even difficult for the people of his time to really get his meaning, because he (with the other apostles) was taking an underutilized and undefined word in the Greek language and attempting to own and define it by describing its characteristics. In fact, the entire chapter of I Corinthians 13 is dedicated to providing a complete picture of agape by depicting the actions it incites. After describing this love as being patient, lacking envy, rejoicing in the truth, and many other qualities, Paul sums up his treatise by saying, “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (I Cor. 13:7; NLT). John says even more concisely, “he who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:8). In other words, this love born of faith and hope and evident in action is the proof that God is working in our lives.
Fear and love as opposing forces
In the latter days of his life, the apostle John wrote a few different letters to far-away churches in which he focused heavily on godly love (agape) and the nature of God. He tells the brethren, “If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His spirit…There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (I John 4:12-13, 18). Love drives out fear because God is love, and fear and love are incompatible.
Fear and love are arguably the two most basic, powerful emotional motivators in human beings—every other emotion is really just a derivative and every action ultimately stems from one of these two places. The natural result of fear is acting selfishly and without any regard for others’ wellbeing. The fruits of fear as a motivator are listed in Galatians, where Paul speaks of the works of the flesh—envy, murders, selfish ambitions, outbursts of wrath, and many others (Gal. 5:19-21). The list of fruits produced by God’s spirit, conversely, is led by godly love, or agape (Gal. 5:22-23). There is no overlap between the two lists, because love pushes out fear, and vice versa.
When fear drives our thoughts and decisions, this is an indicator that we have fallen out of relationship with God and are quenching His spirit. In Hebrews, Paul reiterates one of God’s myriad promises, saying, “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’” (Heb. 13:6). This is an ironclad promise. When we let fear drive us we are exposing our lack of faith in His promises. Paul wrote to the Philippians that they should be “anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God [from the holy spirit], which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
When we are allowing the holy spirit to work in us and produce godly character and love, this creates the antidote to fear and allows us to have peaceful minds. One of the ways it does this is by helping us keep the reason for our calling at the forefront of our minds. It’s easy to lose sight of future eternal life when every day brings news of war and hatred and death, and closer to home we have financial problems, issues with co-workers, sick kids, and thirty hours of obligations that we’re trying to cram into our allotted twenty-four. In one of my absolute favorite passages in the bible, Paul acknowledges the struggles we are going to face in this life while reminding us of what God has in store for us:
“For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’. The spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us…And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:15-18, 28)
Again we’re told that the spirit God has gifted us with is not one susceptible to fear. Paul rightly describes fear as a type of bondage. It focuses us inward, on our needs and worries and inability to control our lives, causing us to lash out at those who care for us most and make decisions that are illogical to those on the outside. However, his purpose here is to remind us of the bigger picture and focus our eyes on the finish line. God never promised that nothing bad would happen, and this passage reiterates that. There is suffering and worry in this age, and terrible things happen to people who follow Christ. But what Paul is saying is none of that ultimately matters, because there is something infinitely better waiting for us down the road.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:31, 35, 38-39)
This is the kind of love (agape) that we are commanded to have. It’s not a nebulous positive feeling we have for a few special people in our lives. It is the love that drove Christ to offer Himself up for torture and death to cover our sins. It’s the love that caused the apostles and many of Christ’s followers through the centuries to hold fast to their faith even through persecution and martyrdom. It is a love shown in thought and action, with faith in God and hope in His promises as its foundation. This love causes us to live a fearless, outward-focused life. There is no place for fear in this kind of love.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” ~ Psalm 27:1