Perfect love casts out all fear, because fear has to do with punishment. (Excerpt from 1 John 4:18)
That little phrase has caused me no end of consternation. What does it mean? What is perfect love? And does fear really have to do with punishment? Fear of spiders, or guns, or sickness- those fears don’t have to do with punishment, do they? So if I understand I am loved, isn’t a certain amount of fear still totally rational?
When I was young, I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept hinted at in that passage. I especially couldn’t wrap my mind around what seemed to be the dueling ideals of understanding perfect love and still being commanded to fear God. I mean, if perfect love casts out all fear than isn’t the command to fear God also a command to NOT understand his love? What were these Bible writers really going after? Perhaps they owned stock in Tylenol.
But time teaches any number of lessons. And I’ve learned in time that fearing God, that is, understanding his power and being in awe of it, is possible even with grasping his love for me. It’s partially because I know he loves me that I am in awe of his power- because I understand that his love may take forms that I cannot fully comprehend or handle, just as there are times that even though I understand my husband’s love for me I deal with the reality that I cannot fully understand him or his motives and am sometimes baffled by his choices. How much more so when it is God I am loving and being loved by- this eternal being whose mind is almost utterly foreign.
But yet I am CERTAIN of his love, and thus while I tremble I am not truly afraid. I know that even in the pain and agony of this life, even in the troubles and hurt and abandonment and terror, I am loved. I live and experience life because I am loved, even feel pain because I am loved, and I know that in time everything about my relationship with God that baffles me will be made clear, and I will continue to feel and understand his love.
Perfect love isn’t happiness, it isn’t kittens and roses- perfect love is confidence. It is the ability to suffer through even the worst pain for the sake of something greater. It is willingness to submit to a higher will. Like with earthly parents, sometimes love takes the form of admonition and a slap on the wrist. Sometimes it takes the form of letting out the leash and letting the loved one suffer their own consequences. Sometimes it takes the form of offering a bitter drink for the sake of health. But all of these things are love, and in the end just as with one’s earthly parents one grows to the point that one sees that love and pain are sometimes simultaneous.
And then you learn not to fear, you learn to trust, you learn to be willing to believe in that love even as the tears are falling.
And it is perfect.