Encouragement from the Word

May 28, 2020

                My encouragement from the Word for this week is from 2 Timothy 1:7, a very popular verse these days: “For the Lord has not given us a Spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.”

                I’ve seen this verse often used in posts on social media and heard it quoted by Christians in various contexts as a way to encourage one another to not live in fear in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and I wholeheartedly agree. We need not give in to fear or anxiety, knowing that the Lord cares for us and that both our present and our future are secure in His loving hands. Through the Holy Spirit that dwells in us, we can face this challenge with faith, confidence and courage. So let me add my voice to the many who have offered encouragement through this good Word from Paul to his protégé, Timothy.

                But I also want to encourage us in another way when it comes to this verse. Frankly, I’ve been concerned to hear and read 2 Timothy 1:7 being used as a way of shaming fellow believers who take a more cautious approach to the pandemic and issues surrounding it.

                I have a deep concern that the polarization of American society is increasingly manifesting itself in the church, and lately I’ve been expressing my concern as a pastor that the polarization of our politics and the politicization of the pandemic have the growing potential to undermine Christian unity – both as it applies to the American Church as a whole, and to every local church specifically. Of course, I realize that there are already plenty of challenges to the unity of the Body of Christ, but historically these have been doctrinal or theological in nature, and even then we’ve been able to maintain a basic level of unity by recognizing that what unites us is more important than what divides us.

                But these days I see troubling signs that we (Christians) are in danger of putting our politics, including our thoughts & beliefs about the pandemic, ahead of our commitment to the essential unity of the Christian community. I’m concerned that our commitment to “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”, and to loving one another above all else, is being frayed by the culture wars, which have now infiltrated the way we think and talk about the pandemic and the issues surrounding it.

                My concern about the use of 2 Timothy 1:7 is, as I wrote above, that I have seen it used by some Christians to shame others who express a more cautious approach with regard to the virus and its surrounding issues, including the current debates about reopening. I’ve heard conversations and read social media posts in which Christians use this verse (usually out of context) to accuse fellow Christians of “living in fear” because the accused take a more cautious point of view when it comes to the virus and its issues (I’m aware that shaming is a two-way street, and “All have fallen short of God’s glory” in this regard, but that’s a topic for another time).

                There are a couple of problems with using 2 Timothy 1:7 this way. First, it disregards the verse’s context. In context, Paul is talking about being timid or fearful with regard to Timothy using his “gift” (we don’t know exactly what the gift is) for ministry. While it might still be applied to fear in a general sense, that’s not what the Apostle is talking about, and the Greek word he uses is better translated “timidity” than “fear”.

                The second problem is that the first part of the verse (“We have not been given a spirit of fear…”) is so often quoted without the second part (“…but of power, love, and a sound mind.”) In other words, while Paul says the Spirit we’ve been given isn’t one of fearfulness or timidity, it IS one of power, love, and soundness of mind. In context, the “power” Paul mentions is the ability to fulfill a calling or to do what’s right; “love” is pretty self-explanatory; and the words translated “sound mind” can mean either “self-control” or “sound judgment” or “prudence”. Taken all together then, Paul encourages Timothy not to shrink back from his calling, but to use his ministry gifts confidently, tempered by love and good judgment.  

                Most of the Christians I know who advocate a more cautious approach to the pandemic and reopening aren’t motivated by fear, but by love for others and what they consider to be sound judgment. I think there’s room for genuine disagreement about all of this, and that those who take a less cautious approach have legitimate arguments to make, but I would like to encourage the less cautious among us to consider that rather than being motivated by fear, the more cautious among us may instead be motivated by love and sound judgment, at least as they see it. In other words, where one person might see fear, another person might see love and common sense.

                It’s not my goal here to scold anyone – only to challenge and encourage all of us to do two things: (1) to be sure that when we quote Scripture, we do it accurately and constructively, and (2) that we prioritize and preserve the unity of Jesus’s Church, both nationally and locally. What unites us is greater and more important than what divides us. So, at the risk of repeating myself by quoting it for a third time this week, let’s take Ephesians 4:2-6 to heart: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”         

Pastor Scott