In 2 Timothy 1:7, the Apostle Paul writes, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Finding great comfort in this promise, I preached a sermon on this verse in my home church on the evening I was installed as a missionary to Italy. Two days later, my wife, son and I arrived in the city of Milan where we began adapting to a new culture, language, and home. At the time, we had no idea how much we would come to cling to this promise. Beyond the ordinary challenges of life and ministry on the foreign mission field, we found ourselves living in the epicenter of Italy’s devastating Covid-19 outbreak. Of more than 180,000 cases and 24,000 deaths in these past two months, the majority have been in the region in which we live. With overflowing hospitals, grieving families, and the constant sound of sirens, the city of Milan has a broken heart. People are living in fear. At such a distressing time as this, how can we minister to others and proclaim hope? Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 1:7 provide us with an answer.
A Spirit Not of Fear
Paul wrote to his colleague Timothy to encourage him. Timothy, the pastor of the church at Ephesus, was living in fear. False teachers were attacking the gospel, people in the church were questioning his authority, and he was discouraged about Paul’s imprisonment and declining reputation. Paul found it urgent to remind this young pastor whom he had mentored that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
It is important to understand the kind of fear of which Paul speaks in this verse, for the Bible talks about fear in different ways. There is a kind of fear that believers are called to pursue, namely, the fear of the Lord. The book of Proverbs tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10) and “a fountain of life” (14:27). Psalm 19 says that “the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever” (v. 9). The whole book of Ecclesiastes is summed by reminding us to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13). The fear of the Lord is one of the central themes in the Scriptures, for it expresses the way in which humans were designed to live in relationship to their Creator, namely, to revere, respect, honor and love him.
One of the very few positive aspects of a pandemic is that it can awaken in us the fear of the Lord. Suddenly, we are confronted with the fact that we are not in control of everything. A microbe that we cannot see is claiming tens of thousands of lives and bringing national economies to their knees.
But the Bible also speaks of a fear that is sinful. When we fear anything more than we fear God, we are guilty of an idolatrous and unholy fear. This is why Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
In one sense, Paul’s words to Timothy are an echo of that which he wrote years earlier in Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Paul wanted Timothy to be assured that the Holy Spirit was producing in him a spirit of power, love, and self-control. Although Timothy faced many difficult challenges in the church at Ephesus, he did not need to live as a slave to his fears, for God had adopted him through the finished work of his Son and set him free. Fear, therefore, no longer defined him as a person. He had received a new identity in Christ.
The same is true of you, Christian. If you are in Christ, you have been set free, free from the power of sin (John 8:34-36; Rom. 6:18, 22-23), free from the condemnation of the law (Rom. 8:1-2; Gal. 5:1), and free from the tyranny of fear (Heb. 2:14-15). This is your new identity because of the gospel.
What are those things in life that make you feel afraid and anxious? Do you dread the uncertainty of the future? Are you terrified of dying or of losing loved ones? Do you fear the collapse of an economy or the removal of freedoms? Are you living as if God were not in control of all things?
Certainly, as Christians, we are called to live prudently, but we must never be governed by fear. Remember your identity in Christ. You are clothed in his righteous, promised the resurrection, and have been given a spirit not of fear. Your fears, regardless of how strong they may feel, do not define you.
A Spirit of Power
The apostle did not offer Timothy empty platitudes about courage and self-sufficiency. Instead, after telling him that God did not give us a spirit of fear, he proceeded to name a triad of graces with which the Holy Spirit has equipped every believer. The first of these is power. Fear is disabling, but power is enabling. God gives believers what they need so that they can fulfill their callings.
We usually feel our weakest when our fears are strongest. But God tells us that our weakness and lack of ability are not fatal to the tasks to which he has called us. They are not even defects or hindrances. In reality, our weakness is essential to our callings, for it is in our weakness that God’s power is made perfect. He makes his power available to us by the Holy Spirit not to make us look self-sufficient to the world, but to display his glory in weak and imperfect people. Whatever your circumstances may be right now, Jesus says to you, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
A Spirit of Love
The Holy Spirit also supplies believers with a spirit of love. Love is a powerful antidote to fear. As John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 1:18). Perfect love is found in Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20). Nothing soothes the troubled heart more than to be reassured that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39).
Paul reminds Timothy that it is through the Spirit that God pours his love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5) and makes it manifest in our lives toward our neighbor (Gal. 5:22; cf. Col. 1:8). The Spirit who supplies us with power also supplies us with love so that we can serve others and not shrink back in fear. Love does not seek its own good, but the good of others, even at the expense of what is dear to us. It aims for the glory of God, not the glory of self. Fear turns us inward, focusing our attention on our own benefit, wellbeing, and reputation. Love, on the other hand, turns us toward our neighbors and their benefit and wellbeing. Fear asks, “What will I lose? How will I be hurt? What if I fail? What’s going to happen to me?” Love on the other hand asks, “How can I give? How can I help? What can I do for others?”
As we navigate the new temporary norms of social distancing and compliance with government restrictions, we should ask ourselves if our behavior is being controlled by love or fear. God has given us a spirit not of fear but of love.
A Spirit of Self-Control
God supplies us with a third quality for overcoming fear. Along with power and love, the Spirit provides believers with self-control. The Greek word that Paul uses for “self-control” conveys the idea of remaining calm in a difficult situation and avoiding reckless behavior by controlling one’s actions and thoughts.
As he wrote to Timothy from a Roman prison, the Apostle Paul demonstrated how this Spirit-wrought self-control operates. He was cold, lonely, and facing execution. His reputation among many had deteriorated. Some had abandoned him. Yet, he labored faithfully for the gospel until the very end. He says in Chapter 4, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:6-7). How could he be so self-controlled in such a dire situation? The answer is that he, like all believers, was equipped by the Spirit of God who supernaturally works in us a spirit of self-control.
The Holy Spirit has been given to us not to remove every form of suffering in this life, but to conform us to the image of Christ (cf. Rom. 8:15-17). He is the of the full inheritance we will receive in glory (Eph. 1:13-14).
Maybe you feel a lot like Timothy. Maybe you feel anxious and afraid. Certainly, there are a great number of things arising during this pandemic that give us cause for concern, things that are not good. But God is good. And he has delivered us from a far greater threat than deadly diseases, economic collapse, and imperfect governments. He has delivered us from the power of sin, death, and hell through the blood and righteousness of his Son. He has supplied us with a living hope that looks beyond the horizons of this present evil age to our true homeland in the new heaven and new earth. And for our journey in this life, he has given us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.
How long will we be dealing with COVID-19? How long will these government restrictions last?