Sunday, September 22, 2013

Whom Should I Fear? (Psalm 56:2-4, 10-13)

When we find ourselves in a constantly hurried-up world, we will probably also find ourselves undergoing a lot of stress, and probably some anxiety as well. The irony is that proper amounts of anxiety and stress are necessary for our lives, but when we worry and stress more than we should, we create problems for ourselves, and find that we're living lives outside of God's design and rhythm.

Anxiety roots in fear, and fear is a biological response to an unknown potential danger or to a known danger. When we fear something, like a bump in the night, then our bodies get ready to combat the danger or run away, and the quicker heart rate, heightened alertness and tension we feel is a part of that. If we didn't fear anything, then we would be in trouble. We first learned to look both ways when we crossed the street because we were taught to be a little fearful of oncoming cars. As we grew up, we realized we just needed to be cautious instead of afraid, because our experience trained us to remember to look both ways.

We need a little stress in our lives as well. Stress makes systems work and it motivates us to do things. If I'm in school, knowing that I have a test coming up is a stress-producer. But that's good, because without that deadline, I might not study the subject I'm supposed to be learning. Project deadlines at work also create stress, but that helps us get our part of the task done and not let other people down.

If we over-stress, though, then we actually reduce our ability to work and get things done. An end-of-the-week deadline gets me moving on my task, but someone breathing down my neck every day about what I've done so far not only distracts me, it makes my work poorer.

A life in balance has fear, and it has stress. But it doesn't have too much of them, or have them in the wrong contexts. God designed us with a fear-response to protect ourselves and a stress response to motivate us, but when either of those things runs out of control, we start living lives outside of that design. Of course, there are diagnosed illnesses and mental health conditions that feature constant anxiety or constant stress. If that's you, then professional help of some kind, whether from a counselor or medication, is the best way to try to restore your balance. But many people struggle with stress and anxiety without a medical or mental health problem. What does God say to us?

At first glance, it seems like God's response is not all that reassuring. God, speaking through the prophets or sometimes directly, frequently addresses fear: He says, "Do not be afraid."

Well, that's helpful -- maybe. Any ideas, Lord, on just why I shouldn't be afraid? I mean, there's some stuff going on in the world that makes me a little nervous. Sure, some if it's fed by news channels that make everything sound like doomsday in order to get me to pay attention, and sure some of it's probably never going to happen, but have you got some tips on that not fearing thing?

God's response: I will be with you. It may not sound like much still, but it's the same response Moses got when he wondered about going to see Pharaoh, it's the same response the prophets got when they wondered why they got picked to be God's mouthpieces, and it's the same trust Jesus had and imparted to his followers, and it's the same reality in which Paul rejoiced while he was in prison.

It's what our parents told us when we faced our imagined fears of monsters under the bed or in the closet -- fears that may have been real to us but which they, in their greater experience and wisdom, knew to be unfounded.

And that may be a way of seeing these fears and stressors we face -- as things that seem big to us but which are known by God to be much less bothersome than we believe. Yes, our fears are real, not imaginary like the monsters in the closet, but God reminds us that they can't do the worst thing imaginable, which is to separate us from him. In Jesus, he reminds us that even death itself can't divide us from him. 

Do we believe God is God, and overcomes everything that would keep us away from him, even our own selfishness, pride and sin? If that's what we believe, then that's what we can lean on when we face fears, anxieties and stress. We may have to remind ourselves of that reality, and we may have to do it often. I do. But if it's the reality by which we operate, then we can say, along with the psalmist, "The Lord is my light and salvation -- whom shall I fear?"

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