My best Kobe Bryant memory was in the 2013 season, when I had the opportunity to see him play live in Charlotte, North Carolina against the Bobcats (now the Hornets). I’ve watched a lot of basketball on television in my life, but I can say with certainty that basketball players aren’t fully appreciated until they’re seen in person. Several times that evening, I remember my friend Eric and I looking at each other and shaking our heads at the things Kobe was doing on the court. Whether you saw him in person or on television, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was the unique collision of God-given talent meeting “practice makes perfect.”
Less than seven years later, not only is Kobe Bryant retired from basketball, but he’s no longer with us as at all, dying tragically on January 26, 2020 in a helicopter accident. Granted, people die daily, people we’re more personally involved with than Kobe, but this seems to sting a little more because Kobe was just so larger-than-life with his 5 championships, 33,643 points scored, and his impossible-to-shake self-confidence. Perhaps we wouldn’t consciously say it, but did many of us view Kobe Bryant as beyond this type of unexpected passing?
In the aftermath, people are understandably trying to find a silver-lining or a positive message from such a tragedy. After all, if one of the greatest athletes ever can die so suddenly, we certainly can, too; so we try to ease the fear with a take-home message. Without a doubt, most have arrived at the message of “Hold your loved ones dear for any of us could go today or tomorrow.” Loving our family and friends is certainly a good message we all need, but should we do so because we’re afraid of losing them? Do we want to live our lives under that banner of fear? Is there a greater message Kobe’s story has for us? Even more, is there a greater message God has for us?
Just as what we love in this life dictates much of what we do, what we fear determines quite a bit, also. The Bible has a lot to say about where to direct our fear; Jesus, the Son of God, told his disciples, “And do not fear those who will kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) Stop for a second and consider, regardless your faith, Christian or not, what would it mean for me, you, and all of us if we didn’t fear the helicopter crashes, car accidents, or old age of this life, but we only feared an eternal, heavenly God? Bear in mind, Jesus isn’t talking about some angry, crossed-arm God that expects perfection; Jesus is referring to his Father, the One who knows we’re not perfect but offered up His only Son so that imperfect sinners would have a way into heaven. (John 3:16)
If God was our only fear, we’d care about this life less, but serve people more.
Jesus told his disciples the order of things in God’s kingdom is very different, saying, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and who ever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45) Only if you fear God and know there are thousands upon thousands of years to live beyond this life will you be able to loosen your grip on the material goods and accomplishments of this life and embrace serving others. If you see this life on earth as all there is, whether you live 70, 80, or just 41 years like Kobe, you will naturally be less charitable than someone who knows they’ll live for eternity. A healthy fear of God helps you pour this life out for others, not keep as much as you can.
If God was our only fear, we’d love one another better.
When we fear God enough to believe and trust in the work He did through Jesus Christ on the cross, we have eternal life, just as John 3:16 indicates. If we operate from this eternal perspective, that our friends and family are all potential brothers and sisters in Christ for millions of years, we’ll treat one another much better, won’t we? If your family member wrongs you, and you don’t do everything in your power to repair the relationship, the ramifications are now eternal, not just for a few more decades. In light of eternity, we love deeper, loving the soul of a brother or sister more than we even love their physical body. In 2 Corinthians 5:16, the Apostle Paul describes this as “…we regard no one according to the flesh.”
With someone as talented and brilliant as Kobe Bryant, it’s hard not to regard him according to the flesh, but we must. The most important thing about Kobe wasn’t his basketball records, which were already fading away, but his eternal, lasting soul. When we only fear what can harm us or kill us in this life, we get short-sighted and miss out on this great, transcending love we can have for people’s souls.
If God was our only fear, we’d love without prejudice.
When we’re afraid of this world, we fear going into stores, schools, and churches where people look or believe differently than we do. Dr. King obviously knew this as he said 11 A.M. Sunday was the most segregated hour in Christian America. Worldly fear directs our love to only the comfortable people and places, but where does God-based fear direct our love?
Fearing God means embracing His heavenly order right here, right now on this earth. In the model prayer, Jesus asked his Father, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”(Matthew 6:10) Scripture tells us that in Christ, God’s way is this: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) United in His Son, we’re all one and there’s no need to fear anyone because they look, talk, or go to a different church; we have an open invitation from God to love them just as intensely as we love our closest friend or family member. The fear of God unites whites and blacks, urban and suburban, different church denominations – even those who believe Kobe is the greatest are united to those who believe that title still belongs to Michael Jordan. This is God’s way.
How does fear of God differ from fear of this life?
Are we to fear God the same way we fear dying tragically in this life? The answer, of course, is no. In Romans 8:31-32, Paul challenges us with the question, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Would you fear your very strong, very resourceful earthly father who’d given you everything? You’d fear him, but definitely not be afraid of him – there’s a difference. It’s a bit like playing on Kobe’s team vs. competing against Kobe. If you were on Kobe’s team, watching him score 81 points in a single game back in 2006, you’d fear his awesome ability, but you wouldn’t be afraid, for every time he scored, so did your team. No, only the opposing team would be afraid of Kobe.
Coming to terms that no one is above dying at any point in life is a hard reality to grasp, and if we’re not careful, that reality can lead us into being afraid of our time on this earth. We can become so afraid that we don’t fully engage in this world because, yes, we will eventually lose everyone we love – and it hurts. I ask you, in the wake of this painful end to Kobe Bryant’s life, to look beyond all the frightful possibilities of this world and to a God that doesn’t ignore our fear. No, He walked among us as a flesh and blood man, Jesus Christ, and took everything we have to fear and swallowed up death forever on the cross as Isaiah 25:8 declares.
I’ll admit, I’m fearful after watching such a superior, full-of-life athlete die so suddenly. Do I need to love more and be loved more? Yes, definitely, but not just with our fragile human love. I need God’s love, which is found in the person of Jesus, the loves that drives out all fear (1 John 4:18) and says to my fearful soul, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)