Fear and Perfect Love

Rev.Jan TolbertFrom Guest Writer: Rev. Jan Tolbert
Associate Pastor First Presbyterian Church, Lagrange, GA

I John 4.18:
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

Let me begin by confessing that I have not reached perfection in love. I fear a number of things. As a pastor, one of the things I feared, like a snakebite, was conflict and criticism. Most of the pastors I know feel the same way, which is interesting that we end up in a vocation that is somedays, overrun with it.

In my case, most of the conflict I feared never came to pass. It was the conflict I never saw coming that bit hardest. Or, sometimes it was the conflict that I imagined that consumed much of my energy.

In a church I once served there was a woman who was difficult. I know, you’re saying, “Just one!” No, there were others but let me tell you this one story.

Brenda was difficult. She was several times divorced and lived with her step-father. She was chronically ill with a host of ailments. She was a heavy smoker. She had two beloved house pets, a cat and a dog, that disliked one another almost as much as they disliked me. The cat felt comfortable to jump on the table and sniff around the communion elements. Once, when Brenda was not looking, I swatted that cat under the table with my Book of Common Worship.

Visiting in Brenda’s home was taxing. She did not attend worship, yet I would see her out and about occasionally at a local restaurant, which I resented. Did I mention that Brenda was difficult? She complained about many things and no matter how much care I tried to provide, it never seemed like enough.

One day a letter arrived at my office from Brenda. It was thick, requiring extra postage. My heart sank when I saw it. “Here it is,” I thought. “Here is Brenda’s epistle to me telling me how I had failed her and her step-father. How I had failed the church and the very kingdom of God! I left the letter on my desk because I was afraid to open it. (Ref: I John 4:18)

Well, you know how that goes. All the energy that goes into not opening the letter, or, not returning the phone call, or, not answering the, “We need to talk.” Email. All of that miserable, anxious energy that has everything to do with fear and nothing to do with love.

Within the hour I mustered up the courage to break open Brenda’s letter. My stomach was in a knot. I took a deep breath. Inside were twenty, one dollar bills, along with a short handwritten note saying, “Please use this money in your ministry. Sorry that I can’t send more. Thank you for all you do for me.” Brenda.

In that moment, it felt like God had given me a loving, but, painful thump upside my head. How much precious energy had I expended writing a narrative in my imagination, when I could have just opened the envelope and received the humble gift that was being offered?

I know, I know, pastor stories do not always end this way. I could tell you some others that don’t end with twenty bucks in an envelope. I share this one in the hope that God does, from time to time, enjoy thumping us beloved, anxious one’s upside the head. And I share in the knowledge that scripture can be trusted. That perfect love does cast out fear, but there is no fear in love.

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