We know the Bible says that perfect love casts out fear. But what is perfect love? And how do we achieve it?
What is perfect love?
Recently, I pondered what it means to have perfect love that casts out fear. As a result, I went on a journey to learn more about what perfect meant and how someone achieves perfect love. I did this because I wanted to appropriate the Scripture—I needed a way to practically apply perfect love in my daily life.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18 KJV
According to Strong’s, the definition of perfect is: integrity, truth, undefiled, upright, safe, sincere, complete, to completion. These definitions surprised me because I always thought being perfect meant being sinless. But this is not what perfect means at all. First John 4 is not saying we should have love with no sin. Essentially, it says we are to have undefiled, upright, safe, sincere love—or, we could say complete love.
For most of my life, I thought that only Christ was perfect. However, I discovered it says we are to be perfect 99 times in the Bible. And I found dozens and dozens of men and women throughout Scripture who were known as having a perfect heart toward God. My conclusion was that if the Bible talks frequently about us being perfect, it must be possible.
Therefore, I began to wonder whether or not it is God’s perfect love that casts out fear or if it is His love perfected through us that casts our fear. The question then became: how do we attain this perfect love in our hearts?
The Criteria for Perfect Love
As a math teacher, I like finding the formula to help me solve a problem. To solve the problem of achieving perfect love, Romans 12 was the first place I went. Verse two says we are to prove God’s perfect will, and the remainder of the chapter shows how to do this. Some examples of how to do this include: not thinking too highly of ourselves, being our unique selves, serving the body with our gifts, being cheerful, being kind to one another, and being patient in tribulation.
1I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. 3 For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. 4 For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: 5 So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. 6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; 7 Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; 8 Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. 9 Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. 10 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; 11 Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; 12 Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; 13 Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality. 14 Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. 15 Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. 16 Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits. 17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. 18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. 21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:1-20 KJV
There is a lot in this chapter. But when we do the things listed, we appropriate the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our love for one another. If we have the heart of God to do these things, He will show us how to do them and help us get to where we need to go. These commandments are the criteria for accomplishing perfection in our lives.
The Process for Perfect Love
So if Romans 12 is the criteria, what is the process? James 1 lays out the process of what it looks like to be perfected in love. Verse two tells us that we will fall into temptation, and when we do, it teaches us what to do with it.
2 My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; 3 Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. 4 But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. James 1:2-4 KJV
None of us like to fall into temptation, but when we do, we are instructed to count it all joy because of what comes from these tribulations. We can rejoice because we know that the trying of our faith produces patience, and after patience comes perfection. This perfect state makes us complete and entire, wanting nothing—which is what we desire. Therefore, when we have temptations in relationships like rejection, fear, bitterness, and accusation, we can appropriate our faith so that it will produce patience and perfection. The process for perfect love will always involve tribulation, and this is a reason to count it all joy.
The Place for Perfect Love
Romans 5 gives us more encouragement about tribulations producing good things like patience, experience, and hope.
1Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: 2 By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; 4 And patience, experience; and experience, hope: 5 And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. Romans 5:1-5 KJV
When we aim to be perfected in love, we will have much experience with difficult situations and relationships. We do not need to be ashamed when we have done what God has told us to do in our relationships with others. But this is not a license to mistreat people. We must have the perfect heart of God toward others that will show through in situations. Our hearts need to speak louder than our mouths; when they do not, we need to repent quickly. Relationships are often the place of tribulation that can produce patience, experience, hope, and perfection.
The Purpose of the Church
Furthermore, it is in relationships that we have the opportunity to practice God’s love constantly. Jesus was our great example of how to do this. It might be messy, but we can learn to be one body if we are willing. Through this type of unity, when one body part hurts, the whole body hurts. The other body parts can work together to help the broken parts and pick up the slack for them for a season until they can heal. We can move on together as a whole body when we fix the uncomely parts.
The Church is meant to be a safe place for people to find the pure love and joy that can be experienced in relationships. We must all be a safe place so that when others make mistakes, we can forgive. And if we mess up, we make it right. We are meant to take the time to address misunderstandings and breaches in relationships so that they do not fester. One of the purposes of the Church is to be a safe place where people can practice growing up into perfect love in relationships.
The Proper Order
Back to my analogy of solving a math problem, there is also a proper order for all of this to work. Colossians 3 gives us the order starting in verse eight. Keep in mind that these are instructions given to believers, not unbelievers. This is written to people who have decided to appropriate what Christ did on the cross for us.
8 But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. 9 Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; 10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: 11 Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. 12 Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; 13 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. 14 And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. Colossians 3:8-16 KJV
First, we have to put off the old ways and then put on the new man. Finally, verse 13 gives us practical instructions for what to do in relationships: forbear one another, forgive one another, put on charity, etc. If we truly practice this, we can have a mindset that puts us in the act of forgiveness before someone has ever done anything to us—we can decide ahead of time that when people mess up, we will forgive them. We already know their character is not to attack us; therefore, when they act foolishly, we can be a safe place for them to make mistakes. And vice versa. Then we do not have to constantly be in fight-or-flight in relationships because others are a safe place and so are we.
Verse 16 goes on to say that we can also teach and admonish one another. In safe relationships, this does not mean thumping and browbeating—telling people how they are wrong and in sin. It is sharing ideas together and working it out. When we dwell together in love, we work it out together in relationships, which God wants us to do. If we choose to do this, we have God’s heart and faith for one another. This is the order of perfection: putting off the old man, putting on the new man, and being a safe place of having perfected hearts of love toward one another.
Perfect Love Through Us
John 17 contains Jesus’ final prayer before His death, so we know it must have been important. In verse 23, Jesus prays for us to be “made perfect in one”. He says this is how the world will know that the Father has sent the Son.
20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: 23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. John 17:20-23 KJV
My interpretation of these verses is that nobody will believe a broken-down Church—that is why He knew we needed to be one. Unity is what makes us different. The Bible also says that they will know we are Christians by our love. The world does not care if we are believers; they care about how we act with our fellow church members and treat people in stores. Love is what differentiates us from the world. This is important because it is through us that they will believe that God sent Jesus. We must be different so that the world may believe through us. Perfect love is what sets up apart.
By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. John 13:35 KJV
If Jesus prayed for us to be perfect in John 17:23, it must be attainable. Being perfect is possible. We must appropriate the love that the Father had in giving His Son to die. There is no greater love than this.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13 KJV
Perfect love does cast out fear; it is God’s love perfected in us so we are a safe place so others do not have to be afraid of mess-ups. We can do this in relationships, especially in the Church. And as we walk in love and unity, the world will know that the Father loved so much that He sent His Son for us.
Bonus! Free Printable Poster “Perfect Love”
Pastor Sarah Harper