Sifting Scriptures of Fear Through the Sieve of Love: 1 John 4:18 as a Hermeneutic

Fear is a powerful motivator. It keeps people in line, saves them from their own stupidity, protects them from an unforgiving world. There are many Scriptures that seem to use fear of judgment as a motivator for the Christian. As a matter of course, it only makes sense that churches have historically utilized these Scriptures to provoke holy living in their congregants. Some churches have gone to an extreme and harped on doctrines concerning judgment and wrath (although it should be noted that a majority of these doctrines are directed not towards believers, but unbelievers). Most, however, pit the Christian on tightrope, as it were, held in tension by the two opposite ends of fear and love. “We need fear and love,” we are told, because our sinful, fallen human natures are too – well, sinful – to allow us to live by love alone. That sin-nature needs a steady diet of fear, lest it threaten to devour the “good nature” part of the believer that lives by God’s love.

Is this really what the Bible teaches? To what extent can we love someone while constantly fearing their punishment and wrath? To what extent can we stay sane (psychologically and spiritually stable) under such bipolarity?

There are Scriptural warnings, wakeup calls, and maybe a threat of judgment here or there (though once again, I challenge the reader to carefully examine such passages of judgment, as very few are directed at believers). There is the concept of “the fear of the Lord,” which many, however, argue is not the same thing as fear of wrath, especially not in light of Christ’s work.  With all of this in mind, I question whether Scripture actually advocates fear as a primary motivator for growth and living. Fear may be like an emergency EKG used to shock people awake out of complacency or sin; but one cannot live hooked up to electric shock without getting burnt out.

Even if we believe that fear is a biblical motivator for normal Christian living, is it necessary, is it God’s best? Is there any getting beyond it, is there a higher way? If you’re a fear-monger (I jest), if you are convinced by Scriptures that we need a daily dose of fear, then I challenge you to get confused by this Scripture:

“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” (1 John 4:18, NIV).

There are some difficult Scriptures that seem to put fear of judgment into the heart of believers. But could these Scriptures present a less than ideal motivation for righteous living? Maybe they are intended for those who, out of complacency or ignorance, will not align themselves with a lifestyle founded upon a connection to God’s love. Maybe these Scriptures are not intended to be the bread and butter of nourishment for the sincere believer.

 

1 John 4:18 flies in the face of conventional conceptions about biblical fear and love. It states in no uncertain terms that love has NOTHING to do with fear – especially fear of God’s punishment. Simply stated, as far as I can tell, this verse states that there is no balance between fear and love; there is no combination, no tension, no paradox, no compromise. Fear always and only weakens love. Fear and love are antithetical, oppositional, hostile to each other. Choose one and you will lose the other.

Let us question this puzzling Scripture. How much fear is there in love? “No fear.” NONE. Does love compliment fear? “No. It completely annihilates it.” What is the relationship between God’s love and God’s punishment? “They are opposites. If you live in God’s love, you shouldn’t be thinking about God’s punishment at all.” What does it mean if I’m a Christian and I regularly use fear to motivate myself, especially fear of God’s punishment? “You haven’t reached maturity. You aren’t living in God’s best for you. You are experiencing a subpar existence. There is so much more for you. God’s love is perfect – it lacks nothing, is all-sufficient, and certainly does not need fear.”

Beloved brothers and sisters, I suggest to you that living by fear is biblical, living by a combination of fear and love is biblical – but living by love alone is more biblical. It is the highest way, the way God intended.

Do you struggle with Scriptures that seem to suggest God’s judgment? Do not fear. If you think yourself to fall into categories that may incur judgment, throw yourself upon the infinite reservoirs of God’s love. Moreover, interpret passages that speak of judgment through the higher rule of God’s love: if one lives by love, one need not fear judgment. If there seems to be a contradiction between Scriptures, keep studying; but give preference to Scriptures that emphasize love over those that seem to emphasize judgment. God’s will is not that we live in fear of him, and it is certainly not that Scripture would be a nightmarish source of fear and judgment. For many, the Bible is a book of torment. But to his children, God wills it inspire freedom; a freedom that crucifies all fear, more and more, until we all live in the overwhelming perfection of his love.

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