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Not a Spirit of Fear, but a Spirit of Power and Love and Self-Control

 

2 Timothy 1:7

It began as a youth movement. To be sure, older people possess greater wisdom, sounder judgement, broader perspective. Our Lord knew this. Nevertheless he began with younger people. When he stepped forth on his public ministry he was in his late 20s. The twelve whom he called to him were likely no older. Paul took Mark on Paul’s first missionary journey when Mark was estimated to be 19. You know what happened: Mark behaved like a 19 year old. He couldn’t withstand the hardship of the venture, left Paul and returned home. When Paul and Barnabas were about to set off on another missionary journey Paul said, “We can’t take Mark with us; we simply can’t afford to have him let us down again”. Barnabas disagreed. “He was only 19; give him another chance”. Paul and Barnabas parted over Mark; they parted amicably, without grudge or resentment, but they parted. Barnabas, however, was vindicated, since Mark proved himself on the second venture.

Why the emphasis on youth? Is it not because along with the broader perspective and greater stability of middle age there is also boredom, apathy, and more than a little cynicism? Several older clergymen have said to me with that bone-deep weariness born of disillusionment, “Shepherd, wait until you have been in this game as long as I have”.

There is another reason for our Lord’s beginning with younger people: what we have to contend with in our youth we are going to have contend with for the remainder of our lives. I am always amused when an older adult pretends that his adolescence has been put behind him forever. Years ago (1970), in my final year of theology, I studied under Dr. James Wilkes, a psychiatrist from whom I learned an immense amount. He mentioned one day that emotionally our adolescence lurks just below the surface of our adult psyche. The coping mechanisms, for instance, that we developed as adolescents are the coping mechanisms we shall have for a long time. Similarly, what we had to contend with “back” when we were adolescents we shall have to contend with throughout life. Jesus began with younger people inasmuch as what they learned from him at that time they would need and would have for the rest of their lives. A sermon, then, that has to do with younger people cannot fail to speak to older people as well.

[1] Paul writes to Timothy, who is only 19 or 20 himself, and says, “Remember! God did not give us a spirit of timidity, a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and love and self-control”. Plainly the older apostle knows that young Timothy is afraid.

Are we afraid? (Does the sun rise in the east?) There are days when our fears are so slight as to be scarcely noticeable, and other days when they muscle everything else out of our minds. Some of our fears we readily understand. The company we work for has merged with a larger company and not all management and executive personnel are going to be retained. Our child seems unwell and we have just enough medical knowledge as not to be put off by our friends’ reassurances that there is nothing wrong. We are afraid that the psychological booby-trap which we have known of for years and which we have disguised, stepped around or hidden; that situation where we do not cope and where we appear so helpless, weak and silly – we fear it’s going to become publicly evident and we shall be humiliated. We are afraid that since we are not married yet we are never going to be married. (I also meet people who are afraid that since they are married now they are never going to get unmarried.) And then there is a different kind of fear, unattached to any specific object or occurrence. “Existential anxiety” is the term mental health experts use. Existential anxiety is that niggling, lapping, semi-conscious awareness of our fragility, our frailty, our ultimate powerlessness in the face of life’s accidentality and our own mortality.

The preacher keeps reminding us that “Fear not” is the most frequent command on the lips of Jesus. His telling us to fear not, we feel nonetheless, has as much effect on us as our going down to Lake Ontario and telling the waves to stop rolling in.

I shall never make light of that fear which is part of the human condition. It is as undeniable as toothache. Then what do I do with respect to my own fears? On those days when my fears seem nearly overwhelming I look to two treasure-stores: the promises of God and my Christian friends. The promises of God are glorious. The simplest promise comes from the book of Joshua: “I will not fail you or forsake you”. The psalms are a goldmine: “This I know, that God is for me… what can man do to me?” John tells us that even if our hearts condemn us, the God of unfathomable mercy is greater than our hearts. And then there are those promises from the heart and pen of Paul: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s”; “If God is for us, who is against us?”; “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose”. And of course there is the climax of all of scripture, as far as I am concerned, Romans 8:38: “Neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

When Paul tells Timothy that we have not been given a spirit of fear he doesn’t mean that we are never afraid. Paul himself was often afraid; he speaks unashamedly of his own fear. Our Lord was fearful on occasion. To tell people they should never fear is to send them in pursuit of the unrealistic and the ridiculous; it’s also to plunge them into false guilt.

To have a “spirit of fear” is something different; it’s to be so fear-saturated as to be deflected from our obedience to God. But a spirit of fear is precisely what we haven’t been given; therefore we mustn’t yield to it. We must fling ourselves upon the promises of God.

Yet I must admit that there have been occasions in my life when even the promises of God seemed to evaporate on me; occasions when fear fell on me like a building collapsing or seeped into me like poison gas. On these occasions the promises seemed ineffective, however true, unable to stem the dread whose waves came upon me like nausea. On these occasions I have leaned my full weight on Christian friends, for they embody for us, incarnate for us, the truth of the promises in those moments when we are floundering and the promises seem to support us only as embodied in our friends.

[2] If God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, then what has he given us? Paul reminds Timothy once again: a spirit of power and love and self-control.

(a) The one question which younger people always have concerning the gospel is also the simplest question. Their one question isn’t, “Is it true?”, because younger people suspect it might be true but also be trite; true but also pointless; true but too abstract, too remote to be of any earthly use. Their one question concerning the gospel is, “Does it work?” “Does it work?” means “Is it effective?” Whether it is effective depends entirely on what end it is supposed to effect. The question, “Is a hammer effective?” depends on the end you have in mind. If your purpose is to drive nails the answer is plainly “yes”. If you wish to crochet lace doilies the answer is plainly “no”. If you want to repair the nozzle of your garden hose the answer is “maybe”. “Does the gospel work?” — the answer here depends on what it is we are looking to see happen. The textbook-correct answer is that the gospel works, is effective, inasmuch as it is the purpose of the gospel to reconcile us to God and render us transparent before him; since the gospel does this (alone does this) therefore the gospel works and should be embraced by every last person, older and younger alike. But the answer is too slick and too abstract by half. What reconciliation to God and transparency to him means is something we older people must exemplify ourselves if what we say about it is to have any weight. For a long time I have felt that Maureen and I should are an advertisement of the gospel for our grandchildren. In other words, younger people (who are much less readily deceived than older people) are going to conclude that the gospel works only if they have seen something of its work in us.

One feature of younger people that always appeals to me is their forthrightness. If you ask them about last night’s rock concert they will reply without hesitation, “It was a drag” or “It was out of sight”. Older people are adept at verbal smokescreens; younger people don’t bother with word-camouflages, for they are suspicious that much talk is a cover-up covering up an embarrassing lack of substance. There was an embarrassing lack of substance in the Christian community of Corinth . The church-members there yammered a lot, lined up behind different hero-figures in the congregation, fancied themselves worldly-wise and talked up their pseudo-wisdom; they rationalized the inexcusable even as they told each other how truthful they were. Finally Paul had had enough. He let them know that their pretension to wisdom was nothing more than arrogance. He let them know that he would visit the congregation soon and deal with these motor-mouths himself. His conviction about the nature of the gospel and his resolve to hold the congregation to the gospel are evident in his concluding line: “I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power”.

Not a spirit of fear has God given us but a spirit of power.

(b) And also a spirit of love. Everyone has her own understanding of love; but it’s the gospel’s understanding that matters for us. And the gospel makes plain that God’s love is a self-giving which pours itself self-forgetfully upon anyone at all without concern for consequence or cost.

Young people have no difficulty understanding this: self-forgetful self-giving without concern for consequence or cost. It’s all so very lofty, even adventurous, that it appears as attractive as it seems true.

But younger people do not remain younger. As older age settles upon them little by little the cost seems prohibitively high. At the same time the consequence (the result) seems woefully meagre, given the high cost. (The entire scheme plainly isn’t “cost-effective”, as the economists say.) What happens next? Self-giving is shrivelled to thing-giving; self-forgetfulness is shrivelled to calculation; the cost of love is simply deemed too high and the consequences too scanty. Next step, the last step: we settle down into that token-generosity whose tokenism the world accepts because tokenism is all the world expects of anyone with respect to anything. How is such world-weary disillusionment to be avoided?

There are two ways of avoiding such disillusionment. One is by returning constantly to our text: God has given us a spirit of love; not a notion of love, but a spirit of love. Plainly there is an allusion to the Holy Spirit, that power in which God himself acts upon his people. Then God himself must — and will — keep our hearts from shrivelling up into that tokenism that is widely regarded as good enough.

The second way of avoiding the world-weary disillusionment that reduces love to a mere artificiality which is socially acceptable; the second way is to keep people dear to us. Writing to the people in Thessalonica Paul says, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very selves (this is what love is finally, sharing our very selves) so dear had you become to us.” The longer I live the dearer people become to me. When I was a younger minister I was so taken up with getting the job-functions done — writing the sermon, chairing the meeting, conducting the funeral — that my focus was on the function, with people more or less on the periphery. In my older age the function seems to perform itself, and people have become the focus. One reason that I have relished being a pastor is that people — all kinds and qualities — have become dearer to me with every passing year. As they do I find today’s text confirming itself to me with greater force: God has given us a spirit of love, and this gift will keep our love from shrivelling up to a pasted-on smile plus a “townie.”

(c) We have also been given a spirit of self-control. Self-control appears to be the opposite of other-control. Either we control ourselves or others control us; other people, other ideologies, other things. When this happens – i.e., when we are other-controlled – we are little more than an empty tin can kicked around endlessly: empty to start with and soon shapeless as well. This is not good. What is the alternative? A minute ago I said that self-control appears to be the opposite of other-control; “appears” because there is one glorious instance where self-control and other-control are one and the same. When Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 he is listing the qualities of life which Jesus Christ effects in his people by his Spirit. Included in the list is self-control. Christ-control is self-control. You see, to be Christ-controlled is to know whose we are: we are his and his only! And to know whose we are (when we are Christ’s) is to know who we are: we are our “self”. Since Jesus Christ renders me who I am, to be Christ-controlled will always be to be self-controlled.

For whether we are younger or older, whether we are newcomers to the faith or oldtimers in the household and family of God, we were never given a spirit of fear; we have all been given a spirit of power, of love, and of self-control.

Victor Shepherd
May 2007