It seems strange to call fear a destructive theme of the heart. At one level fear is so natural, sometimes even good. So, fear of being audited motivates me to pay my taxes on time. Fear of being hit by a car prevents kids from playing in traffic. It also seems strange to call fear “destructive.” But whether we see it or not, fear can ensnare us and damage our relationships.
The Bible has a lot to say about fear, anxiety, and worry. To the surprise of many, the Bible tells us that fear can be sinful. So, Jesus speaks plainly about worry in Matthew 6, saying, “do not be anxious about your life” (v. 25). Repeatedly we are commanded not to be afraid (Isa. 41:10-13; 43:1; Matt. 10:31; Mark 5:36; Luke 12:4; John 14:27; Rom. 8:15; 1 Peter 3:14; Rev. 2:10). Fear can be a sinful response, one particularly related to our inability to control things, which is another way of saying our inability to play God.
While not all fear works this way, we must assess whether our fear is rising from an effort to manage our world in a way that God has not allowed us. If it is that means we will seek not simply to manipulate events and schedules, but people too. Fear will lead us to either distance ourselves from people – for fear that they will hurt us, or discover our secrets – or it will lead us to use people to fulfill our needs – what is sometimes called codependency. In both cases we are seeking to sit on God’s throne and govern our relationships and interactions in a way that fits with our ideals, not His.
Both social anxiety and codependency can enslave us, and keep us from living as our free, authentic selves. By keeping people at a distance we will always be on guard about what they see, we will put up the walls and wear the masks that communicate what we want people to see. We will never, however, be truly known and loved because we cannot be ourselves around others. We fear their rejection so much that we cannot let them close. Likewise we will be unable to love them well because we have expectations about the way they must relate to us. We need them in ways that they cannot possibly live up to and so we will use them, or discard them based upon their performance in our lives.
Fear will never let us love others well. The spouse who is so terrified that their mate will run off with someone else will be inclined to control their mate. Such control will not give them greater confidence in the relationship, but will rather increase the distance between them, as the other spouse feels more managed than trusted and valued. As such we will create destroy the very relationships we think we need to survive.
Likewise fear will keep us from God. There is a right kind of fear, the fear of the Lord that brings wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), but such awe of God can be morphed into an unholy dread of God. God, however, has revealed himself as “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ex. 34:6; Psa. 103:8). This is how He describes Himself to us. In Christ we are called to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16). There is a kind of fear that takes God’s holiness and sanctity seriously, but there is a kind of fear that also runs from His gracious invitation. It is a fear that is self-centered instead of God-centered. Self-centered fear will look at our own lack of holiness and run from God because it does not yet understand the gospel.
The Bible’s solution to this kind of ungodly fear is “perfect love.” The apostle John speaks of “perfect love” when he writes to a group of Christians who are struggling with their own standing before the Lord. False teachers had crept into the church and stirred up doubt, so John writes, in his first epistle, to encourage their faith and faithfulness. He says in 1 John 4:18:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
John connects our fear to the concept of judgment. There is a point here about the gospel. If I do not grasp the love of God for me, the price Christ has paid for my sins, the depths to which God himself went to be in relationship with me, then I will always struggle to overcome my fear of man and codependency. Love is an active service to others. It must count them as more significant than myself (Phil. 2:3), it must put their needs before my own (v. 4). To love well, according to Scripture, we must love as we have been loved by God in Christ (John 13:34; 1 John 4;19). So we must meditate upon the love of God, we must seek to have the love of God poured out into our hearts (Rom. 5:5). It is through Christ that we are being “perfected in love,” and we will then be able to love better.
In conjunction with understanding “perfect love,” we must seek to trust God more deeply with ourselves and our relational needs. Sometimes we fear in our relationships because our desires are overtaken by sin. Often our culture speaks of our “psychological needs.” Psychological needs are most frequently summed up in the word “love,” we need to be loved. The problem is that our need for love is often filtered through sinful desires. Often what we do in relationships is we make them about ourselves. We can turn love into a “psychological need” that emphasizes my own feelings about myself. “Love,” in this framework is not about our mutual relating to each other, rather it becomes about how you make me feel about me. In such a framework I depend upon other people to make me ultimately happy. I need them to make me a good, valuable, and worthwhile person. This is an impossible weight for anyone to bear, and our own insecurities will never allow them total control of our personal self-evaluation. In response to such temptations we need to fight to understand and live out our identity in Christ. We need to meditate upon who God says we are, what He says about us, and how His actions give us value. I can love well when I am confident of who I am in Christ.
Fear will destroy you, and it will destroy your relationships. Fight against it by understanding the love of God and understanding how His love has changed and transformed you. Only then are we in a better place to love well.