(This post is part of a series. For an introduction to the topic read, “How ought we read the Bible?” To see all posts in this topic, go to “Does the Bible really say that?”) The verse as we often hear it:
“For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” ((1 Timothy 1:7, KJ2000))
But what does it mean?
I’ve heard people use the phrase “spirit of fear” on numerous occasions and in all sorts of contexts. Based on this wording, I’ve also heard it altered as desired resulting in phrases like “spirit of unforgiveness”, “spirit of anger”, “spirit of drinking”, and hundreds of other iterations. I’d like to look at whether there is justification for this usage. To do so, we’ll start with the 2 Timothy example. If Paul didn’t use it the way many think he did, that undermines the idea that we can expand on that for our own purposes.
What is a spirit?
Well, that's an interesting question. Depending upon whom you ask, you are likely to get a variety of answers. A spirit is an alcoholic drink, but I don't think that was Paul's concern. Lots of schools have spirit too, but that doesn't seem to fit either. It can also refer to an attitude or disposition as in, "Susie had a very cheerful spirit." Spirit can also mean the immaterial part of a human, or the whole of a supernatural being - both of these are common uses in the Bible. These are not the only possible meanings of 'spirit', but they are enough to illustrate that it is a word that can mean a lot of things. Just like the Polynesian word 'aloha', it is the context that determines the meaning - not the whim of the reader. Many take this passage to be talking about unembodied supernatural forces, but it that the meaning Paul had in mind? With a bit of analysis we can get to the bottom of this.
"Spirit of Fear"
Of all the contenders, I think the only two that make even a little sense would be 'a supernatural being', or 'a particular attitude'. I think the context makes clear which it intends. Let's try them out on the verse to see if one stands out:
"For God has not given us the [supernatural being] of fear; but [the immaterial being] of power, and [the unembodied person] of love, and [heavenly divine being] of a sound mind."
"For God has not given us the [disposition] of fear; but [the characteristic] of power, and [the attitude] of love, and [the personal temperament] of a sound mind."
In each option, by substituting synonyms for one or the other sense of the word 'spirit', we have rewritten Paul's statement two ways. Option A is not only clunky, but it's nonsensical. If there is a demon nicknamed "The Spirit of Fear", is there also one called "The Spirit of a Sound Mind"? That doesn't sound likely. But if we read it with respect to motivations or characteristics or disposition, the same sense of the word maintains clarity throughout the verse. Just on the simple reading with our own paraphrase, Option B seems much more likely to be correct.
In this case, the NIV is helpful: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” ((1 Timothy 1:7, NIV))
This seems perfectly in line with our Option B.
Since Paul made numerous references to the Spirit, and authored the more prominent statements about the gifts of the Spirit, we can look at these other writings to help us understand his letter to Timothy. It might be helpful to think of the gifts of the Spirit as "attributes of the Holy Spirit" or "characteristics of the Holy Spirit". The gifts are aspects of God's nature that he shares with us and bestows upon us. Paul talked about receiving the Spirit, and what that would mean in the life of the believer. He talks about the variety of gifts, services, and activities that God empowers. He says these are ways that the Holy Spirit expresses himself through us. When we talk about the "spirit of fear" or the "spirit of love", these are not numerous immaterial beings that take control of us. These are simply figures of speech that describe how God changes us. Since God is good, all of the ways God changes us are good. He will not impart any characteristic that contradicts his nature. So, could he convey to us the spirit of fear, or hate, or malice, or lust? Of course not!
What about context? That's always key in determining meaning. If we expand our reading to include verse 6, we get some helpful info. It makes reference to receiving Christ and the spirit we receive at salvation. This reinforces the idea that the passage is building on the point that the gifts of the spirit do not include things like fear.
Putting this together, Paul is encouraging his understudy with this sort of message:
"Remember when I was with you? Remember the gifts of God that were plainly evident and at work within you after I laid hands on you in prayer? Don't forget them! Blow on those coals! Fan them into the flame they once were! You have no reason to be afraid. God's gifts did not include timidity or cowardice! God's gifts are good things like power, and love, and self-control."
Does God give us a "spirit of fear"? Of course not. We're talking about God's character here. God is not able to impart any bad characteristics. Today can be the day you stop being afraid of "The Spirit of Fear". He just doesn't exist. But if you believe he does, it seems that you may be the one giving fear undue control over your life. Something to think about.