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On Love and Fear

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 05, 2011

I actually succeeded in listening to the readings at Mass today, or at least almost. No sooner had I made the resolution to really concentrate on the Liturgy of the Word than I found myself awakened from various preoccupations by the need to join in the responsorial psalm. The first reading was already history. But somehow I managed to hang on for the Gospel, and the priest (no stranger to wandering minds?) kindly included references to the first reading in his homily. On the whole, I suppose, it was not a bad morning for distractions!

That first reading was from the first letter of St. John, and it was about love. John can be almost tiresome on this subject if we fall into the trap of regarding love as rather vague, and forget to listen for the nuances. Here is one of those characteristic Johanine nuances: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 Jn 4:18). We must take care that this doesn’t merely wash over us. It is a nuance deep enough to drown in, if one can drown in love.

Is Fear Selfish?

How does love cast out fear? The most important way, surely, is that just as fear arises from a preoccupation with self, so does love entail a forgetfulness of self. Paradoxically, whenever we’re afraid, we’re being selfish. We’re worried about what is going to happen to us. We’re afraid it will be bad. This is true to a large extent even when our fears are for someone else. We may be concerned about hunger in some region on the other side of the globe, but we aren’t really afraid of some nameless person starving. But if one of our children should be starving or otherwise in danger, we will be not only concerned in a general way but very specifically afraid. This is because our child is so closely connected with ourselves.

I do not mean to say that this is altogether a bad thing; surely it is a natural and a normal thing. It is because we love our child in a particular and very human way that we fear for the child’s well-being. However, while our love is good and fruitful, our fear is useless. Moreover, it will disappear in any given case as soon as the connection with self is broken. For example, suppose we learn that the plane on which our spouse is travelling has crashed. We will be desperate with fear. But suppose we learn later that while thirty-seven other passengers are still unaccounted for, our spouse is safe. Our fear disappears.

If we apply this to God’s love for us and our love for God, something curious emerges. God is in complete control of everything and He loves us perfectly, far more than we love ourselves. Consequently, in an important sense, any time we are afraid of anything, it simply means that we do not trust God’s love for us. We sense either that He does not love us or that He wants to punish us. For if God loves us and His loving Providence encompasses all things, then surely anything “bad” that befalls us must be sent by God by way of a deliberate punishment.

This is why St. John says that “fear has to do with punishment.” But while God may chastise us out of love, and for our good, He never punishes us in this negative sense of doing something that is bad for us, something we ought ultimately to fear. And so “perfect love casts out fear.”

John Learned the Hard Way

John had reason to know. Over sixty years before he wrote his first letter, while he was still a teenager, John was in a boat with the other disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee, struggling to row against the wind and chop. Jesus had stayed behind. He had just fed the crowds by multiplying the loaves, and had sent His disciples off by boat so He could spend some time alone in prayer. Later, He observed from the shore that the disciples were making but slow progress across the water. He Himself planned to walk across. St. Mark describes what happened:

He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mk 6:48-52)

To us, this fear of the disciples is understandable. But note carefully what Mark says about it. The disciples were first afraid and then astounded, because “they did not understand about the loaves.” And why? In plain truth, because “their hearts were hardened.” Mark is saying that if they had understood who Jesus was and trusted fully in His love, they would have been neither afraid nor astounded. Moreover, Mark is saying that this would have been so had their hearts not been hardened.

Hardness of Heart

The image of hardened hearts in Scripture always refers to selfishness, to preoccupation with self. It is because a person is concerned or fearful about his own situation, his own position or his own image that his heart is hardened. Or rather the two are one and the same: Preoccupation with self is hardness of heart.

Now hardness of heart is to spiritual vision what closing the eyes is to physical vision—self-induced blindness! When our hearts are hardened, we cannot see Who God is, we cannot abandon ourselves freely to His Providence, we cannot trust in His love. Yet the love of God which we receive and share in Christ is a perfect love. Therefore, as St. John reminds us, there is no room for fear in it. He also explains how we can tell that we are not yet perfected in this love: It is simply that we go through life nervous, tense, and worried. In other words, it is because we are so often scared.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: mvanmun1747 - Jan. 09, 2011 3:16 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this analysis, it is very helpful. God bless your efforts.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jan. 07, 2011 7:35 PM ET USA

    I think it was Ronald Knox who said the greatest tragedy in life is not the broken heart, but the hardened heart.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jan. 05, 2011 4:41 PM ET USA

    Just at a guess, and without knowing your priest at all, this is probably a lot better homily than the one he preached on today's readings.

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