Entering the Third Dimension

If you’re a parent, you might be familiar with the phenomenon of waking up in the night in total panic about something regarding your kid’s health or education or future or whatever. That’s me tonight. I’ve spent the last two hours talking myself down.

In the process of doing this, I realized that I have always viewed most of the people in the four gospels as two-dimensional — as supporting actors in a story, or as extras who get one line in the beginning of the show so you can care about them when the plot kills them off 10 minutes later. But indeed they were not so superficial.

All the parents who asked Jesus to heal their children were just like me, except they had it much worse. Their kids were dying or chronically tortured by illnesses. By the time they met Jesus, they were hopeless. Remember the guy who said, “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief”? He didn’t just say that like he was ordering a double cheeseburger. He said it with anguish.

23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”

24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” – Mark 9

When this father cried out tearfully, it was visceral. These weren’t the small tears you can blink back as they squeeze out of your eyelids. They were the kind that pour out uncontrollably in huge sloppy drops. The kind that come when you worry about something for a long time, but you continually stuff it down in your gut, until something forces you to deal with it. The kind that come when you realize a problem is truly out of your control, and you don’t know how to proceed. The kind that come when you finally meet someone who can help you, and you see hope is possible for the first time.

This guy was desperate. He loved his son with his entire being. He couldn’t bear the thought of missing an opportunity to help his son. This father thought the only problem — at least the only problem he cared about — was his son’s condition. Jesus saw there was more to the story. Jesus frequently provoked people to acknowledge the real issues driving their beliefs and behaviors. He not only saw that the boy needed healing — He also saw that the father needed restoration of hope. Jesus considered spiritual and emotional healing every bit as essential as physical healing.

Right now, I’m realizing that prayer and Bible reading are essential to my spirit. I’m also realizing that I have anxiety issues that are not intermittent, as I’ve always thought they were, but chronic. I’ve simply become less effective at stuffing them down. I believe Jesus when He described the Holy Spirit as our Comforter and Counselor. I also believe I have specific problems that need to be dealt with by working with a counselor. And that’s OK, because like Paul said,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  – 2 Corinthians 1

Many times, God does this work in us by means of other people. As Christians, we seem to be OK with giving that help. We need to be just as OK with receiving it. Considering our human need for community and relationship, I think it’s supposed to be that way.

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Dealing With Anxiety

We recently tried to have a four-day weekend in the woods, but I didn’t decompress until the last day we were at our campsite. I realized that I use busy-ness to keep my brain occupied, thereby warding off anxiety. My brain was so hyperactive that I didn’t even sleep the 2nd night we were there. I tried to ignore it, but couldn’t. From Ebola to my future job prospects and everything in between, my brain was in overdrive with no brakes and no downshifting.

I managed to talk and pray myself back into normalcy (or close it) with the following thoughts.

Ignorance is bliss, but if you can’t stay ignorant, knowledge is power. When I know just a little information about something troublesome, that’s when I’m most subject to an out-of-control, anxiety-driven imagination. Since we can’t return to ignorance once we know something, the only way to go is forward. Arm yourself with knowledge. Learn what you can about the issue plaguing you, and two things should happen: 1) you’ll eventually get sick of reading about it and move on to something else, and 2) you’ll be better positioned to place news and social media updates in perspective. If you can, talk to someone with a lot of experience in that field – they’re usually great at providing perspective.

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” I think He was speaking of Himself, primarily – He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – but I also think He was saying that generally, knowing the truth protects us from succumbing to lies.

Control is an illusion. I think we suffer more anxiety when we believe we can control “life.” But life is like driving: I have a lot of control over how I drive, but zero control over anyone else’s driving. I’m subject to whatever other people do, just by being present in the world. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Because the world is a difficult place. Bad things happen to bad people, too.

There is no Tree of Life. It disappears in Genesis 3 and doesn’t reappear until Revelation 22, the last chapter of the Bible. Whether you take Genesis and Revelation literally, metaphorically, or somewhere in between, the point is that we won’t have access to life in every sense of the word until the restoration of all things, until God’s kingdom finishes coming to us on earth.

Jesus brought us God’s kingdom during His 33 years on earth, and with His presence came healing, and we still long for that today. Do I believe miraculous healings happen? Yes, but rarely. Why? I don’t know. But I come back to this scripture from Job:

25 But as for me I know that my Redeemer liveth, And at last he will stand up upon the earth: 26 And after my skin, even this body , is destroyed, Then without my flesh shall I see God… (Job 19)

and this:

16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us[c] from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3)

I love their defiant attitude in the face of a terrifying situation. I want to be this way in the face of fear, saying “Even if God doesn’t save me from this particular situation, I still won’t bow down to you.

Be the bird, be the grass.

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life[b]? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. (Luke 12)

I’ve heard and read that verse countless times, but it didn’t make sense to me until this weekend, as I was standing on a riverbank catching no fish. It dawned on me that everything in nature is operating on instinct, living in the present. The birds and grass don’t worry because they weren’t created to worry. It isn’t in their programming. As animals, we were created, like the rest of creation, to respond to present threats with fight or flight, receiving adrenaline appropriately. But when we’re in that state constantly, suffering from anxiety, the prolonged presence of adrenaline damages our bodies. We weren’t made for it.

Even more, though, creation doesn’t operate in the future. It lives in the present. If you’re a squirrel, gathering nuts is preparation for the future, yes – but something particular about one particular day prompted the squirrel to start gathering. Before that, it wasn’t on his radar. And that’s what Jesus is telling us: live in the present. See today for what today is, and do and be whatever you’re supposed to do and be today, with whatever you’re given to do it. To be blunt, the future doesn’t exist in the minds of animals, and it technically, it doesn’t for us either.

Prepare, if it seems appropriate and fitting. If you’re worried about a power outage leaving you with no water, heat, or food for a week, get some kits and supplies to store. Do it, and move on with life. In the same passage I quoted above about worry, Jesus goes right on to talk about preparation:

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, 36 like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. (Luke 12)

Jesus was talking about spiritual preparation, which is always what He was most concerned with (vs. the state of the physical body). But I think the principle – to be prepared – applies generally as well. Being reasonably prepared helps calm the mind.

Final thoughts…

The first 3 chapters of Genesis intrigue me. In what looks like just another ancient creation account are packed so many insights that cut to the heart of the human condition. I look at Eve taking the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and after eating, she hides because she was afraid. Rightfully so? Sure. Why? Two reasons: 1) She suddenly recognized that things were now out of her control, and experienced anxiety (fear of future possibilities) because of it. 2) She felt separated from God, hiding from Him, and as Sarah Young says in Jesus Calling, “Anxiety is a result of envisioning the future without [God].”

I’m glad to live on the A.D. side of things, where Jesus says this:

33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16)

and Paul says this:

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1)

Jesus died so I could have that peace. He suffered the worst the world could offer Him, and He suffered separation from His family, friends, and God, questioning God with “Why??” Read the account of Him sweating blood in Gethsemane – He knows what it is to fear the future. He also knows what it is to overcome.

Like any other addict, I’ll struggle with this the rest of my life, I think. I’ll probably come back to this very page in the future to reset myself. I hope you’ll feel welcome to leave your own comments about what helps you cope with anxiety.