The love that casts out wilderness fear
There is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart. We were born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies. It is the human desire for love. Our true identity…is found in this desire. Gerald May, The Awakened Heart
Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 1 John 4:18
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There is a journey we all must take, up from Egypt, to the foothills of Sinai, through the wilderness, and into the promised rest. It’s the New Exodus journey. And it’s a cyclical journey. Just ask the person who has felt that deluge of spiritual satisfaction only to wake up the next day bound by yet a new level of inner chainery. It is in this moment, in particular, that we doubt God’s love, double-up on our layers of self-protection, and re-commit to our old friends – cynicism, despair, hopelessness, and perhaps worst of all – apathy.
A friend once told me that the polar counterpart of love is apathy. I had always believed it to be hatred. But, after some soul-searching and even some biblical exploration, I couldn’t help but agree. The Bible doesn’t call it apathy, however. The biblical idea is conveyed in the word ‘hardness.’ The hard heart is the loveless heart, the heart that has abandoned love in favor of fear, the heart that has chosen a safer Lover than the wild, risky, and demanding God we worship. Psalm 95 tells the story of those who failed to complete the wilderness journey because of their fear:
Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”
The final words convey something profound about the human heart. Not entering into God’s rest destines us to a life of restlessness, a life of placing our heart’s fulfillment in cheap substitutes. This restlessness manifests in a hardened heart, a heart incapable of love, unable to be vulnerable. And C.S. Lewis warned us of this when in The Four Loves he said
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
You see, St. John was right. Perfect love casts out wilderness fear. And it’s Love that will get us Home. Yet, love is scary, risky, and vulnerable. It is the very thing we want desperately. And it is the very thing we run for our lives to avoid.
I’m a card-carrying love-avoider. I understand why C.S. Lewis spent a better part of his life unmarried. And I also understand why, after taking a risk and falling in love, he berated God for playing a cruel joke on him after his wife Joy died. Marital love brings you as close to heavenly intimacy as you’ll find on this earth. It’s the prime image and metaphor for divine and human love throughout the Bible. It’s the cat and mouse game of Song of Songs, which for many became the central text on love’s heartache throughout church history. Pat Benatar got it right in her 1983 love lament, a song that messed with me as a 13-year old romantic. “Love is a Battlefield,” she wrote, and it rocked my young and lovestruck heart. Now 16 years into marriage, I can understand. Vulnerability is difficult. I’d rather wrap my heart around an old Egyptian flame, a more sure and certain lover than this Divine Heartbreaker.
And then there is the simple young disciple, the one Jesus loved, who writes something that makes the learned theologian laugh – God is Love. We don’t consult John for good theological advice. For that, we go to St. Paul. Paul seems to have been born with the dogmatic gene. St. John, we suspect, would hardly know what to do with the lofty definition of God in the Westminster Confession of Faith – “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” There is not a whole lot of Love to be found in this version of God. Simple St. John should have left the theologizing to his later English and Scottish brethren.
And yet, the disciple who was likely a boy when Jesus was crucified knew something of Love. “Perfect loves casts out all fear,” he wrote. Again, it’s not likely to make a theological text. But perhaps he gets the human heart. Fear ruled the hardened hearts of wilderness worriers. But Love would get them Home.
Gerald May writes, “There is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart. We were born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies. It is the human desire for love. Our true identity…is found in this desire.” The image of God, though shattered by the Fall, did not suffer a permanent loss of desire. And deep within we yearn for Love. We replace Love with substitutes – bad relationships, addictions to work and porn and food, and perhaps even the need for certainty. Yes, some of us still believe Certainty casts out all fear. But God’s corrective is this:
Love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, and strength.
I’m scared to love. My prayer is this: God, love the fear out of me.