For instance, I am aware that sticking my finger in a light socket could lead to pain or even death. Fearing that consequence, I avoid putting my finger in light sockets. I’m not terrified of them (yet at one point, I could have been, such as the day I found out this is a dangerous activity). However, this fear governs what I do around danger.
Fear over consequences is part of living in safety and, in most cases, this is a sensible fear. However, God warns His people about the fear that keeps us from loving others. This is not sensible.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (1 John 4:18)
While fear usually begins as an emotion or feeling, the perfect love of God is never mere emotion. It is a love (agape) that takes action for the eternal well-being of others. This can be done with or without any feelings of affection. It is the love that motivated God to love the world and send Jesus to die for us. It is also the love that He tells His people to have for one another. We even are told to give up our lives for others if their eternal well-being depends on it. This love is from God, not possible in our own selves.
Agape love never fears what might happen to me when I sacrifice my own interests to show the love of God to someone else. It involves complete confidence that God will take care of my needs as I give myself to the needs of others. Agape love never worries about consequences or loss because there is no motive for personal gain behind it. I trust God so am not concerned or in fear about my personal needs. This is the kind of love that took Jesus to the cross.
Besides that, this love cannot exist in a fearful heart. Fear will keep me from objective care for others because it is focused on me. It involves the threat of loss, even a concern that if I don’t do something, God will punish me. This fear keeps me from agape love because it is self-centered.
The fear in this verse is phobos, a Greek word from which we get phobia. While that word connotes terror, I think again about light sockets and realize how subtle fear can be. Any “fear” of being shocked isn’t experienced as a terror even though it governs what I do around exposed electricity. What about fearing punishment?
It is easier to see in others. For instance, a few people in my family belong to a cult. They are told that if they do not do as their organization says, they will be lost to God and have no hope for this life or eternal life. In fear of that consequence, they do what they are told to do, and even believe what they are told to believe. Their fear governs their actions and inaction, yet as they live with it, they have become accustomed to thinking the way they do about their religion. They are comfortable with it, seemingly unaware that they are driven by fear rather than love.
Lest I point my fingers and forget that 1 John was written to Christians, I must think about my own life. Am I afraid that if I don’t live a certain way, God will “get me” for my neglect? More to the point, do I fear that I will be punished if I don’t read my Bible today, or if I don’t pray as I normally pray? Will the Lord slap me around or take away my rewards if I fail to go to church next week or refuse to go on a church committee? Do I study so I can help someone else in their quest for God? Or do I study because I am afraid God will be angry with me if I don’t know all the answers? Do fears like that drive me to any or all spiritual disciplines and duties rather than being motivation by God’s love for other people?
Lord, just thinking of those questions is a hint that fear is sometimes in my life, motivating me rather than love. I’m sometimes afraid that You will not bless my day if I skip or skimp in prayer that day. I sometimes do things because I “should” rather than because I care. But my Christian life is not about me. It is about You and sharing Your love with others. In You, my relationship with the Father is secure and not dependent on what I do. For that reason, any fear of being punished is a mark of fleshy living. I can see that my prayer time is supposed to flow out of a loving concern for others, an agape love that is willing to sacrifice time and energy for their well-being. I see how fear is subtle, but it can turns spiritual habits into duty and ritual instead of making them acts of love. Forgive me.