There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.
~ 1 John 4.18a
Previously when reading this verse I had always only thought about the implications it held for my relationship with God. And that is an appropriate line of thought to apply to this verse, especially in light of the comments about punishment at the end of the verse. However, when one solely thinks about this verse in terms of “me and God” then we are missing out on another significant aspect of what the author is saying. After all, in this section of 1 John 4, the author is intimately linking together the love of God and the love of neighbour. So, a further implication of this verse is as follows:
Just as those of us who are in Christ should not fear God because of the love God has for us, so also we should not fear our neighbours because of the love we have, in Christ, for them.
Now that sounds all fine and sweet, but here’s where things start to get uncomfortable for a lot of us all-too-comfortable Western Christians. Yes, that’s right, I’m going to apply this verse to the Christian call to journey with the poor and those who still, two thousand years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, needlessly suffer the most under structures of exile. Sure, a lot of Christians say they care about the poor. They see they love the needy. They are oh so concerned. But when the rubber meets the road, Christians are usually not found in the vicinity of the poor or the needy. Not for long anyway. At best they swoop in around Christmas time, give out some sandwiches, and then bugger off to their much safer environments. Even those who began with a more radical commitment to the poor usually disappear to the suburbs once they marry and raise a family. It’s one thing to put myself in danger, it’s another thing altogether to endanger my wife and children. Therefore, we have churches full of loving people who are too afraid to journey too intimately with the marginalised. Bring the street person a lunch? Okay. Invite the street person into my home? No way, that’s crazy. Consequently, the language of “practicality” and “responsibility” is used to mask our fearfulness. All too often the language of responsibility is used to transform cowardice into a virtue.
And it’s exactly at this point that 1 John 4.18 hits us between the eyes. This verse shows us that we cannot be identified as lovers held back by fear (or “practicality”). Instead it suggests that our fear reveals that we do not even deserve to be called lovers. At best, we are only sentimental. And that’s why our acts of compassion are so often scorned by those on the margins. Sure, they’ll take the sandwich you offer, but they’re not fooled into thinking you’re some sort of saint. And that’s why we’re generally only helping people to survive, instead of genuinely offering the sort of transformation that is possible in Christ. We are have become virtuous cowards instead of vulnerable lovers.
But here’s the catch, even in the hard times, even in places that are “dangerous,” the danger is more imagined than real. After all, what danger is there that can intimidate those who are in Christ? What harm can to done that is lasting? For even when we are being put to death, even if we are to be treated as sheep to be slaughtered, even then we are filled with the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are to be a people from whom nothing can be taken because we have already given it all to God and to others. We are also a people from whom nothing can be truly lost because all that matters is sealed for us in Christ. So maybe we encounter pain in these places. Maybe we too will be broken. But that’s okay. Then we too will be able to say that we bear on our own bodies the brand-marks of Jesus. And, like Jesus, our sufferings shall be salvific.