It was twilight, and my family was driving through the mountains of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. We were approaching the end of a 22-hour road trip from Arkansas, and all I could think about was getting home, putting the kids to bed, donning my pajamas, and sleeping for a LONG time. My husband (at the wheel) and I were in the midst of casual conversation, trying not to nod off, when all of a sudden he slammed the brakes, sending the portable DVD player and various other road-trip necessities flying.
In a panicked instant, I saw it: an elk galloped into the road in front of us and froze, glancing off the side of our front bumper before making its way up the embankment into the pine forest on the opposite side of the road. I thanked God for my husband’s quick reflexes and the fact that my family (and hopefully the elk) was safe and sound.
I can think of many other instances when the God-given and intended purpose of fear has kept me or those I love safe. There are even instances in scripture about the role the fear of God plays. Verses like Matthew 10:28 come to mind: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
But fear is ultimately an immature motivation when it comes to serving God. It is a primal instinct, focused primarily on self-preservation. In fact, other Bible verses contrast fear with love (1 John 4:18) and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).
I grew up in a fear-based faith tradition. Our mantra, “Speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent,” developed in the early 1800s out of a sincere call for believers’ unity, but evolved (in many congregations) into a formula whereby we tried to keep ourselves out of hell. So it is no wonder that my baptism occurred because I had a dream the night before that I only had 24 hours to live. The next day, I high-tailed it to the baptistery just in case I died and God decided to kick my 14-year-old soul into the unquenchable fires.
But even then the fear didn’t go away. What if I was doing something wrong? What if, after all our meticulous following of the NT “law,” we were missing something really, REALLY important? Or (apparently worse) doing something we were REALLY not supposed to be doing? Out of this mindset grew a rigid, seemingly flawless rule. I have heard it many times in various ways over the years, but it always went something like this, “I’d rather be safe than sorry,” or, “Better to err on the side of caution,” or, “You can’t be too careful.” We meant well, but our view of God implied that He was just waiting to punish us for things so benign that I’m embarrassed to even write about them here. So we sat inside our buildings, safe, secure, saved…but for what?
I learned later there is such a thing as being TOO careful. Not just because things we need to do remain undone and God-given talents sit unused, but also because fear itself is not the motivator that God ultimately desires from us. Doing too little and being too conservative is a dangerous, fear-based move. Playing it safe is, ironically, NOT safe!
Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents, illustrates this idea perfectly. In the parable, a master gives three servants various amounts of gold before he embarks on a journey; the first one gets 5 bags, the second one 2, and the third one receives 1.
When the master returns, he naturally wants to see what the servants did with what he gave them. The first two doubled their allotment, but the third servant played it safe. He says, “Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”
Of course, this doesn’t end well for Servant #3. His gold is given to Servant #1, and he is cast into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Sounds a little harsh, right? The servant didn’t even lose the gold. He wasn’t careless, and he didn’t violate any directives that we know of, but his motivation was FEAR. His harsh view of his master greatly limited how effectively he served him. And ironically, fear and the desire to play it safe turn out to be what he should have really been afraid of the whole time.
Some of us have lived in fear for far too long. Like the unfortunate elk, we freeze in fear of what might happen. Fear of other people’s opinions. Fear of stepping out in faith. Fear of using the talents God has given us. Fear of violating a rule that isn’t even there. Fear of change. Fear of a harsh master’s wrath. Whatever it is, the third servant teaches us that there is nothing scarier than letting fear dictate our lives and limit our return on God’s gifts to us.
1 John 4:18 says that perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. God clearly desires a relationship with us where our actions are based not on instinctual self-preservation, but out of our heartfelt service to Him, freely using our talents and blessings. It is for freedom, not bondage to our imaginary obstacles, that Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1).
If the god you are serving is sending any other message, it’s time to find a new master.