This scripture provides a classic example of the importance of context in understanding the Bible, and the problems that come when we forcibly remove verses or parts of verses from their setting. Taken out of proper context, the words “There is no fear in love” are often quoted as a kind of spiritual “rabbit’s foot” or good luck charm – a mantra suggesting that if we have enough love, we will have no fear.
But if this is the case, real life experience would indicate that none of us has enough love. We can be filled with love for God and fellow humans, but still find we are afraid of heights, or roaring lions, spiders, snakes, or whatever else might cause us fear. The answer is clearly not that we need to love heights or lions more, but that we need to see what exactly the fear is that love casts out. The apostle John gives us the answer if we look at the context in which “there is no fear in love” is found:
“This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:17-18).
The context makes it immediately clear that John is talking about judgment and how we can have confidence on the Day of Judgment (vs. 17). He tells us that in this regard love casts out fear because if we truly love God and others, we will have nothing to fear in judgment. That this is the only fear John is talking about is made doubly clear when we look at the rest of verse 18 – where John tells us “… perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment …” It is the fear of judgment and resulting punishment that love cancels out.
Now this understanding of the proper context and meaning of 1 John 4:18 does not leave us without encouragement in the area of fear. A simple word search in a Bible concordance or on a Bible website will show that there are a great many verses affirming that believers need not live lives of fear. We may still be afraid of heights, and maybe even of snakes or roaring lions (Psalm 34:4, 56:3), but many of the psalms show that God’s love for us can help cancel out fear of men (Psalm 27:1), disaster (Psalm (1:5-6), or uncertainty (Psalm 23:4) in our lives.
A wonderful scripture to which we can turn in this regard is 2 Timothy 1:7 that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Here, in fact, Paul contrasts an attitude of fear with that of the love that comes from the Spirit of God, a concept that is not so different from the way many people use 1 John 4:18 – but it’s so much better to use a verse that means what we think it means, even when we look at in context.