I heard it said once that the heart of Jesus’ teaching are pretty well summed up in these two commandments: Don’t be afraid, and love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, simple as this sounds, we soon figure out that nothing could be more difficult. This is all the more true given the way that Jesus defines neighbor (i.e., even your enemy), and given that fear is often more deeply rooted than we care to admit.
It starts with subtle worries about every day things from bills to pay, job security, and health to retirement, but then grows deeper into anxieties about rejection, loss, pain, loneliness, failure and the absence of purpose. The root of this fear is that as both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations, but infinite expectations and pretensions. This leads us to become self-conscious about our insecurity, which in turns produces the anxieties just mentioned. Anxiety inclines us to seek control of our own lack of certainty and security, of which there is never enough, and so we are driven to chase after these things to the detriment of others. Generally we either 1) abuse our freedom by grabbing for power, or 2) flee into our finitude via sensual indulgence (these are the sins of the older and younger brother in the Prodigal Son parable, respectively). In other words, fear and anxiety are what stand in the way of us actually loving our neighbors.
But this still leaves the question of “what is the remedy?”. This is one of the reasons that Jesus went to the cross. In order to set us free, Jesus had to demonstrate that the fear that comes from all the suffering and death that life and the world can cause is ultimately misplaced. Jesus faced these fears. His will was one with God’s, and thus the faithfulness and love of God were fully incarnated and lived out in him.
So great was this love that it overcame sin, death and suffering, and without conditions. God’s grace was made manifest and available in such a powerful a way that not only humanity’s future, but that of the whole cosmos, changed course. This is the incredible good news that Christians claim. And let’s not pretend that it isn’t a bit outlandish. It can’t be rationalized. For many, it’s an offense and a scandal.
It shouldn’t surprise us then that some people are only interested in Jesus for his teachings rather than who we as Christians believe he was and what he did. But the truth is, the teachings of Jesus are simply not enough to set us free. They are indispensible, but not sufficient. “Fear not” and “love neighbor” are beautiful sentiments and ideals for which to strive. Even non-Christians seem to know this, which can only be attributed to the image of God that remains somewhere latent in the nature of every human being. But as mere intentions, fearlessness and love will never be realized apart from a hope and transformation that comes only from God.
For this reason, the church that fears not and loves neighbor has to also be the church that believes in and trusts the good news. You can’t have one without the other. Jesus’ life is not just a moral example, even if it is also that. The problem though is that so many Christians are left to choose between either
- a church whose gospel is only good news to a few, and whose version of love only manages to suppress fear rather than overcome it — either because it’s too exclusive, or because the kind of love it portrays is little more than a courtroom deal with sin;
- or a church that equates the gospel with Jesus’ teachings and hence tries to care about the things Jesus cared about and obey his teachings, but fails to do this because of sin, and therefore doesn’t really have good news at all.
Because of this, the door is wide open in these times for a church that believes in the kind of love that actually casts out fear and, set free by the real good news, enables the love of the world and everyone in it. There are barriers to this though, as I’ve suggested, and I will mention two of them.
First, for churches, there is always the barrier of idolizing church growth. The temptation to pander to the consumer is as prevalent in churches as it is in the marketplace. In Protestant churches in North America, we’ve seen this played out in two major ways. In an effort to reach a generations burned out on denominational church, initially there was the rise of the seeker-sensitive church. This was a deep, deep cultural shift in evangelicalism — so deep, that even when many emerging church leaders broke away in disillusionment with it to do something different, many of them ended up making the same mistakes, only this time they did so by catering to millennials rather than Gen-Xers. In both cases, discipleship was in many cases too quickly sacrificed on the altar of reaching culture.
Some Christians misinterpreted this phenomenon by deeming it a yet another instance of theological liberalism. I do not think this is the real issue. Theologically speaking, conservative and liberal Christians are, as best I can tell, equally prone to neglect discipleship and real spiritual discipline — the former by holding on to personal morality in the area of sexual purity and finances, and the latter by directing efforts outward toward social justice and identity politics (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc). Neither of these emphases necessarily lead to a mature Christian life.
So in addition to the idol of church growth, churches have erected the barrier of theological ideology. This does not mean that Christians should stop caring about all the things I just mentioned (sexual purity, social justice, etc.). What it means is that we have to change the way we care about those things, and, to become more sensitive to the things we should care about in addition, and that we’ve neglected.
Now, some churches might think that they’re immune to these issues because they’re more “moderate” or “diverse.” Except in churches that are skilled at good listening and mutuality through real dialogue though, much evidence of moderation and diversity tends to be superficial. Deep moderation and diversity means really dealing with and talking about these issues. It means growing in self-awareness and epistemic humility. Many churches that think they’re moderate or diverse remain that way only because they tend to avoid hard conversations.
As one might expect, both of these barriers, idolizing church growth and avoiding hard conversations, have their origin in fear, which keeps us from truly loving people.
It is indeed very good news, then, that the gospel gives us the power to break down both of these barriers by fearing not and loving our neighbors.
—  “Fear not,” or “don’t be afraid,” is very similar to “love God,” because loving requires trusting God, and trusting God is the only way to drive out fear.  Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, chapter 3. Niebuhr is influenced by Soren Kierkegaard in how he characterizes sin.  This is partly because capitalism is not only an economic system but a culturally pervasive force. [Image by Paul Englefield, CC via Flickr]