1 John 4:18
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
Attending AA meetings has been fascinating. Key to AA’s process is the belief in a loving higher power. It is no surprise that there are plenty of members that are Christian. However, this is not your grandma’s Sunday school. People are dropping swear words and they lack the etiquette of your preacher. If you’ve been to church, been around Christians, or have heard of churches, you it won’t be news that many Christians organizations can be harmfully judgmental. There are unspoken expectations of behavior and off-limit words. Prospective members waltz through unspoken dress codes, expected terms and phrases, the passive-aggressive looks, habitual seating assignments, self-righteous assumptions, typical talking points, recycled surface level topics, gossip and politics, and shame. My favorite musician, NF, says in his song, 10 Feet Down, “Church is where I found God, but it’s also where I learned to judge.”
This is not the case in my AA group. There is a raw and uncensored aroma in my group that is inviting and welcoming. As I look through the basement room we meet in, there are young and old, people ust off a bender and others sober longer than I’ve been alive, professionals, educated and uneducated, punks, students, well dressed, casually-dressed, hippies, skaters, musicians, people just off the streets, an old artist from Dublin, a high schooler, a professor, two farmers, a lawyer, and a former pastor…just to name a few. Some have clean language while others get creative with as many crass words. Some are simple and others eloquent. Some are concise while others ramble. People celebrate their next year sober while others freely admit they relapsed the last weekend.
It this almost anti-church environment that is so freeing. After my last relapse, I was shaking from detoxing and it was difficult to drink a cup of coffee without spilling it. I would have to sit on my hands to try to hide it…especially after an injection of caffeine. The other day, a member I have interacted with a few times told me he was glad to see I wasn’t shaking anymore. I missed two meetings in a row and a few of the people I’ve connected with started texting and calling me to see if I was okay. I remember when I first started going, I instantly felt I could be honest and I was. One now friend texted me a “Happy 30 days” message. I called him and told I had slipped the week before and he said he felt like an asshole and encouraged me – “We’ve all be there, man. I’m just glad you’re still coming. Let’s hang out sometime soon.”
If I play that same scenario out in my mind in a typical church, I see it going a completely different way. There would be a meeting, a discussion amongst staff and leaders, a debate about my role in the church, possibly a “restoration plan,” and definitely gossip. This is not all Christians or all churches. But I’ve have definitely attended and worked for churches that this would have been the case. I have seen families leave because of the shame inflicted upon them by the church because their daughter got pregnant or someone struggled with an addiction or the wife dressed to “provocatively” or a husband had different beliefs.
If a man who had served 20 years in prison, was rough around the edges, and more than a dark past came to Christ, was then baptized, and was getting connected, his story would be celebrated. But if a long term pillar of the Church trips up, we will shoot our wounded. We are quick to welcome those from the outside that are willing to fit into our molds but when those in our world find themselves outside of it, Christians often shun them. Some of the most hateful language I have heard was targeted at other Christians that didn’t comply to approved behaviors or doctrines.
Excuse the long introduction (I am a former pastor after all) but with all of that in mind, imagine the two worlds I found myself between when the chair of one AA meeting referenced 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Perhaps, it was just the way I think or my particular set of experiences but this felt different, almost weird. Entertain me as I try to explain it. John was connecting loving one another as the fulfillment of God’s love in us. He later states that fear has to do with punishment but with love we can confidently approach God and implies that we should be loving so others can confidently approach us rather than fear us.
What I found myself mulling over during the rest of that meeting was my personal experience with love. For me, love is a fearful thing. If I love someone, I hope they will love me but they may not. If I love someone and I screw up, I might be “punished” by losing them in part or in whole. Then this quote from C.S. Lewis came to mind:
“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.”C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
I am an empath – not in the mystical sense. I am hyper aware of others and lean toward trying to understand them. I am rather accepting and caring. I often defend people when others rail against them. We don’t know their story, how they got there, why they are the way they are, how our own background, biases, and self-protection cloud our own mind and heart. Jesus saved His harshest words for those that looked down and judged others and His kindest words for those broken and lost.
However, my empathy frequently backfires when fear creeps in. I am afraid of who I am and how what I have done is affecting others. I have had people give up on me. I have had people hurt me. I have been judged and labeled. Due to my alcoholism, I have lost everything and, when I thought I nothing else to lose, I lost more. I hate how I have hurt the people I love and how they have hurt me. I hate admitting when I have screwed up because I anticipate how they are going to feel and react. I don’t want to hurt them and I don’t want them to hurt me.
I used this bifurcation between love and fear to divide my life from public and private. Love, real love, is a fearful thing. Churches often throw around “love” with descriptors and qualifiers, turning love into “love + something” or “love but…” or “love if..”. This is not the ἀγάπη (agape) love of the New Testament. Jesus only gave one “new” command – To love one another as He loved us.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”1 John 13:34-35
And He said this knowing Judas was about to betray Him, Peter would deny Him, and all His closest disciples would abandon Him. The first verse of John 13 says, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Not most of the way but Jesus loved them wholly and without hesitation despite their flaws and mistakes. However, the hard truth is that we aren’t good at this and there are questions we struggle with. More problematic, we all have been hurt by those who said they loved us and that hurt cycles back on to how we love others and allow others to love us.
That is my case. I am afraid of loving people because I know I am going to fail and hurt them. I am afraid to let others love me because I don’t trust love and them. I don’t really believe in 1 John 4:18. I default to fear and fulfill what C.S. Lewis said – I crawl in box, nail it shut, and hide my heart. If I could force the lid off my casket, crawl out of this hole, and get past my fear, maybe I would find the true freedom love has to offer. But love is a fearful thing.