Fear, doubt, and love.

It never ceases to amaze me where ungodly fear can lurk—even in times of Bible reading and meditation! I offer my own recent encounter with 1 John 4 as an example of what can happen when I’m not careful. Here are a few verses from the NIV:

We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 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 him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 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.

As I read the chapter, I found myself doing something that I have done quite frequently with this and lots of other familiar passages. I noticed the glorious promises and started wondering if I really qualify.

Can I really claim to know God, as is says in v. 7? Has the love of God really been made manifest in me, as it says in v. 9? After all, if I tried to enumerate my greatest strengths, I could not say that being loving is conspicuous among them. Do I really know that I abide in him and he in me? Or is that promise intended only for the church as a whole?

But then I realized what I was doing. I was reading God’s word and doubting. And why was I doubting? For the fear that I don’t really qualify for God’s blessing. In turn, that really amounts to the fear that Christ’s death and God’s love aren’t strong enough to help me. I don’t think it had ever dawned on me how much and how long that fear has had a grip on me until I had to prepare a talk on the passage.

I used to have tremendous difficulty believing that God loved me, because I would look at my outward circumstances and see how unhappy and unfulfilled I was. It felt like when I prayed, nothing happened. After a long struggle, I realized that the old children’s song had it right: “Yes Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”  When I looked anywhere else for proof, it was like questioning whether God was really telling me the truth. God never has a good word to say for unbelief. I learned to believe that God loves me because it says so in the Bible. After that, I saw the  kind of evidence in outward circumstances that I hadn’t seen before.

And so now the 16th verse has taken on special meaning for me: “We know and rely on the love that God has for us.” And 18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears has not been made perfect in love.”

I now realize I have been afraid that I would be revealed and punished as a fraud. I fear, so I have not been made perfect in love—yet. But perfect love casts out fear. I don’t have perfect love. I have never met anyone in the flesh who does. So it’s God’s perfect love that will cast out my fear.

The Bible says that no temptation comes to any of us that is not common. If I can be fearing and doubtful while I read God’s rich promises, then so can many of my readers. According to Jeremiah 23:29, God’s word is like a fire and like a hammer that breaks the rock. Here are some verses that I have used, recast in the form of a personal confession of faith, to burn away doubt and fear and to break the hardness of my heart:

  • Ps. 56:3-4: When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust. What can mortal man do to me?
  • Is. 54:4: I will not fear. I will not be ashamed or disgraced. I will forget the shame of my youth.
  • Ps. 37:23-24: My steps are established by the Lord, and he delights in my way. When I fall, I will not be hurled headlong, because the Lord is the one who holds my hand.
  • 1 Pet. 1:8. Though I have not seen Jesus, I love him, and even though I do not see him now, I believe in him, and I am filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.

They work for me only as long as I continue to assert them. After a while my attention turns to other scriptures and my fear and doubt return, but, I suspect, less strong than before. Then when I rediscover these and similar verses, they take me by surprise all over again and the process of burning and breaking continues. That’s one way that God’s perfect love casts out my doubting fear.

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