What is the root problem for us as human beings? What is the root problem at the moment of the Fall itself, and in our daily personal struggles? Sin? Disobedience? Selfishness? Alienation? Pride? Possibly all of these.
But St John, in Chapter 4 of his First Letter, points to something else: Fear. It takes us right back to the Garden of Eden, just after the Fall, when the Lord God goes searching for Adam. And when he speaks to him, Adam replies: ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself’.
St John is very simple: ‘In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love.’ And he even sees the defeat of fear as a sort of test for whether we are ready to enter heaven or not. He writes, ‘Love will come to its perfection in us when we can face the Day of Judgment without fear’.
Is he being harsh and unrealistic? Is it fair to say that fear is a sign that we are not loving? At one level, this doesn’t ring true. Fear, as a human instinct, as a response to difficulties and dangers, seems to be natural and unavoidable; it’s part of a healthy physiology and psychology.
But many of our fears have other causes that are not so innocent, even though they may feel very normal and natural. We are afraid because we can’t get our own way; or because we are too attached to something and scared of losing it; or because we are worrying about what others think of us; or because we won’t trust God and hand over our future to him. These are unhealthy fears, and they stop us loving God and loving others.
Here is a tip: If you notice that you are afraid of something, big or small, don’t just ignore it. Stop. Reflect on it; pray about it; try to see what is at the root of the fear. Very often, this will be a moment of grace; it can lead you to see an area in your life where you are not free, not yet willing to trust God. It can reveal the extent to which you are still hiding, like Adam in the Garden – unable to trust others, to trust the Lord, to trust in his Providence. It can allow you to hear a very personal call from the Lord, to come out, to meet him. And that can lead you to a new step of faith and a new kind of freedom before the Lord.
Yes, perfect love casts out fear. It’s also true that fear, and facing the roots of our fears, can lead us to a deeper love.
(But don’t misunderstand this and get over-analytical! It doesn’t mean that every time we are afraid it is our fault or a sign of sin…)