“Love has no room for fear; rather, perfect love casts out all fear. And since fear has to do with punishment, love is not yet perfect in one who is afraid” (1John 4:18). If perfect love casts out fear what does the opposite do? Does fear then cast out love? How does fear distort and block one’s capacity to love?
What does St. John in the above passage mean by “fear”? This word can cause some confusion because it can have several meanings in the Scriptures. On the one hand we are told that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). What does this mean? The Hebrew word used here is “yirah” and means “awe, reverence, alarm” (Strong, 3374). The word “alarm” is interesting. Imagine a loud alarm clock going off reminding you to wake up. You might be startled by the loud noise, but grateful that you didn’t over sleep for something important. If we apply this word to our disposition toward God we realize God is trying to get our attention. Our God is a Mighty God who wakes us up from our moral slumber (“fear the Lord and turn away from evil” Proverbs 3:7; “fear God and keep His commandments” Ecclesiastes 12:13). He is also a Mighty God ready to defend us in our weakness (“fear of the Lord is a strong defense” Proverbs 14:26). This defense is the strength we need for life and without this “fear of the Lord” we are unable to sustain life. The Proverbs say it succinctly, “The fear of the Lord prolongs life” (Proverbs 10:27), and “the fear of the Lord is a fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:27).
Proverbs 8:13 shows another dimension of the “fear of the Lord”. It says that “the fear of the Lord is to hate evil”. To hate evil means that we fear the loss of God, the loss of ultimate love and happiness. The possibility of loss of God and His love brings out the reality of justice and the fact that God judges the goodness of things. Evil, being the opposite of good, must be the farthest thing from God since He is all good. Justice requires that evil be hated. It also requires that evil be farthest from God. Therefore, the action of justice is to remove evil from the sight of God. Thus, the judgment of God is really our own doing. It is like putting our hand on a hot stove. A burned hand is the natural consequence of touching a hot stove. God’s justice is the natural consequence of committing evil. Thus, evil takes us far from God.
One common thread runs through all the statements about the “fear of the Lord” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is that our focus is to be on God and not our selves. Not on our own strength, our own knowledge, our own abilities, but on God and His strength, His wisdom, His honor, His Justice, His truth, His Majesty, and His love. Love is really at the center of this kind of “fear”. This is the true “fear of the Lord”.
There is another kind of fear though. In the Old Testament two of the Hebrew words that are used to express this kind of fear are “morah” and “yare” (Strong, 4172, 3372). In the New Testament two Greek words that are used are “phobos” and “deilia” (Strong, 5401, 1167). They mean to be afraid, terror, fright, dread, timidity. One word to sum up this type of fear is cowardliness. It is a lack of courage, and a lack of strength. Actually this fear is a lack of a variety of things such as: trust, hope, love, happiness, faith, wisdom, power, the ability to relate to others, and a lack of self confidence. It is the feeling that one is powerless and that harm may befall one. This can never apply to the “fear of the Lord” talked about previously because God never intends harm for us and it is God who gives strength, courage, hope, love, happiness, wisdom, faith, etc. Jeremiah 29:11 says “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord… to give you a future and a hope.” God intends good for us and makes all things work out for our good (Romans 8:28). God is for us, not against us and “If God is for us, who can be against us?”(Romans 8:31). Therefore, what do we have to fear? For nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39).
St. Alphonsus Liguori says that we are to place ourselves completely in the hands of God and then we will have nothing to fear (p. 87). This trust we are to have in God will help our love for others and for Him to grow. Without trust love will die (p. 105-106). Specialists in the field of psychology also recognize that trust and hope are tied to love. Dr. Terruwe (an eminent Thomistic Catholic psychiatrist) says that trust and hope come forth from love (p. 26-27). As most experts in the field of psychology tell us, fear blocks our ability to trust. If we fear God in this way we will not trust Him and there can be no bond of love (Powell, p. 12-13). Jesus tells us “fear is useless; what is needed is trust…” (Luke 8:50). He is speaking of the kind of fear that blocks trust, thus He also gives us the antidote which is to trust. It seems very simple and indeed it is, but simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy as we will see.
Coming back to the idea of fear being the opposite of courage and strength, let’s look at why this is important. Kreeft points out that before Pentecost the disciples lived in fear. They were afraid to speak out because of what men might do to them. The Holy Spirit brought a “life-changing power” of boldness, fearlessness, and joy (p. 110). St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy says that “the spirit of God has given us no cowardly spirit, but rather one that makes us strong, loving, and wise.” (2 Timothy 1:7). Fear and love cannot exist together (as will be talked about further later). So this spirit, this life-changing power is fearless and loving. This power is also absolutely essential to living out the Christian faith, and without it we are lost. The book of Revelation has some strong words about those who are fearful, “as for the cowards and traitors of the faith,...their lot is the fiery pool of burning sculpture, the second death” (Revelations 21:8). Cowards are equated with the traitors of the faith here and included with a list of people, such as murderers, who will not make it into the Kingdom of God. This may seem harsh to us. How can God deal with those who are fearful in such a severe manner? Before we answer this question let’s look at some of the other aspects of fear that are cast out by perfect love.
In psychologically terms fear is equated with anxiety when it is not related to a real and present danger. This anxiety tends toward irrationality of an unknown “danger” or threat (Powell, p 29; Terruwe and Baars, p. 68-70). According to the work of Drs. Terruwe and Baars emotions that are not under the rational control of the intellect and the will become repressed or control us and cause damage to our psychic life. In the mature person “reason listens respectfully to the emotions, while the will, acting upon the knowledge provided by reason, is itself spurred on and moved by the motor of the emotions.” (Terruwe and Baars, p. 239). When the emotion of fear is not under the rational control of reason and with will, it acts in the place of reason and the will. Imagine the analogy of a car. The emotions are the motor of the car, reason is the steering wheel, and the will is the driver. The car without a steering wheel and a driver can wreck havoc when the motor is turned on and allowed to be put into motion. One way we deal with this situation is to turn off the motor. That is repression. If the motor is turned off the car can’t go anywhere. Our emotional life stagnates and doesn’t progress. All the parts of having a motor, a steering wheel and driver are important and vital to a properly and safely operating car. Thus it is vitally important that we have our emotions, reason and will working together in order to be emotionally healthy.
The emotion of fear represses other emotions, such as love (although love is not strictly just an emotion), as well as the fear itself (Terruwe and Baars, p. 68-70). Baars and Terruwe have called this a “repression neurosis” which manifests itself in different ways according to the person and the circumstances. This neurosis can take the form of excessive doubt, indecisiveness, scruples, obsessions, compulsions and depression among other things (Terruwe and Baars, p. 68-70; Terruwe, p.20). It is not hard to see how love cannot survive in this sort of climate.
Let’s look at love with the same analogy we used of the car. In this case, love is the whole car. The emotion of love is the motor, the will to love is the driver, and reason steers the whole car. The ability to love requires all these aspects working together toward perfection. Some think of love as an emotion, and some think of love as an act of the will. The truth is it is both, but love is more perfectly expressed as both an emotion and an act of the will. To further illustrate this point, imagine a husband saying to his wife through gritted teeth “I love you”. While the words may be very true since he has made a sincere act of the will (assuming he in fact has) his emotional expression is not on the same level. He has only given one part of himself, which may be quite appropriate for the moment. However, when he is able to give his emotions and join feeling to the will it becomes a more perfect gift. Certainly his wife would attest to that. The goal here is to show how emotions, the will and reason are interconnected and interdependent on one another. This is true for both fear and love.
Another aspect of fear is the experience of shame. Shame is the experience of seeing “ourselves as fundamentally deficient in some vital way as a human being.” (quoted in Thurston, p. 69-70). Fear breeds a strong sense of inferiority, worthlessness and doubt (Powell, p.40). Jesus response to this fear of worthlessness might be “fear nothing, then. You are worth more than a flock of sparrows.” (Luke 12:7). We are not to worry about anything. God loves us and will surely take care of us. We are to trust Him. Much of our energy is wasted in worrying about things we cannot change, that we have so little left over for the really important things of life. The things that last are the things that really matter. St. Paul tells us that “there are in the end three things that last: faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Actually love is the only thing that will last because in Heaven we will have no need of faith because we will see God face to face. And we will not need hope because we will possess all that we have hoped for. God is love, so love will be the only thing remaining.
Thus, shame is a deeply rooted fear of our worthlessness, and experience of ourselves as not just making mistakes but being a mistake. The fear that is connected to shame is the fear of not only failing but being a failure in the very core of one’s being. This can be a very powerful dynamic that propels one in all sorts of directions away from love. In the Scriptures we see one example of shame and its dynamics in the story of the Fall. After Adam and Eve eat of the fruit and their eyes are opened to good and evil they hid from God because as Adam says “…I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:10). They see themselves as somehow incomplete and exposed.
Just like Adam and Eve we have a tendency to respond to shame in disordered and unhealthy ways such as: hiding behind masks, grandiosity, becoming more self-centered, wanting to change others that shame us, putting up walls of self defense, repressing emotions, becoming depressed, becoming fearful of failure, being a perfectionist, seeking love in unhealthy ways, and a whole host of other ways to deal with the pain of shame (Powell, p. 52-53). As was mentioned above shame can also manifest itself in the opposite response of the narcissistic personality that defends the self with grandiosity, or what we call pride (Thurston, p. 71). The pain of shame focuses our attention on ourselves (as pain often does). And yet the shamed person is afraid to be his or her self. However, if I am not really me (congruent) then it is not really me who gives and receives love and therefore true love becomes impossible. Not only is the shamed person not able to be his or her self but the focus on self is an obstacle to love as well (Powell, p.23). True love is focused on the other, seeks only the happiness of the other, and is self-forgetful (Powell, p.17, 20).
At the heart of fear is the dread of the loss of some good. St. Augustine said that “love is a kind of craving”, a desire for a good that will bring happiness (quoted in Arendt, p.9). With the threat of losing that “good”, fear enters the picture. We fear losing the good we desire, which is life (or rather the happy life). Life is constantly threatened by death, thus the good that love craves is life without fear of loss. Fear cannot bring happiness, so the ultimate good is eternal life (Arendt, p. 9-13). This is a simplistic picture of St. Augustine’s thoughts, but it brings up an important aspect of fear. Fear and the threat of loss exist in a kind of tension with love, happiness, and life. This is manifested again in the story of Adam and Eve. The love of God offers them life in the garden with Him, everlasting true happiness. The Fall begets a fear of revealing the self and threat of loss of life. It appears that the fruit of the tree of life must then be forbidden because pure love (God) no longer is at the center of their life. We now seek that Garden of Eden, which is the happiness of eternal life in love.
C.S. Lewis said that St. Augustine in some of his earlier writings had a kind of “safety first” mentality with regard to love. St. Augustine wrote that since all men must die one should not place one’s happiness in temporal goods. God will not pass away, so it is safe to place one’s happiness in Him. Although this is true, Lewis stresses that love is not meant to be pain free. Love, real love involves suffering and that includes a broken heart when a loved one dies or leaves (p. 167-169). God’s love is not neat and safe and free from suffering. There is the Cross. And this is precisely why some turn away from it, because it is hard and painful and because it seems as though no happiness could possibly come from it. And yet it is the only way to find true happiness. As Lewis says the only place safe from the pain and messiness of love is hell (p. 169). Thus again fear and love are not compatible.
Fear is so focused on the self and unwilling to experience pain that it turns away from the task of love. We speak primarily here not of the emotion of fear, but rather the act of the free will. There is nothing wrong with the emotion of fear. However, just as there is nothing wrong with the emotion of anger, but rather it is the choices we make in response to that anger that carry moral consequences. So also, the choices we make in response to fear are an act of the will. We can make good choices or bad ones. Only God is able to know the full extent of our culpability for those choices. However, objectively speaking, if one chooses to allow fear to take over and turns one’s back from the sometimes very painful path of love, this is sin, which is obviously incompatible with love and will draw us farther and farther from God in the long run.
As was said before it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to live the Christian life. It is this power that enables us to turn from fear and choose courage. Since love includes suffering and is hard (it includes loving our enemies) it absolutely requires the spiritual power of courage, and strength of the will in order to endure. The Scriptures give us hope though as St. Paul tells us “there is no limit to love’s forbearance, to it’s trust, it’s hope, it’s power to endure.” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Courage is both a gift of the Holy Spirit and a cardinal virtue (one which plays a pivotal role). The Catholic catechism says that the virtue of courage gives one the “constancy in the pursuit of the good” and “enables one to conquer fear” (1808).
Fear is also connected to our needs, especially our need to be loved. We are all born dependant on others for our needs. As babies, we are physically and emotionally dependant on our parents for much of everything to sustain life. As we grow older, other adults and peers come into our circle of others that we need affirmation from, and in the most ultimate and intimate way we are everywhere and every moment utterly dependant on the love and mercy of God. When these needs are not met in appropriate ways we experience the deficit quite acutely. C.S. Lewis distinguishes what he calls “gift-love” from “need –love” (p. 11-13). He explains “gift-love” as the love that is a pure gift, and only God is fully able to give this kind of love. “Need-love” is not “mere selfishness”, although it can have that component, rather we are made for relationship and we need one another to be fulfilled (p. 13). The problem is that if we seek for another to fill us we end up even more empty and desolate. This is because love is not real love when it is given for the sake of the giver, only when it is given for the sake of the receiver (Powell, p. 101). In a very real way we are not only at the mercy of God’s love, but at the mercy of other’s love. Because it is through the mirror of another that we find ourselves and are freed to love (Powell, p. 49).
This is a dilemma and a paradox. On the one hand I need others to give me myself and fill me with love and yet on the other hand I cannot seek to fulfill myself through others. What is the answer? I must love others in order to be fulfilled and to be loved. However, if I do it seeking to be loved, happy and fulfilled I will not find it. I must seek only the other’s happiness and fulfillment. The person who has a self-centered orientation toward life seeks only his own needs and his own good. In this seeking he fails, and finds only more loneliness and more unhappiness (Powell, p.104). Why is this? It is because of how God made us. We cannot use others as a means for our own fulfillment (Powell, p. 107). People are always ends in themselves, not a means to an end. Jesus mapped out the way to happiness for us. We must lose our life in order to receive it, and it cannot be lost if it is always before our eyes. This self sacrificing love is costly and demanding, but it is the only way to happiness (Powell, p. 108). If there had been another way Jesus, who is the Way, would have shown it to us in word and deed.
It is sad to say that there are those who even though they know the way refuse to take it. This is the awesomeness of free will. It is hard to believe that anyone would knowingly choose against love and turn away from God, but it is a reality. The walls of self-protection can be built up so high and so strong that the thought of self-sacrificing love appears as torture. That, I believe, is what some of the saints meant when they said that the flames of hell are the same flames that are the love of God in Heaven. Those in hell experience the potential love of God as sheer torture and actively choose to separate themselves from it. So in reality it is we who choose hell and not God who sends us there. We return to an earlier question. How can God deal with the fearful in such a harsh manner as to exclude them from Heaven? He doesn’t. It is the fearful who freely choose to exclude themselves because of their unwillingness to love.
How are we to love if we have not been loved and are being loved? First of all God loves us and continues to love us despite all our failings, so we can never claim that no one loves us. Fortunately, God has also given us an innate potential and capacity to love (Powell, p.112). This initial dose of love that we were given at our conception may not have been nurtured due to the lack of love in others and so it may become a very small spark. But like a spark of fire can turn to a flame and a flame to a roaring fire, so can this tiny spark of love in us grow until it is overflowing and perfected. How? Simply, though not easily, we begin to love others without regard for ourselves. The love that is given selflessly will come back to us and will further increase our capacity to love even more. It is an upward spiraling process. The opposite is that we selfishly and in fear hold onto the small amount of love we have, afraid to give. Because we don’t give love we also don’t receive love, therefore we don’t grow in love and like the fearful servant who hid his talents in the ground, we lose the little we have (Matthew 25:14-30).
As in our analysis of the first kind of fear, “fear of the Lord”, the fear that perfect love casts out is rooted in one common theme. That theme is that this fear is rooted in our focus on ourselves. This fear blocks the ability to love. Hence, only “perfect love”, which is the supernatural love of God, can cast out our fear. Perfect love focuses on the other, and the one who is most worthy of our love is God. Thus, the “fear of the Lord”, which moves us to focus on God and His love, bring us closest to perfect love. This “fear of the Lord” casts out our human fear. It gives us the strength and the power to cast out the fear that holds us back from the most demanding job of love. Likewise our human fear can cast our “fear of the Lord”. So we see that the two kinds of fear that we have looked at are not just different nuisances of the same word, but complete opposites taking us in completely different directions. The “fear of the Lord” leads us to love; our selfish fears over time begin to estrange us from God and from His love.
Arendt, H. (1996). Love and Saint Augustine. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (1994). New Hope, KY: Urbi et Orbi Communications.
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Kreeft, P. (no date). The God who loves you. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications.
Lewis, C.S. (1960). The four loves. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.