Why Fear is Essential to Faith

Perfect love can cast out fear, but first we have to understand what these elements of faith really mean.

Can you picture a morning that was fear-free?

Can you imagine a day when you were not afraid of failure in your job, your marriage, your finances, your relationships, joblessness, homelessness, the approval of others, natural disasters, presidential elections? Or, can you imagine a day completely free from fear that you will sin? Can you imagine a day in which you see your guilt get up and leave you—as surely as Elvis has left the building—and submit itself to Jesus Christ?

Does it sound too easy, too good to be true?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “That is the first commandment, the entire gospel. ‘Fear God’—instead of the many things which you fear.” This is a dangerous statement. How can we fear the God who identifies Himself as love? That throws many of our ideas about who God is into question. We know there is a call to fear the God of love, but we don't know what to do with it. Our understanding of love doesn't mesh with our understanding of fear, and so our understanding of God suffers.

And although it would be easier if we could define God by love, instead of defining love by God, we are not given the luxury. God reveals Himself as He is and tells us to believe. He creates Adam, He casts him out of the garden. He saves Moses and Israel, then keeps the entire generation out of the Promised Land. He smites in the prophets. He hates in the psalms. And it does not get easier when He shows up to live among us.

Only if God defines love can the term have any meaning. If He gives us the power to define him, by our own best guess, then we have a god who is made in our own image.

An Unsettling Love

Jesus was a hard guy to get along with. Was it not Jesus who crashed the church party with a whip and His bare hands? Was it not Jesus who called out one of His buddies, referring to him as “Satan?” Was it not Jesus who drove an entire crowd away, telling them to eat His flesh and drink His blood? Was it not Jesus who then prodded His closest friends to leave?

When Jesus’ teaching gave offense to Jewish ears, some of His followers left Him. But when Jesus asked His disciples if they were also leaving, Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Translation: “We are pretty sure you are God, therefore we are out of options.”

This is the beginning of the Gospel, believe it or not. Peter has it right. The beginning of life is to realize that only God has it to give. He may be an inconvenient God, but He is the only one who will come through on His promises. He is that unrelenting. He is that powerful. He is that stubborn.

You see, it is the best possible news to hear that God is on His own program. Only if God defines love can the term have any meaning. If He gives us the power to define him, by our own best guess, then we have a god who is made in our own image. That god is a sham.

God has been working His plan since before He started the world with a word. Yes, God’s invitation to live is accompanied with an assumption that refusal means death. Yes, God in the flesh was hard to get along with and difficult to understand. If we give up here, though, we will miss out on why this is the best news our ears will ever hear.

The Stubbornness of Divine Love

The good news, the “Gospel,” about God is that He has made up His mind to love us. He has made up his mind to care for His people. He has made up His mind to shower the just and the unjust with rain—both to cultivate and to flood. He has made up his mind to live among us. He has made up his mind to come not only as Judge but as convict. And His stubbornness in all these things is to our eternal benefit. Can you imagine what life and faith would be like if God were as fickle as we are?

In the program of God—whether you call it His plan, His will, His design or whatever—He has decided to be for us. Can you get your mind around that? Me neither.

He has decided to be for us as shown by the fact that He came to live among us, died for us, promises to us that His resurrection life is now our new life and is active now among us even as He promises to come back for us.

Can you imagine what life and faith would be like if God were as fickle as we are?

In this kind of love, where can there be room for fear?

Confidence Out of Fear

1 John 4:17 says, “This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment.” God not only wants us to move past our fears, but He wants us to be bold in the face of His judgment. He wants us to be so confident that we have lived well in the life of Christ, so confident that we are unafraid to stand before Him.

And this is what John means by telling us that “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). Once we believe that God is irrevocably, unrelentingly, stubbornly for us, we start to shift from being afraid of what He will do to us to building a bold confidence that what He says is true.

If Christ says “Come unto me all who are weary and I will give you rest,” that is exactly what He means. If God promises to give us a new heart, that is exactly what He will do. If Jesus promises to pray for us till He comes back again, we have no choice but to believe His word.

So, just like Peter, we are brought to a place where we are with one choice. This is the place, believe it or not, of love. Will we embrace the God who presents Himself to us in a way that makes us tremble, or will we be overcome by our terror of the coming day? Will we confine our God into our own definitions of love, or will we be humble enough to be loved by Him on His own terms?

It’s a counter-intuitive truth: Only those who are humble enough to fear this God of love will know what it means to be free of fear.