Lent is a time when many Christians give up something. Passing by the TV set at just the right time has informed me, for instance, that Stephen Colbert is giving up liquor and Senator Kristin Gillibrand is giving up swearing. In case you are still debating what you should disavow, may I suggest that as a Christian, you might want to give up fear.
It is perhaps a startling thought. After all, nature is, in many ways, a good Mother, who teaches all of God’s creatures that which they need to know to survive and thrive. One of the basics in this education is the importance of fearing danger. Virtually all creatures learn to do this at some level, ourselves included. Our legitimate fears of hot stoves, traffic, poisonous snakes, sick people coughing, and a whole range of similar items are part of a skill set which helps us survive. As a species, we were created into a paradise where fear was unnecessary. But in the Fall, fear entered the world along with sin. All creatures must now pay attention to fear, and I am not suggesting you give up natural fears necessary to exist outside of Paradise. They are part of the balance of nature in the present world.
But it is part of sinful man to try to distort that balance. Fallen man is driven by fear and lets it rule his or her life. Whole billion-dollar and even trillion-dollar industries profit from selling products defending us from that which we fear. A small inventory is for protection from other creatures. But by far, the biggest items are intended to keep us safe from each other, be it other nations, people different from us or our own neighbors.
It is this fear which St. John addresses: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). It can be said in the negative as well: perfect (i.e. total) fear drives out love. In the Lenten process of internal preparation, giving up fear opens the door to love entering in. For John, love is what God is all about. The definition of our humanity comes from that single foundation: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). He goes on to note the means by which God loves us, through the sacrificial love of his Son, and that this gift has come to us so that we might love in return, loving not only God but each other.
And the primary contrast to that love is fear. Many might instead think of hate as the exact opposite of love, and John gets to that, pointing out that hate also excludes love, both towards God and towards each other (see verses 4:19-21). But first and foremost, it is fear that drives away love.
Is this not a pretty simple concept? It is not that it is easy or effortless to love. The God who first loved us did so through incredible sacrifice and suffering, beyond our ability to even grasp. Those among us who love also understand that love means a giving of self, which is sacrificial by definition and, while it may have rewards, it requires a lot of effort. But the idea remains simple. It is what God is, what he is about, what he gives us, what we therefore can give to him and each other.
What message do you see around you from Christians? The average person could be forgiven for failing to understand that love is the basic message of Christianity, the sole motivational message, in fact. The church messages I see and hear mostly say that you must fear God, follow the rules, repent of your sins, do good deeds, read the Bible, go to church, give up things.
These are not necessarily bad things in themselves. But as a message, they all fail to center us where God is and where we need to be. Without love, they are all ultimately meaningless, and lead to fear, not to God. The only reason to do any of these things is if they bring you to God’s love. Would it not therefore be better and clearer to start at the basic point? The only message we have as Christians worth telling to non-Christians is that God loves them. When do you suppose we are going to start mentioning it in the public forum? Pro-life? Meaningless without God’s love. God bless America? Idolatrous without God’s love. Ten Commandments? Terrifying without God’s love. Prosperity Gospel? Wrong, with or without God’s love. Repentance and living a “good life?” Pointless without God’s love. And so it goes.
We live in a culture of fear. It is to the selfish gain of many to promote fears of other nations, of people of other races, other languages, other religions, of our neighbors in our own communities who may rob, rape, hurt, shoot or defraud us. The response in a fear culture is to be better armed, better alarmed, and craftier, to be, in a word, more fearsome than others. This, of course, creates a new cycle of fear from others towards you.
Without God, there is so much to fear, so many to fear, no one to trust. There is no solution to our problems, individually or together, in fear. With God, we know we are loved, that he therefore has our best interests at heart, that he can be trusted, that as we are in the Body of Christ, no enemy can ultimately prevail against us because God is greater than anyone or anything. As John ends each of the letters to to seven churches in his diocese, we will overcome, prevail, win, with God.
A Lenten journey in which you trained to let go of fear of others that arrived at a Pascha with room in your heart to be filled with love, God’s love and yours might be the best trip ever.