There is no love in fear, but perfect fear casts out love (1 John 4:18)
Are you sure you read it right? It isn’t saying what we expect it to say… But there is a point. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde has one of his characters (Cicely or Gwendolen, I don’t remember which) ask, ‘Do you mind if I look at you through my lorgnette? Mamma has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted’. Well, my Mamma, as any good Jewish mamma should, brought me up to be extremely anxious. It’s only to be expected: by the time she was in her mid-20s she had lost two whole families (one birth family, one adoptive), her country, and her chance of a career. And later she was to lose her only son, when she was 59 and he was 27. Such a history is bound to breed some anxiety; she used to get in a terrible state when my father was half an hour late home from work.
When I look back at my twenties and thirties, what I remember most is a constant state of low grade anxiety about almost everything. Not enough to stop me having some fun, but enough to make life seem like a series of insurmountable goals. Age and therapy have dissipated this (as have marriage and motherhood) but it’s still easy to slip back into it, and I continue to suffer from what I call ‘pathological punctuality’, arriving at most places, especially places where I haven’t been before, embarrassingly early.
But is anxiety a good driver for discipleship? When I look at ‘conservative’ Christianity at present, especially in the USA, it seems to me to be beset by all-pervading, chronic fears. Fear of having the wrong theology, fear of alienating God, fear of being ‘contaminated’ by associating with the wrong people, fear of sinning without knowing it. And it strikes me that this cannot be right for followers of a redeemer who made friends with all the wrong people and broke all the rules of purity: hanging out with prostitutes and wide boys, touching dead bodies and menstruating women, neglecting to go through ritual washings. Let alone, let me add, for a people who proclaim that their sins are forgiven through the Cross (or does that only apply to sins you committed in the past, before you were ‘born again’?). This matters, not only because it diminishes the lives and fruits of Christians who live in this state of fear, but because it prevents them loving the people who need it most, since those people are labelled as unclean. It seems to me that conservative Christianity has managed to re-erect all the barriers that Jesus spent his life breaking down, and I don’t think that’s the kind of conservation we need. It’s simple: if we fear – fear contamination, fear heresy, fear ‘liberalism’, fear being ‘too compassionate’ (and how can the followers of a God who is love actually be ‘too compassionate’?), we cannot love, as Christ has loved us. Paul tells us he ‘became sin’ for us: are we prepared to risk ‘becoming sin’ for the sake of those we see in need?