“Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically, and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation, or despair begins to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God.” —Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus
Fear is a good motivator. It can keep you from doing things you shouldn’t, as when your mother warned you as a small child not to touch the hot stove, and it can spur you to do the things you should, as when I studied hard for a test because I didn’t want to face my parents and explain to them why I received a bad grade. I am not sure that it isn’t the first and most basic human motivator; I’ve not studied these things, but my guess is that when the first humans were struggling to survive in a hostile environment that fear kept the species going. Fear of starvation, fear of wild animals, fear of heights, fear of the cold, fear of being abandoned by the tribe or clan and left to fend for yourself—these all seem pretty basic fears. The fight or flight instinct are both spurred by fright. I imagine you fight with more desperation when afraid, even more so than when angry, and I'm pretty sure you run faster when afraid of whatever is chasing you. Fear is the first and most basic motivator.
That’s why political campaigns always seem to go negative. You can motivate people to vote for you by promising them the world, but when you really need to motivate them, you have to scare them. Tell them the other guy will take away your freedom, your money, your rights, your dignity. Tell them the other guy can’t be trusted, tell them he’s dishonest, tell them he crooked, tell them he’s a cheat. Scare them enough, and they will vote for you—or at least not vote for the other guy, which is the same thing.
Unfortunately, religion uses fear as well. What’s even more unfortunate is that it’s hard to tell if the politicians learned it from the religious or if the religious learned it from politics. I'm not even sure which would be worse, but it doesn’t really matter. While politicians have been trying to, metaphorically speaking, scare the hell out of people for millennia, religion has been doing the same thing for at least as long, not metaphorically but literally. If you don’t believe the right things and say the right words you will burn in hell for the rest of eternity. If you don’t do this for God he will withhold his blessing on your life. You will lose your health, your kids will rebel, you won’t be happy, etc.
And it works. People walk down the aisle, pray the prayer, get baptized all to make sure they don’t get sent to hell. People tithe, attend worship, read the Bible, teach Sunday School so they can, if not stay healthy, at least avoid the bad diseases and accidents, and have a relatively tragedy-free life.
And some do but even those who do live a relatively joyless life. The absence of tragedy, and even the freedom from hell, doesn’t mean the presence of joy.
Fear does work in motivating people to do good things for God. The problem is that however good it is in getting proper behavior, it isn’t from God. Nouwen is exactly right: every time fear, isolation, or despair begins to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God. Beware of those who claim to speak for God and for what is right for God, the church, your family, the country, etc. but whose primary aim is to provoke fear and despair in your soul. They are not from God, neither do they speak for God.
The evangelist John said that we should love others “because God loved us first” (1 John 4:19). God is love, and God is only love. His love is perfect because it is pure and complete, and because it is pure and complete it is fearless. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
The voices of fear are not from God; listen only to the Voice of Love, for it is God’s own Voice.