About fifteen years ago NBC aired a popular television show called Fear Factor. It was a show in which contestants competed against each other through a series of crazy stunts that were meant to face and overcome fears. Sometimes they would have to bungee jump from tall heights. Sometimes they would have to sit in a tank filled with snakes, or something gross like that. But the premise of the show was to see the drama of people facing and conquering various fears. It was a show built on the condition that we all have fears of some kind.
I don’t know how it works in your home, but in my house, I seem to be the designated spider killer. There’s a tiny bug smaller than my fingertip; somebody call dad. Dad, I’m so glad you’re here; will you come take care of a spider? Laura asks me to treat the house by putting down a bug spray around the foundation of the house and around the windows. But I have to admit, I haven’t done that yet this year. If I take away the need to kill spiders in the house, then I dramatically reduce the need for them to have me around in the first place. It’s job security.
It’s funny, but sadly the principle behind it is true in other places of our world. If we can keep people afraid, then we can maintain power and control of them by creating and instilling fear. We stockpile military arms, not because we necessarily intend to use them, but because the show of force itself can be enough to keep enemies too scared to pick a fight. Our political world right now is absolutely toxic with the way in which we prey upon people’s fears to advance political power. And it’s not confined to any one side of the political spectrum. Here’s just one example: gun violence. One side advances a fear that proliferation of guns and lack of sensible gun control laws give us reason to be afraid of gun violence. The other side advances the fear that government is coming to take away your guns, and the only true defense you have to gun violence is to own and carry your own gun. I’m not picking a side here, I’m just showing how all sides of our current political climate uses fear to vilify their political opponents. And it’s toxic. Fear is toxic.
Today as we continue working through the letter of 1 John, we come to a point where John addresses our fears and what those fears do to us.
1 John 4:7–21 (NIV)
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
Let’s talk a little bit more about fear and what fear does to us.
Sometimes fear creates paralysis. Our fears can create situations in which we feel completely stuck and cannot do anything. Pastor Dylan and I get up front here week after week and talk to all of you. We work to prepare our messages. But neither of us sits here at 9:25am on a Sunday morning having to work up the nerve to actually stand up in front of all of you and speak. However, I’m told that for more than half of the population, standing up in front of others and having to speak creates fear. In fact, for some people, public speaking is such a great fear that they simply cannot do it. They are paralyzed by it.
Some people are afraid of social interactions and crowds of people. There are people who turn off all the lights and hide whenever the doorbell rings, pretending that there’s nobody home. Some of you have done that, right? It is a fear that paralyzes some people. Instead of taking action, we stand by and do nothing because of our fears.
Sometimes fear turns into anger and hatred. Wars begin this way. Because we are afraid of terrorism, we go beyond developing protection, but we also develop a hatred. We let fear of things that are different or unknown lead to anger and hatred. This is the kind of fear that turns into racism. Because we are afraid of people who are different from us, there are some who turn that fear into anger and hatred for people who are different. So, today we see people fanning the flames of fear; fear of Muslims, fear of immigrants, fear of minorities, fear of police and law enforcement. And how quickly those things turn into anger. How quickly those fears turn into hatred.
Sometimes our fear leads to isolation and distance. Here in Highlands Ranch there are no HUD housing or section eight housing allowed. We do not allow any housing options for low income people. We have isolated and distanced ourselves from poverty. We do not want poor people around us or near us. Because we are afraid of everything that goes along with poverty, because we are afraid of people who are not like us, because of that we have created barriers of distance and separation. And then we take it even a step further. Even here within Highlands Ranch there are gated communities. We divide ourselves economically. We divide ourselves politically. We divide ourselves generationally. Our students divide themselves by athletes, by artists, by gamers. It is evident all over in our society that our experience of difference with other groups of people lead us to separate and isolate from one another.
We see an example of this early on in the Bible. In Genesis 11 we see the story of Babel. Humanities efforts to set themselves up as their own gods ultimately fails because their differences in language divide them, and separate them, and eventually scatter them across the earth. Our experience of the unknown, our experience of difference creates a fear that pushes us away from one another.
If perfect love drives out all fear, then is the opposite is also true? Does fear drive out love? When we are controlled by fear, when our lives are overcome with fears and anxieties and stress, does that short-circuit and cut off our ability to both express and receive love? Look again at what John has to say about it in this passage at the end of verse 18. “The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
What are you afraid of? This isn’t a sermon illustration or an icebreaker or something optional to think about. This is pretty critical to our faith and journey of discipleship, because if we cannot answer this question, then we are ignoring whatever it is that is creating barriers in our ability to give and receive love.
Maybe I need to just speak with the men here for a moment. Because for whatever reason, admitting fear seems to be harder for guys to do. Maybe it’s because we live in a macho culture in which the men are conditioned that we are supposed to be the brave warriors who are never afraid of anything. Maybe it’s because our culture equates fear as a sign of weakness, and men are never supposed to be seen as weak. And so, we are taught to never let anyone see that we are ever afraid of anything. But let’s call it right now. That’s a lie. Everyone is afraid of something. And if we go through life continually ignoring and covering up our fears, then we are only allowing a roadblock to love to remain in place.
So, I’ll ask again. What are you afraid of? Go ahead and write something down in your notes right now. Probably the most important thing you can do at this point in today’s message is to go ahead and name it. Write it down. Now, for those of you who haven’t written anything down yet, I’m going to give you the answer. So, if you haven’t written anything, then write this: “I am afraid to admit my fears.” Now, for those of you who still haven’t written anything down—you haven’t named any fears, and you did not write down what I just told you to write down—you have a problem.
This is the part of the message where it gets a little uncomfortable because God through his word is confronting us and convicting us of our sin. If you haven’t written anything down yet to name your fear or admit that you are afraid to admit your fear, then you have a problem. And this is your problem. You cannot love God, and you cannot love others the way that he has called and desires for you to do. You cannot love God or others the way God wants you to.
How do I know this? I know this because it’s true for me. I know this because I face those very same challenges and those very same pressures. I face that pressure inside of me that tells me the pastor is always supposed to model godly confidence and strength. The pastor is never supposed to show weakness. But here is where that kind of thinking leaves me. I cannot love God, and I cannot love others the way God has called me to do as long as keep hiding and covering up my fears.
How about you? What is it that is getting in the way of your calling to love God and love others the way God is calling you to do? Name it.
But we cannot leave it there. John does not leave it there either. We’ve spent time today naming all the things that fear does to us. Now we need to follow along with John through this passage and consider all the things that love does.
If fear causes paralysis, then love causes action. Particularly, love causes the action of generosity. When we live out of love then we live in ways that continually give and pour out for God and for others. Instead of being stuck and immobilized by overwhelming fear, love creates in us a spring of action that reaches out and gives.
If fear causes anger and hatred and destruction of relationships, then love causes unity and reconciliation. What fear destroys, love repairs. Where fear leaves us in the grips of anger and hatred towards others around us, love brings us to places of forgiveness and restoration towards others around us. Where fear leaves us in bitterness and resentment, love brings redemption and peace. And it’s physical. Fear leaves us tense. We clench our fists and our jaws. We grind our teeth. We press and we push. Love relieves tension. Love allows us relaxation. Love assures us of God’s peace and his joy.
And then finally, if fear causes isolation and distance, then love brings harmony and community. What fear breaks down and tears apart between people, love builds up and puts back together. If the ultimate example of this isolation and distance took place at Babel in Genesis 11, then the ultimate example of Babel’s undoing is Pentecost in Acts 2. If Babel shows us division of people because God confused their language, then Pentecost shows us community because—at Pentecost—each person heard the gospel proclamation in his own language. If Babel is what separated people against each other, then Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit bringing God’s people back together again from all across the earth. Fear separates and isolates. Love brings together and creates community.
Love is what gives us the strength to reach out to others and offer support. Love motivates and compels us to provide a meal for that person down the block who may be going through a tough time. Love brings us together with others to work VBS for a week so that together we can minister to children and families in this neighborhood. Love gets our hands dirty in the community garden so that we can rub elbows with a few others on the block and share together what God provides through his creation. Love puts us side-by-side with someone who maybe feels like there is no one else in the whole world who cares. Love gives words and actions that point to God, because John reminds us that God is love.
And it is this love of God—not the love that he shows, or the love that he demonstrates, but the love that he is—it is this love of God that is made complete in us. This is what God does.
John is very intentional is this passage to use passive verbs. He does not say that we make God’s love complete in us. We are not the ones who have to figure this love thing out all on our own. God does not say, “okay, I’ve shown you the way for what love looks like, now go out there and show me you can make this happen.” We do not create love. Love is not our invention. We did not come up with it. We did not make it.
God is love. This is what God does. He makes his love complete in us. And this is more than what God does. This is, in fact, who God is. Whenever we see love anywhere in this world, we see God working. Someone might object, but what about the atheist, the nonbeliever, the one who denies God? Well, isn’t God big enough and powerful enough to work his love in this world whenever, however, and through whomever he chooses? Even through people who never realize or acknowledge that it is God. By the way, we have a term for that in Christian theology and doctrine. We call that common grace. That God is so very sovereign over his creation that he can work his love and grace for this world through believers and nonbelievers alike. This is what God does.
It is God’s love that has reached down to earth in Jesus. It is God’s love that has redeemed you and restored you. It is not your merit or good behavior that has done this, it is God’s love that has done this. This is why John says today in verse 10 it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us. John wants to make sure the church knows this to be unmistakably clear. Our ability to love others counts for zero on its own. It all begins with God. It is God’s love alone that lights the truth within us. And any ability that we have to give or receive love is only ever an extension of God’s love. This is what God does.
Sure, there may be examples all over of people who show love and never realize or acknowledge God as a part of that love; but God does it anyway. But today, the call from God to you is to rise up and acknowledge this love comes from God. Rise up and acknowledge God. Because when you do that, then you know that you abide with a power that is great enough to face all our fears. You abide with a Spirit who calls us to undo all the paralysis, undo all the anger and hatred, undo all the separation and division, undo all the evil that fear has twisted into this world and in our lives. This is your place to abide, within God’s love. This is what God does.
You are no longer a slave to fear. You are a child of God.