The other day my kids and I were discussing the angelic visitations recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 1. We named everyone who received such a visit (Zacharias, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds) and I asked the kids if they could remember the first thing the angel said to each person or group. My oldest daughter excitedly answered, “Don’t be afraid!” Why would an angel sent from God say “fear not” before anything else?
We could tie a specific expression of fear to each of the New Testament figures who received an angelic visitor. Zacharias may have been afraid of what people would think of a geriatric father. Mary could have feared for her socio-economic future and her life. Joseph was already afraid of society, shame, and (probably) what would happen to Mary if he divorced her. The shepherds may have been completely disoriented by the angel’s sudden brilliant appearance in the dead of night and probably feared for their lives and their sheep. Each group may have also been afraid at the outset of what God might require of them and feared being equal to the task.
Fear seems to be a universal emotion. In my mind it is distinctly tied to mortality. Fear doesn’t exist in the presence of God, in heaven––God is always encouraging us to cast out fear because it is contrary to His nature and what He wants us to experience (see 2 Timothy 1:7, NT).
I readily relate to the fear each group must have experienced. Fear is one of my default emotions: Fear of what people think of me, fear for my children when they’re out of my sight, fear for what my kids will pick up at school, fear of being shot down when I share the Gospel, the list goes on. The angel’s words of Matthew 1 and Luke 1 probably had a calming effect and created a sense of confidence and peace in the listeners. The words of 1 John 4:18 came to my mind as I pondered this theme and they had a similar effect on me: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear….” How does “perfect love” cast out fear, I wondered? What does “perfect love” look like?
If I love my kids perfectly, then I prioritize Gospel learning with them and I have faith in the lessons we learn at home; I have hope in their salvation through Jesus Christ (should anything happen to them while out of my immediate care); I am able to see the bigger picture and don’t get caught up in minutiae. What if I loved God perfectly? If I love God perfectly, then I keep His commandments, I love and serve others willingly; I put God before anything else in my life, I prioritize scripture study and prayer; I turn the other cheek and don’t hold grudges; I trust fully in His power, His plan, and His love.
And then there will be no room for fear.
A short thought for today as I have reflected on the true opposite of fear. In a previous post I identified the opposite of fear as “fearlessness” but in the scriptures I see a different opposite emerging. When you consider Paul’s teaching in 2 Timothy 1:7, that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind,” it seems pretty clear that the opposite of fear is power/Godly strength, love, and a sound mind (I think of stability, clarity in judgment).
Jacob’s preaching to the Nephites recorded in Jacob 3:2 bears this out in my mind. He writes: “receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm, forever.” Jacob’s words struck me as a prophetic repetition (when multiple prophets teach the same principle in different times and places), inviting the people to enjoy the bounty of God’s love through His word (teachings, doctrine, repentance, etc.). The finally phrase suggested to me that we can enjoy God’s love forever if our “minds are firm,” but also that God’s love builds firmness of mind or a “sound mind.”
Fear can be so unsettling, especially to the human mind. Fear can cause doubt, anxiety, lapses in judgment, crises of faith, despair, and more. But if we feast on God’s love, we can have a firm mind, namely neither be fearful nor be subject to the effects of fear. In God’s love we can experience peace and hope, exercise sound judgment, be wise and calm, find optimism and rest.
2 Nephi 8:12-13
Several weeks ago I gave a talk in sacrament meeting in which I told the congregation that my default emotions are fear and anxiety. Ever since I was young I have worried (to an almost debilitating degree) about what people think of me. I fear their judgment, treatment, potential insults, attitude; and then I fear repeated contact. Serving a mission helped me overcome some of this fear but I have found recently that much of my social and interpersonal fears still prevent me from sharing the Gospel the way I should. Fear is a problem for me. This is probably one of my crosses to bear in mortality but many of us wrestle with fear, whatever form it takes on an individual level.
Which is why I find Jacob’s quotation from Isaiah so poignant! The Lord questions, “who art thou, that thou shouldst be afraid of man, who shall die” (v. 12)? I perked up when I read this. Isn’t God always reminding us in the scriptures that man is nothing (see Moses 1:10)? Why should I fear man who will die considering that God is eternal? And He further reminds us that “the Lord thy maker, that hath stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth, He is “the Lord thy God, whose waves roared” (v. 13, 15). God is all powerful, He created the Earth and all humankind. He is the only being in the universe we should fear. But this fear that He asks of us is respect and obedience. Even though He could reach out and destroy anything He wanted, instead God has “covered thee in the shadow of [His] hand” (v. 16). God wants to protect, preserve, and bless us. He is merciful and kind. Like the Psalmist, we can say with absolute confidence, “The Lord is on my side” (Psalm 118:6).