Jerry Seinfeld once joked that if most people’s number one fear is public speaking while death is their number two, more people at a funeral “would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
What are you most afraid of? Snakes? Spiders? Ghosts? Being abducted by aliens? Not in the top ten, but each of these things found their way onto SafeHome.org’s 2021 study of the top fears of more than 2,000 American adults. Neither death, as Seinfeld jested about, nor public speaking found their way onto the list. Neither did what psychologists and counselors consider our deepest fear. My question here is how does God’s perfect love drive out deepest fear?
What’s Your Deepest Fear?
What thoughts of anxiety or fear wake you in the middle of the night? As I’ve written in another blog, the name of my deepest fear is abandonment (Accurately naming our fear is critical in managing that fear). When I wake anxious, I’m never troubled by things on SafeHome’s list: “terrorism,” corrupt government, or even “loved ones dying,” or running out of retirement money.
Rather I’m haunted by replaying conversations, sermons I’ve preached, blogs I’ve written, and actions that seemed to alienate or drive people away. The replay always corrects my harmful words or actions or wins the other person over to my point of view.
When I’ve read SafeHome’s list to my students and clients, no one answers that these are the ghosts bumping around their brains in the middle of the night either. Not that they are not valid fears. They just aren’t the deepest ones.
Fear of Rejection Is our Most Intense Fear
John Amodeo Ph.D., MFT wrote in Psychology Today, “The fear of rejection is one of our deepest human fears. Biologically wired with a longing to belong, we fear being seen in a critical way. We’re anxious about the prospect of being cut off, demeaned, or isolated.”
“I’m afraid of being rejected,” a friend told me, echoing many others I’ve asked.
What’s the Antidote?
The “beloved” Apostle John understood this truth long before modern psychology confirmed it.
“God is love,” John wrote in 1 John 4. “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”
When I hear this verse quoted by those wanting to rid themselves of fear, they quote only one part: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . .”
How people understand fear in this misquoting is that all fear should be cast out, that Christians should be fearless.
But fear is a physiological, emotional, and spiritual response to danger that is essential. If God’s perfect love cast out all fear, we would indiscriminately walk in front of buses, engage in many more abusive relationships, and feel no reverent awe for beauty and especially for God.
But John is not claiming all fear is cast out by God’s love but a very specific fear, our deepest fear.
“Because fear has to do with judgment,” he writes.
John defines the fear that is to be cast out as fear of ultimate rejection by God. We fear we will be cast out by God but John assures us God’s unconditional love enfolds us in a beloved status in Christ that then casts fear of rejection out.
Over the years as a pastor and counselor I’ve heard many people admit, “Yes, God is love and God loves everyone. Jesus died for us and forgave us.” Then there is a long pause and they say, “Except me.” Tears, sighs, shame. “I am not worthy of God’s love.”
Hell, I’ve felt and said that myself.
Love Is Transformative
We wrongly believe that love will give bad behavior permission and that shunning or rejection, withholding love, will make people change. We believe this is how God treats us and therefore treat others with the same misguided belief. If change comes from the withholding of love it is only surface. Love empowers deep change.
How did John come to live in such freedom from fear? He too struggled with fear and rejection himself. John’s the disciple who fled in fear without clothes from the scene of Jesus’ arrest. He had to have felt unworthy of God’s love after exhibiting such betrayal and cowardice. But the next time Jesus sees him, John and Jesus’ mother stand at the foot of the cross and Jesus does not reject him. “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” (John 19:26-27 NIV)
Notice this is John’s own written account. He calls himself “the disciple whom he [Jesus] loved” because he was so bathed in the unconditional love of Jesus that even despite his cowardice, his view of himself changed.
Love not fear or shame became his trademark. Love shines on John’s writing like powerful shafts of sunlight through clouds of doubt and shame. He uses the word love eighty-one times in his four New Testament books. In chapter four of 1 John he uses it twenty-seven times alone. He wants us to get the point: love heals; love overcomes; love transforms. Love casts out fear of rejection because God is love.
During my dangerous and rebellious high school years my widowed mom tried everything to get me to straighten up. Though I had come to Christ, I was failing at breaking my addictions and depression. Mom grounded me. Mom lectured me. Mom shamed me. She would stop speaking to me for days. Then one Friday night I returned home from a party drunk and depressed. Hating myself for my sin.
Mom invited me next to her on the couch. She was watching television. She didn’t say a word but simply ran her fingers through my long hippy locks. They were one of our most fierce points of contention. She hated my long hair. I remember melting inside, hope replacing despair. The unconditional love she expressed for me in that action began my transformation. I did not become perfect but I slowly saw how my actions hurt her and I changed empowered by love that flowed between us.
On the night of her death, years later, I sat on her bed and we talked of heaven and God’s love and life. She expressed regret about some of the mistakes she had made in my life. Not minor ones! I confessed the same. We held hands. We prayed. We sat silent. She later passed in peace. And I have since lived in peace as far as her life goes.
If my mom’s love could slowly transform me, what more can God’s do for you? And to be sure Mom’s love was God’s flowing through her.
Acceptance not rejection in Christ becomes John’s main message. John tells us we don’t need to earn God’s love. We love because God loved us first.
Seinfeld probably didn’t realize that public speaking is some people’s top fear because it means doing something that may incite rejection. And death being number two makes sense because immediate rejection from an audience versus potential delayed rejection from God is no contest.
John hammers the nail again: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God’s love may not cast out fear of snakes, terrorism, public speaking, or even of dying, but that perfect love of Jesus casts out fear of rejection from God in this life and the next. And gives us a freedom to face lesser fears with faith.
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