“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
(1 John 4:18)
While having a philosophical conversation with a dear friend, a question arose: What is the opposite of love? Good Millennials, we asked the saint who knows the most: St. Google. According to Google and the Oxford Language Dictionary, the opposite of love is hate. But while this might seem like the right answer at first, a deeper look results in a different conclusion: The opposite of love is fear.
When I was a little kid, my mom used to ask me, “Who loves you?” The expected answer was, “My mom, my dad, God, and the whole world.” I can still hear my high-pitched childish voice answering this question in my head. Whenever I remember this, it makes my heart warm and my eyes watery. I feel grateful.
My family life was not perfect, yet I had an unshakeable feeling of being loved by God no matter what—until I came out of the closet, that is.
Shortly after coming out, I met a very colorful spiritualist who told me a dark energy was making me gay. This, paired with claims in Catholic spaces of “demons” causing gayness, caused me to go back into the closet faster than I could count to 1. It took me 10 years to snap out of that fear, discern my vocation, and learn to love myself as God made me. I’m now on the other, happier end.
In his book How to Be an Adult: A Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration (Paulist Press), psychotherapist, teacher, and retreat leader David Richo dedicates an entire chapter to fear. He makes a distinction between fear, appropriate fear, and neurotic fear. Fear, at its most basic, is the feeling that arises in response to perceived danger. Appropriate fear is when that feeling leads to a fight or flight response, which we use to face the perceived danger but which is then followed by repose. For example, a fear of water that vanishes when one learns to swim. Neurotic fear, on the other hand, is a feeling that arises in response to a perceived danger and causes a stress response, but the perceived threat is never faced or processed.
Richo states that this latter form of fear is the opposite of love because “it is conditional, it keeps us out of the water, it excludes.” Fear is at the bottom of everything: Every problem we have is because of a fear we are having trouble integrating. Fear of perceived dangers is also the root of hate, whether self-hate or hatred of others.
Jesus came to show us that God is more expansive than our magnificent, yet limited, minds can ever comprehend. God is not a God of punishment: God is a God of love.
Fearing God is not about neurotic fear; it is about feeling a sense of awe, an absolute submission to God, an absolute submission to love. Love is the force that moves us to face perceived “dangers,” to befriend them, and to integrate them into our lives. Love should move us to face our own wounds—or whatever we perceive as imperfect in ourselves—to process them and to integrate them into our psyches and our spiritual lives. When we are too afraid to face ourselves, we also become afraid of the “wound” of another.
This integrative approach is helpful in processing our own internal fears and facing everyday obstacles. This approach is also helpful as we face subjective fears such as irrational dread of people in marginalized groups. Love can help us challenge our rationalizations of that fear, moving us to friendship and to encounter, helping us integrate those in the margins into our lives and into our church.
For more of The Examined Life:
- For my toddler, berry picking was a vehicle for God’s grace
- My favorite sacrament stories, 47 years into the priesthood
- Religious ‘nones’ challenge Catholics to authenticity
This article also appears in the October 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 10, pages 10-13). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pexels/Marta Branco