The preacher’s bald head flushed red like a stop sign. Stop and listen because you’re going to hell! His veins bulged. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. Pacing back and forth on the crimson red carpet of the tiny country church, he shouted about sin and hell and eternal damnation.
Terrified, I listened to every word he said. I’d been born into a church-going family. I’d memorized John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer; I sang Jesus Loves Me and This Little Light Of Mine. Before every meal, we recited God is great and God is good, and every night I prayed Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. But suddenly, I was sitting on a hard wooden pew at a revival service smack in the middle of the week on a school night, and I wasn’t so sure the Lord would take my soul. I wasn’t so sure the Lord wanted my sinful soul.
I was in middle school, and I’d begun to think about life and death and God. So much was changing for me. My beloved grandpa had died not long before. I was in the throes of puberty. Someone who should have loved and protected me had violated my trust. And in the midst of all my uncertainty and upheaval, there I was listening to this sweaty preacher shout that I was on a sure path to hell.
As the piano played and the congregation sang, the preacher bellowed louder. He knew someone needed to get saved. The Lord was telling him. Trembling, I knew the Lord was telling him about me. So I walked down the aisle and knelt at the altar. Excitedly, the preacher knelt beside me and told me what to pray. I repeated after him. The magic formula. And the transaction was complete. The beet-faced evangelist had literally scared the hell out of me.
We tend to reap what we sow, and what’s sown in fear will bear the fruit of fear.
Fear of hell was the foundation of my relationship with God. Upon that, I would spend years building from fear. I followed rules because I was afraid God would be disappointed with me if I didn’t. I tried to do the right things because I was afraid bad decisions would ruin my Christian witness. And if my Christian witness was ruined, then other people might go to hell. And it would be my fault.
Because I was a normal young person, I had these two warring parts within me – the part that wanted to do what I wanted and the part that wanted to do what I was supposed to do. Like so many other Christian kids (I would later learn), I developed a shame-filled shadow side and a church-girl side. Any time I gave in to my shadow side, I was consumed by shame and guilt and fear. I was ever aware that I had a responsibility to the eternal souls of everyone I knew. I was a Christian, and I had to behave like one or I would disappoint God and make myself unfit for God’s use.
As the years went on, the list of rules and expectations grew. Fear of disappointing anyone, fear of ruining my testimony, fear of causing a domino effect of terrible eternal consequences kept me in line. Year by year, new fears sprouted. Desperate to get it all right, I read books and articles and Christian message boards. I devoured everything I could about how to be a good wife, a good mom, a good daughter of God. Fear was the root of every offshoot in my life.
At some point, six kids in and a marriage falling apart, I realized that so many of my decisions were rooted in fear. Where was my faith? This was what I kept circling back to. How many times had I faced this wrestling match? Faith and fear tumbling on the ground. Faith would win for a moment, then Fear would maneuver its way back on top. Of course, Fear had the advantage – Fear was stronger, more deeply rooted.
It has taken some deep digging. Uprooting. And replanting. Each intentional act of faith plants a new seed. Each time I don’t give in to fear, I pull up another chunk of root.
Fear keeps us in line. It motivates us to follow the rules. Fear focuses our minds on ourselves. But faith keeps us in love. Faith motivates us to follow Jesus. Faith focuses our minds on our God. Our God who loves us relentlessly. Unconditionally.
Perfect love casts out fear. As I choose to believe I am loved by God, then choose to live as one loved by God, fear is driven out. Bit by bit. One tiny thread of spindly root at at time. As I choose to believe that God knows every detail about me and still rejoices over me with singing, fear is driven out. Bit by bit. One grasping fiber at a time. Perfect love casts out fear.
Fear and Faith still have wrestling matches in my mind and in my soul. Fear paces and shouts, sweat beading on his brow. But more and more, I’m learning to grab hold of Faith and refuse to let go until I receive the blessing of Perfect Love.
There is no magic formula, no special words to be repeated. There is only me coming to God like a child with honest, simple songs and prayers and cries – Jesus loves me this I know. I believe. Help my unbelief. We are weak, but You are strong.
What have I been so afraid of? God has known my weakness. And it’s never stopped God’s Perfect Love. It was right there in the song I’d been singing all along.