A Provocative Sermon on Fear and Love
Five years ago my Word of the Year was “unafraid.”
I chose it with great intention because unhealthy fear took hold of my life at a very young age, when I was seven or so and saw an old 70s flick called Thief in the Night. It's a classic "B" movie about end times and, watching it, my tender self was filled with terror. For years afterwards fear became the bread I tasted, the water I drank, the breath I held, the thing that controlled me and kept me from the “shocking” kind of sins because I trembled at the consequence.
In my article The Tenderness of Being Human, I said of my journey with fear...
I know what the cold steel of fear feels like, of being so afraid of world events and being deceived by the antichrist that I would shake in my bed and cry hot tears into my pillow—at age seven. My formative years were devoted to an incredibly fear-based approach to life following a flavor of fundamentalism that taught I would likely, someday, be tortured for my faith. Possibly burned alive, boiled in oil, or at least ripped away from my family and sent to a concentration camp run by Nazis, the Illuminati and the devil. This fear helped reinforce an unconventional way of life: become as self-sufficient as possible, follow a literal interpretation of the Bible, live off the grid, be undocumented (and therefore untrackable), follow strict patriarchal roles of men and women in the home, learn exactly how to think and what to believe, and much more. I learned to be rigorously judgmental on the stand against evil. Daily we scrutinized and judged whatever came along: media, government, food distributors, school systems, churches, local officials, doctors, modern medicine, banks, books, messages and music on the radio, news sources controlled by an “agenda,” clothes, careers, personal choices, other people—their hearts, intentions, beliefs, lifestyles, choices and motivations; those who had Internet, who used cell phones, who sent their kids to public school, who dyed their hair, who “didn't want to know the truth,” who didn't use herbs or alternative medicine, who were “trapped in the world,” who took advantage of modern conveniences, who owned a checking account, who went to (or even encouraged) college or higher education, women who moved away from home before they got married, those who were caught up in “the system,” who went to big mega churches or used birth control, people from other religions and faiths, parents who hired a babysitter for special date nights, anyone who was “tolerant,” which meant soft on sin, and anyone who was not like us.
The fear that embodied me was afraid-fear. Fear of the end. Fear of God, but not the holy sort. Fear of myself. Of my future. Fear of the wayward longings of my heart and even my heart itself. Fear of man. It was the kind of fear, I wrote once, that picks apart everything sacred and beautiful until nothing holy remains.
So when I chose to dedicate a year of my life to the study of fear it was with the desperation of a woman who longed to take back her life with defiant freedom and to live in love, freedom and power. Little did I know that the quest to “heal fear” could not be contained in one year. I've been blessed with healing and continue to heal as I deepen and expand in understanding and experience.
The incarnations of fear
I call this afraid-fear. It makes me contract inside. I want to hide and hoard things. I can't breathe. I react & thrash about. I grow suspicious. It gets messy and can be destructive. It can lead to addictive behavior and terrible choices. It is untrusting, controlling, and not based in love.
This is more concerned with what other people think. In worry-fear I am self-conscious and second-guessing. Hesitant. At its extreme, I am more concerned with social acceptance than with following what is right, at least initially. I hold back because I don't want to offend, say the wrong thing, or make a mistake. I agonize over words. I want to be absolutely sure before I commit to what I do or say. It's based in perfectionism and seeking approval from other people.
This is a healthy fear of God based in humility. Even if I am uncomfortable and unsure, I don't want to hide. I may tremble, but I run to instead of run away. There is a drawing-close. It is intimate. Expansive. An awareness of my humanity in the presence of the holy. It feels like communion even as it illuminates, purifies and restores. It evokes a desire to find out what is holy and right, and to walk in the Spirit. It is seeking truth and endeavoring to live according to the ways and desires of God out of devotion and love, instead of fear of retribution. Moreover, this kind of fear cannot be acquired from outside of one's self. It emerges from within.
Here is what I'm asking myself today: is it possible to talk about these sorts of things: prophecy and justice and mercy and the end while also being devoted to love, kindness, gentleness, and compassion? How does gentleness communicate this innate urgency? How does compassion share the deep, passionate stirrings of the heart? How does kindness express a journey that is both intense and uncomfortable? How is love breathed in, under, through, above and upon it all? Can love hold a conversation about the goodness of God along with the righteousness and the wrath of God?
What about his holiness? What about his desires? What about his longing for humans to walk in his ways? Why do we as a collective humanity expect God to let us set aside his desires and tell us “it's ok; I love you; I bless you” as we choose the things that are not his will? He does love us all so much. How long should he allow humanity to take advantage of his love? What does God, who has since the beginning of time shown abundant patience and mercy, owe us? Who are we to say that his judgment is unjust? Who are we to say that his mystery and rage is not also holy? Can love hold all of this? Can gentleness? Can heartbreak?
How does love say: we have forgotten God?
How does love say: we have forsaken God?
How does love say: we have no fear of God?
“...scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.”
For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering [patient] toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.
Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness [...] and consider that the longsuffering [patience] of our Lord is salvation...”—2 Peter 3:3-15
What is mocking God?
To mock God is to sow to the flesh and expect to reap of the Spirit. To mock God is to sow to the flesh, and when we reap according to the flesh, to call him unloving and unjust. To mock God is to abandon his will yet act entitled to receive his blessing. To mock God is to tempt him to violate his own ordained way.
To mock God is to say he and his life isn't good enough; it is to reject his sacrifice and the way, yet still want the reward, the blessing, the life, the grace. To mock him is to tempt him, to test his love—“If you are so loving, so good, let me live according to my ways, but bless me; let me be spiritual in my way, but give me salvation and grace.” Humanity tempts God by flaunting pride and injustice, yet grows angry if they do not reap the gifts and grace of God.
In the old covenant, under the age of the law, we see a fascinating dialogue with the Most High—
Ezekiel 18:21 “But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. 23 Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord God, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?
24 “But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair? 26 When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies. 27 Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. 28 Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ O house of Israel, is it not My ways which are fair, and your ways which are not fair?
30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways,” says the Lord God. “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord God. “Therefore turn and live!”
In the new covenant, this age of grace, this is how to get ourselves a new heart and a new spirit: we sow faith and we reap everlasting life. We are no longer under the law of the old covenant.
We sow trust—trust in what the son of God did for us by taking our own punishment, for in and of ourselves, none of us is holy. All of us have sinned—I have sinned—and the wages of sin is death. No one on earth is sinless, which means that none of us by our own work or effort can produce the holiness required in order to stand before God. This is why it is so dangerous when people think or teach that they can come to God in their own way, creating a religion of one's own—do not be deceived; God is not mocked! Let us not tempt God; let us not test his mercy; let us not test his lovingkindness; let us not tempt him to violate his own righteousness.
When we walk in faith according to the sacrifice of Jesus, not trusting in our own ways or in our own imperfect goodness, but believing in the one whose blood cleanses us from sin, we are made righteous before God—and we reap eternal life. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit. And when we live and walk in the Spirit, we will not sow to the flesh.
“But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.”—Romans 7:6
“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”—Galatians 5:16
As I've said before, I believe that this current age of grace is coming to a close.
I truly believe we are in the last time of the world as we know it. This does not elicit fear in me. Urgency, expectancy, yes! But not afraid-fear. No matter where I am in the timeline of humanity, I do not know the days and hours of my own individual life. My life's end could be any moment. There is holy fear in this for me. It keeps me awake. It keeps me from settling into complacency. It keeps my heart tuned into the eternal. And more than anything else, it requires me to trust. What kind of life do I want to have lived? What kind of meaning does my life have? What matters?
Loving God. Loving others. What this looks like, exactly, I'm still figuring out.
I do know this:
Ephesians 5:1 Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.
3 But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; 4 neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. 5 For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not be partakers with them.
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the Spirit[b] is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), 10 finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. 11 And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. 13 But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. 14 Therefore He says:
“Awake, you who sleep,
Arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light.”