1 John 4.17-21:
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sisterd whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisterse also.
Fear is the social currency of modern-day politics and society. We fear those people who seek to tear apart the order of our society, such as “terrorists,” “communists,” “rioters,” etc, and we fear those people who use their power to harm those under them, such as “dictators” and “abusers.” We fear those people who are unproductive and only take up resources and we fear those people who are greedy and hoard from others. We fear those who would take away our freedoms and we fear those who would use their freedom to bring harm to others, such as not following basic health guidelines in the COVID-19 world. If we look at so much of what motivates and drives politics in the present world, it is fear. While different people fear different possibilities with them usually setting them in opposition to those who fear other possibilities, the experience of fear is a pervasive phenomenon that media uses, if not exploits, with the result that we all feel a greater degree of insecurity in our world.
The truth is that fear is an incredibly useful psychological phenomenon that allows the integration, if not conformity, of various people and their behaviors into a larger, socially cohesive force. This isn’t as apparent in our present world because there are opposing social forces of fear that each have power, one force expressing the fears that are consistent with the spectrum of conservativism-nationalism-fascism and the other being consistent with progressivism-socialism-communism, that leads to perpetual gridlock and conflict that bogs down American politics and society, but in world history, there is usually one central source of power that expresses a set of fears that keep most of the people under their authority in line with often brutal effectiveness. This is at the heart of empire, where people, resources, territories, etc. are all “integrated” under a central authority who is believed to have the power to “protect” people from those fears, while also punishing those who would dare cross their authority. This is the situation that we have in the Roman Empire. While the Roman Empire was not brutal in the way that political regimes of the past few centuries have been, it was an effective agent of inculcating a sense of fear, both fear of violent forces that legitimate them being agents of the Pax Romana and a fear of punishment that would keep ost of those who would even harbor a thought of resisting Roman power at bay.
When we read John’s words about fear to the church in 1 John 4.17-21, he speaks of God’s future judgment that those who are perfected in love may face with boldness and confidence. Yet, such a day of judgment would no doubt have brought about fears that the Roman society would have inculcated, with the temptation to think that God’s judgment is likened to Roman power and judgment. Similarly, given the latent fears within the Roman empire, people would have existed in persistent aggression and competition with others as potential threats, such that even fellow Christians would come to have hatred and derision towards their fellow believers. While John is not directly addressing the effects of Roman power on people’s fears of God and their relationship to each other, we can certainly imagine how living in such a time would necessitate the need of a power of love that far exceeds the power of fear that had been given great authority. It is God’s love that forms people who live in such a world so as to live with confidence before God and love for each other.
Speaking personally, over the past couple of months I have experienced what feels like the providential leading of God to perfect my heart in love. Without going into details, I would see regular “coincidences” regarding actions I had taken or thoughts I had for that day on my phone and social media, on the radio, when I was out driving on the road, and when I went to church. Being well-informed in psychology, I am aware of the way our mind can be biased to see coincides and immediately attribute meaning to them, but it was happening with such regularity and consistency on a daily basis that at one point I had become a bit hypervigilant about the idea that someone had hacked my phone. Of course, the odds of such were incredibly low, but I had trouble arriving at other explanations until I recognized that these coincidences were happening even with things going on in my head that I never directly expressed or acted upon. Insofar as it was happening through my connections to the internet, perhaps the data-collection of various companies had become so good that it could indirectly detect things one is thinking about through other behaviors that have been found to be tangentially related in indirect ways. Yet, this was itself an unlikely explanation, which lead me to the third conclusion: that the love of God had providentially arranged things in such a way that I would be able to experience healing from past traumas in a way that no therapist, no pastor, no other person would have known enough to mend.
You see, at the heart of my trauma was a deep, pervasive sense of fear that eluded any clear explanation. In a very difficult time of my life, I was entirely unable to make any clear, coherent sense whatsoever of everything that was going on, to the point of reaching the point of an entire mental breakdown that eventually left with me with the symptoms of PTSD, including hypervigilance. The nature of trauma was such that I struggled in the months and years after the events to ever make any sense of what happened and there were occasional events that occurred that would signal to me that that situation was not resolved and that it could come back to harass me again. While I was able to suppress these fears and traumatic reactions when I needed to throughout the day, the nature of these traumas were so connected to personally significant parts of my life that it left me in perpetual fear about my future life and well-being. Even as I saw therapists and managed my the worst expressions of my anxieties, the damage that had been done was so deeply rooted that I developed a series of very latent, irrational fears that my hopes and dreams for life would never materialize and that people were looking for any excuse to discard me. With such deeply entrenched fears and anxieties, my deepest need in such a place was for clarity, to have some understanding of what was happening, to be treated with honesty and fairness, and to know that people would recognize that my thoughts and feelings actually mattered and should not be ignored. However, I constantly feared that my need for clarity, justice, and agency was not being respected. Even as I managed to control this anxiety in many instances, it was such a strong force in my life that it was impossible to entirely keep it at bay. I lacked the direct experiences of love that are so often pivotal in overcoming such fears. This was increasingly exacerbated by the way modern society peddles in fear, making me even more anxious about the irrationality and callousness of people. I have some training in psychology and even with that, I could not fully understand all that was happening to me. How much less could anyone else, except the God who sees and tests the heart.
It is my experience of these past couple of months that God has done what people did not and could not do, and even undoing some of the harm, intentional or unintentional, people have done, by providing for me a divinely-guided exposure therapy to my irrational fears. God, who knows the heart in a way no person can, has lovingly provided what I needed to heal from the anxiety and fear. God’s love perfects us in ways that can allow us to live more wholly and fully from a place of love. It is God who shows the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn how to find liberation through hunger and thirsting for righteousness that in God’s love leads us to experiences that bring forth mercy, form our hearts to be pure with God’s purposes, and lead us down the pathways towards shalom, particularly in being one who brings shalom. No person could do not. Not even any specific spiritual practice on my own end could accomplish that. It is God’s love that we then recognize, receive, and respond to as He shows it that perfects us in love.