1 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 been perfected in love. (ESV)
Is there a contradiction between the fear of God and the love of God? This verse would appear to say so. It appears at first glance to say that fear and love are opposing reactions in a relationship. Perfected love and fear cannot coexist in the same relationship. Instead, love that is perfected, that has fully flourished, casts out fear. And the reason is that fear is related to punishment. Along the same line, whoever fears has not been perfected in love, since a relatoinship grounded in fear of punishment cannot be one that is said to be full of love.
What are we to make of this? On the one hand, Scripture says that wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD. Can we cast off our moorings once we are safely under way?
I have had conversations with professing believers about how to cultivate the love of God. It is a common thing for people to conceive of Christianity mostly in terms of beliefs and behaviors without ever rising to the concept of a personal relationship with God through Christ. It has been common in these conversations for the motivation in the heart of the person to be constructed in terms of duty. Duty exists of course, and it is not wrong. Love is not less than duty, but it is more than duty. When I probe for motivation to carry out the duty, the answer is often fear of the consequences of disobedience. So in seeking to help this person cultivate the love of God, perhaps for the first time, I suggested starting with cultivating the love of parents as baby steps toward learning to love God.
It is a difficult thing to begin to love God when you are not in the habit of intentionally loving anyone at all. Yet for some, at least, this is the case. It is a bit like going on a journey fraught with many dangers. Certainly, we want to avoid the dangers on the way, but we are not motivated on the journey by the dangers but by the destination. So it is with the love of God. The danger of punishment due to a lack of fear and love of God is there, but the motivation is positive, not negative. The motivation to obey, pursue, and worship God is God himself much more so than the dangers of failing to do so.
When we consider that first phrase, "There is no fear in love," it appears to be the main heading of this verse, with each subsequent clause elaborating on or clarifying its meaning. The key idea seems to be in the notion that fear has to do with punishment, the avoidance of which is opposed to love. If you only show love because you are afraid of punishment, then your love, your positive disposition, your heart's orientation, is not toward the supposed object of love but toward yourself. At the most basic level, fear is self-centered, whereas love is other-centered. By "centered", I mean to refer to the focus of our attention and motivation. In being self-centered, we are fundamentally thinking of ourselves first. In being other-centered, we are fundamentally thinking of the other first. Fear motivates us to protect ourselves while love motivates us to give ourselves.
At the same time, we must be careful not to over-read this verse. It is easy (to my mind at least) to read this verse to say that fear and love are completely incompatible. They cannot coexist at all. Yet this is not what the verse says. It says instead that love casts out fear, and that whoever fears has not been perfected in love. Yet this clearly leaves room for there to be fear and love in the same relationship.
The context of this passage does not represent a totally different fear from the one encompassed by the same term in places such as Proverbs, which describes the fear of the Lord as the beginning of knowledge and/or wisdom (1:7; 9:10). For the two fears to be completely unrelated, we would at least have to show that the main qualifier included in 1 John 4:18 is not envisioned in the fear of the Lord. That qualifier is the notion that fear has to do with punishment. But I find no reason to disassociate the fear of punishment from the fear of the Lord as described in Proverbs. There is much evidence to the contrary, as many proverbs include threats against those who ignore wisdom.
Fear Versus Love
We have, then, a simple problem. On the one hand, Scripture describes the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom/knowledge. On the other hand, Scripture also describes the love of God as casting out fear. Should we not then fear the Lord? How do we reconcile these two principles?
It appears to me that the way to reconcile the fear of God with the love of God is by asserting that the fear of God marks the beginning of our relationship to God while love culminates it. Once love has fully entered, the right fear of God that is marked by awe and reverence does not become bad, but rather is the foundation upon which the relationship is built, and over which the love can fully stand. As a person grows in their relationship with God, the fear of God is not so much diminished as eclipsed by the love of God. The love of God displaces the fear of God as the primary driver of the relationship. In this sense, the love of God overshadows the fear of God without eliminating it.
If fear has to do with punishment, then we might say by contrast that love has to do with reward. Fear has to do with self-preservation, but love has to do with self-giving. Fear has to do with anticipating the bad, but love has to do with anticipating the good. Fear avoids its object while love seeks its object. The fear of God, in short, is the right reaction to seeing God for who he is compared to ourselves for who we are. But the love which casts out that fear is the reaction to the relationship with God that the Father offers in Christ Jesus and sealed by the Spirit.