Perfect love casts out fear, which just goes to show us how much work we have before us
I love you, Lord, my strength, my rock, my fortress, my savior. My God is the rock where I take refuge, my shield, my mighty help, my stronghold. The Lord is worthy of all praise. When I call I am saved from my foes. –Psalm 18:2-4
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.-1 John 4:18-19
My three-year-old niece has always been a bit of a fraidy-cat. When she was 2, she was so terrified of new people that when someone walked into the house she would screw her eyes shut and cling to whoever happened to be holding her. For 2 hours. Even when the stranger was my 95-year-old grandmother.
She’s been working on it as she grows. Frequently, she’ll announce to her family that she’s “vewy bwave” because she can do scary things like have a ladybug land on her or play in the street all by herself (don’t worry, we explained the difference between brave and stupid).
But with all her big talk, she’s still easily frightened. So I shouldn’t have expected the 4th of July to go smoothly. But we’d been talking about fireworks and she was a good distance away from the driveway where her father was setting them off. She seemed ready.
Then the first Roman candle went off and so did Elizabeth, screaming in terror and fleeing for her life, past the carport and the garden and the cherry tree, running for the woods and anything that she could put between her and the terror of those fireworks.
I chased her, of course, calling for her to come back, but she was having none of it. When I finally caught her, she clung to me like she’s never clung before—not even in the horror of a visit from a pleasant old lady—and sobbed, “Take me far, far away! Take me very, very far away!”
It took a while—and a trip indoors where I promised to hold her for as long as she wanted—but eventually she was comforted. She was being held by someone she knew would keep her safe, and once she silenced the voices of fear in her head and listened to me instead, that was enough.
This is the image I have of trusting God the way the psalmist does. The Lord tells me I’m going to be fine, he sets me up so that I’m safe, and then he starts to work. And I panic. I run like a bat out of hell, putting everything I can between me and whatever delightful (if scary) thing he had planned for me. And he doesn’t roll his eyes and leave me to my own devices. He chases after me and catches me up and reminds me, again and again, that he will protect me.
It’s hard for me to imagine the need for a fortress or a shield to protect me from my foes. But I know what it is to need strong arms holding me and a confident voice promising that the terror of this night won’t last forever. I need his love to cast out my fear.
I always thought that this passage from 1 John was a challenge: if you love perfectly, you won’t be afraid. If you give your whole heart to Jesus, holding nothing back, you’ll trust him. And that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. It’s not just our perfect love that casts out fear or we’d never know peace. It’s his perfect love that pushes our fear away. It’s his love that holds us, sobbing and afraid, and reminds us that he will protect us.
As we’re held by his perfect love, we begin to love back. Because he loves us, we’re able to love him and trust him and let him be the rock, the fortress, the savior.
Elizabeth’s fear didn’t change the world around her. Her dad kept setting off fireworks while her siblings shrieked and giggled in awe. The world kept shaking and the scary things didn’t go away. But she was held.
So often our prayer is for God to take away the bad things, the fear of ISIS or cancer or a crazy person with a gun. In a world where some new terrifying thing is happening every time you pull out your phone, we just want God to fix it. But sometimes what we need isn’t for God to take away the ugly things but to hold us close. Sometimes what we need is for the scary things to happen so that we’ll run to God to hold us. Our love is imperfect so our fear will remain, but his perfect love will make up for much of it. Held in his strong arms, we will finally be free.