I’ve never been a great sleeper—toss, turn, rub my tense legs, wander down the stairs for a drink of water. The night triggers my body to amp up for tomorrow’s challenges. It takes
the stars to align for me to rest through the night. I hear every sound at 2:00 a.m., but on one October night, I heard monsters. They were outside my window. I was already up, so I split apart our curtains to take a peek. Under the haze and the flickering streetlight, I could see three men dragging another man down the sidewalk. Was this a game of some sort? They stopped in front of my house, picked him up, and walked up to my driveway with purpose. I found out later that they had already shot him in the arm about a block away. They lifted him and sprawled him out on the hood of my car. The sounds of his groans still echo in my memory. I watched every cruel, rage-filled blow from their baseball bats as they bludgeoned this young man into oblivion.
Our neighborhood galvanized to organize against the constant gang violence. But I privately could not shake the images of hell from my mind. Night terrors of wickedness became a regular occurrence. The morning after the violent event I rinsed off the dried blood covering my car. As I washed away what remained, I felt deep fear in my chest. What if those three men are watching me now? I’m the one who called 911 on them. Could I get over my fear? The fear began to take over. I made plans to move out of the neighborhood God had called my wife and me to.
In 1 John 4:18 we encounter this potent passage: “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.” If you’re a Star Wars geek, then this passage might remind you of something Yoda once said in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Fear is the source of all kinds of destruction.
Those words “perfect love casts out fear” were written in the context of a conflict that caused a split in a community. The apostle John is laying out the war—Love and Fear are opposed to each other. They cannot coexist. They are like oil and water, fire and ice, deep-fried Oreos and Weight Watchers—they are opposites.
“Only love has the power to win the war against fear.”
Some of our fears are legitimate and others illegitimate, but we feel them fiercely either way. I feared for my family. I felt anxiety on the sidewalks that I once peacefully strolled through my neighborhood. Our worries rise up daily, but the Spirit is calling us to rise above our survival instincts and put on the new clothes of love offered to us in Jesus. After that violent scene on my front lawn, my amygdala was screaming for me to move out, to be with people more like myself. I’d be safer living with people who share my values. Fear wanted to imprison my decisions, but only love could bring me freedom. Only love has the power to win the war against fear.
This probably sounds too flimsy as a real plan of action. Maybe your response to “love” being the solution is, “Oh, that’s all? Just love?” Love seems soft. Sentimental. Sappy. Something you graduate from and then move on to more substantial things.
When we look at what the New Testament has to say about love, it’s shocking how powerfully it is portrayed. At the end of the day, you’ve got “faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). The apostle Paul is explicit: we have nothing, absolutely zilch if we do not have love. But what does this mean to us? For the most part, many Christians have a weak imagination for love. The word “love” has collapsed into greeting card well-wishes, trendy justice hashtags, romantic comedies, and spiritual clichés that appear in our modern worship songs.
This remarkable insight that “perfect love casts out fear” is located earlier in 1 John’s bold confession that God is love: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). We cannot know God more without increasing our capacity for love. Love is the means and the end.
The very essence, the very being of God is love itself. God IS love. We wake up some days and feel more generous toward people, and other days we wake up like a Mack truck hit us and feel cranky. Love is not merely one of God’s many moods. God is love, always love.
Before anything existed in the universe, there was love. Before any creature crawled on the ground or any bird glided through the air, there was the river of God’s love flowing. It is the first reality. In John 17:24, Jesus shares a glimpse of this pre-world existence. As Jesus is talking to the Father, He says, “You loved me before the creation of the world.” Love starts with the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. What bonded Them together was not obedience, or a hierarchy, or any other attribute. Love is the relational mortar; They have been self-giving in Their love before human time ever existed. This flowing river of God’s love stands as a contrast to our raging tsunami of fear. This truth is foundational.
“The very essence, the very being of God is love itself. God IS love.”
Usually when we describe someone, we describe them with adjectives or nouns. Like, “Oh Dan is an awkward (adjective), portly (adjective) fellow (noun).” How do we describe God? If you picture the world as a house, standing strong and sturdy, the base of it, the bottom row of rocks that holds everything else up—GOD IS LOVE. The very essence of God is love. When we reach for words, this is our best description of God from our limited vantage point. God is love. It has always been this way and always will be. But to say the character of God is love is not enough, right? Action must flow from character to confirm it is real. It would be like saying “Dan is an awkward guy” but not having any awkward actions to observe (I guarantee you there are plenty of those to observe). The love (noun) of Father, Son, and Spirit becomes an action (verb) occurring in the universe. The character of God’s love materializes as action, love happening to us and around us and through us, always, without ceasing.
We are in God’s world, where all that exists is being touched and transformed by the divine hands of love. God’s overflowing, bounteous love is holding the very seams of our universe together, or else it would fall apart. We are children of God, born out of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit’s circle of unending love. We are love’s offspring. This is the closest we can get to describing God adequately with words.
This is the nagging question under the surface of humanity and every human heart: “Is God love?” There is insecurity in our answers. As children floating through the sea of existence, detached from God’s undeniable, physical presence, we are unsure. I can’t tell you how many times, in my most painful seasons, I craved to lean over and cry on God’s shoulder. Prayer is beautiful, the Scriptures are meaningful, but nothing replaces real-time proximity. This is why our bodies groan, and our spirits cry out for the kingdom come. The fullness of God’s presence is not yet here. So in the meantime, questions linger . . . is God really love?
I was scared of a lot of things as a kid—sitting on a wasp, the clown from the ’90s TV movie It, the SAT, taking my shirt off to go swimming, having no one to sit with during lunch in the cafeteria, faulty parking brakes—but nothing scared me more than God. God, in my mind, was like the vacuum cleaner salesman who gushes with goodwill until you decide not to buy a vacuum cleaner. The moment I sinned, God was ticked off at me. God could see all my thoughts, a faceless deity interrogated my every action, waiting to punish me when I didn’t follow the rules. As a teenager, when I said I loved God, I meant I depended on being on His good side. I understood reward and punishment and fear. If I did bad things, God would spank me. If I did good things, God would bless me. I didn’t genuinely know what affection for God felt like, let alone what God’s affection for me felt like. Somewhere in my belly, the fear of God was far more emotionally palatable than the love of God. It seems evident to me now that to have a caring, enjoyable relationship is difficult when one party is threatening to hurt you if you don’t love them back.
When you’re looking to figure out what love looks like, don’t look at celebrity preachers on stages, or politicians using religious slogans in speeches, or even your parents who took you to Sunday school classes—they will disappoint. They cannot carry the weight of the revelation of God’s love. We must unpack the profundity that God the Father sent Jesus the Son in the power of the Spirit to explain, example, and expose the abounding love of the triune God. Look, listen, and let go to this current.
Our transformation as beautiful and broken people has everything to do with tuning the dials of our eyes and ears to the way of love versus the way of fear. The language is so bright and direct that the power of this contrast can easily be lost on us. Let it sink in for a moment. If God is love, and perfect love casts out fear, then fear is the opposite of everything that God is.
 David G. Benner, Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Chris- tian Spirituality (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2003), 22–23.
by Dan White Jr.
Aren’t Christians Supposed to Be the Loving Ones? Whether it’s the news, social media, or well-intentioned friends, we’re...
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