Friday, May 16, 2008

Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled

Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled . . .
Easier said than done?

(I'm not sure why this has been on my mind this past week, but one of the advantages (?) of a blog is that it gives it somewhere to go)

What is so ironic about these words of Jesus from John 14, those like them in the Sermon on the Mount, and the similar refrain that is echoed in the writings of those who followed Him,

"Do not be anxious about anything . . ." (Philippians 4) . . . "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2), etc.,

is that while we believe them to be true, we often find it difficult to live as though they were. As odd as it sounds, it would seem that a troubled heart is sometimes a difficult thing to relinquish. For all the discomfort it generates, anxiety sort of works for us . . . or at least we sometimes think it does . . . and at times, we have a hard time letting it go.

Maybe one of the reasons we like to hang on to it, is that it is such an effective motivator. When we are worried that we may not have enough, anxiety can drive us to seek ways to acquire more or protect what we have. When we feel insecure, or sense that our performance is not being evaluated favorably, anxiety pushes us to work harder, to produce more, to appease the gods. An administrator once told me that they discovered if they could keep those who work for them just a little off balance, the low grade anxiety would kept them more compliant and productive. And what parent has not discovered that anxiety can be a powerful tool in shaping behavior, at least for the short term? Some (pointing as evidence to the lives of those who claim to be saved by grace, and yet live far from exemplary lives) fear that without anxiety, people will not be motivated to do the right thing. Certainly, there is no question that anxiety gets results. There is however, plenty to question in the actual results it gets and the dividends it pays.

But perhaps even more sobering is the capacity anxiety has for distorting our responses. In the events that followed 911, we saw how anxiety arose and was exploited, when ideas and practices which under any other set of circumstances we would have rejected, once they were wrapped in the flag and labeled an expression of patriotism, became acceptable to a surprising number of people.

But in less obvious or dramatic ways, where we most often engage in patterns of living that are more rooted in anxiety than grace, are on those more subtle levels where it comes in under the radar. There it either remains undetected, or if detected, not only does not raise much of an alarm, but may even be seen as necessary. I recently heard the leader of an organization that serves Christian youth comment on the lives of those who served as role models for the young people they were leading. They said, that even though you could argue that the loads they were carrying and the lifestyles they were modeling were unhealthy, you just have to understand that that is the way is has to be. In this case, anxiety over competitive market forces was overriding the realization that what we model is what we most effectively pass on to those we are leading. Often times, whatever cards we may be holding in our hands, anxiety is trump.

So, part of what what makes anxiety based patterns so difficult to part with is the perception that they work. And yet, the kind of motivation it provides, whether with the intensity of an amphetamine, or something in a more subtle caffeine-like form, despite the illusion that is created (which actually undermines the very thing it tries to mimic) . . . when it comes to the quality of life that Jesus invites us to embrace, anxiety is no more effective than are stimulants in promoting good health.

In contrast, the life that Jesus offers finds its center not in reacting to anxiety but in responding to grace. While it may be described as a narrow, less frequently traveled path, it is so, not because it is inaccessible or exclusive, but because it seems so counterintuitive to us to let go of the wider anxiety embracing path. What Jesus invites us to enter, however, is a life that moves with different rhythms. Among other things,

  • This path takes shape around the realization that all of life, from Creation to Redemption is a gift from God, that it is ours for the receiving, and nothing but our refusal to accept it can separate us from it..
  • It is a path that is directed more by the signposts of generosity than the bill boards of consumption. People on this path are less concerned about whether or not others might have more of something than they do, which in turn frees them to be more concerned about those who are in need, and be willing to do something about it.
  • Similarly, it's a path on which, because I am not preoccupied with whether or not I meet the qualifications or am still accepted, from that sense of assurance, I am now free to expend my mental and emotional energies in loving and caring for others.
  • What's more, it is a path on which I can find peace. Whether I have little or much, I can live with a sense of abundance rather than scarcity. I can do this because I know that even if I suffer, I do so not as someone who is abandoned and has no hope, but as a child of God, who knows that God is with me in my suffering. This allows me to live generously with the interests of others at least equal to my own, rather than protectively out of concern for my own self interest.
  • And as a result, it is a way of life that, as time goes on, is characterized more and more by the fruit of the Spirit rather than the concerns of the anxious.
For me, what I regard as my conversion experience, occurred at the moment when I first tasted the difference, and everything changed. As a teenager who had become interested in the church, and who had read enough religious material over the course of many months to have significantly raised my anxiety level in regard to whether or not God found me acceptable, the realization of grace was profound beyond words. I still remember the moment, some 35 years or so ago, when, while laying on my bed reading from a little book called Steps to Christ, that it hit me with clarity for the first time --personally, unexpectedly, profoundly, and wonderfully. I don't know exactly how to describe the sense of peace that seemed to take hold of me at that moment, but a huge part of what happened was that the motivation of anxiety gave way to something far more powerful and freeing, that of grace.

Since then, things have not always been as clear as they were at that moment. What I have learned along the way, is that continuing to live in the realization of that discovery is somewhat like walking along the top of a straight but narrow wall (Although the wall is also wide enough to provide as much space as you would ever need to do what you would ever want to do in life [metaphors are not perfect]). The view is great. The experience is both exhilarating
and freeing. The journey is rewarding. The problem is keeping one's balance. Side winds or other forces beyond our control, obstructions or distractions from within or without, moments when we lose our bearings, and/or fear that the wall itself might just be something we imagined -- all these can crop up at times and in combinations that throw us off balance, and we slip out of gracious and into anxious patterns.

What is also becoming more and more clear to me over time, it that it is at moments like those that I need to be intentional about a couple of things.

  • One is, as cliche as it may sound, is taking God's outstretched hand, either to regain my balance so that I don't fall, or to help me back up on the wall when I do. (Chances are good that I lost my balance in the first place because I let go, perhaps because I had become more tunned into the messages of the "gods" than to the voice of God)
  • The second is keeping my eyes focused ahead of me on Jesus, and on the full realization of God's Kingdom and what that is all about. It is when I am, in self interest, looking down at my own feet, or focusing my attention on kingdoms that operate according to different agendas, that I am more likely to lose my balance or simply step off the wall.
But, analogies aside (for whatever they may be worth), more and more I am realizing the need to be more aware of the underlying patterns are that I am living out of, and which are directing my life. I need to be intentional about asking myself:

Do I tend to live responsively out of a sense of grace and abundance, or reactively out of a sense of scarcity and anxiety?

Where are patterns of grace flourishing the most, and how can I be intentional about nurturing those?

Where have more anxiety driven patterns taken root, and am I willing to allow God the space and time necessary in the midst of my "own agendas" so I can listen better and allow God to root them out?

. . . Those are the questions I'm asking these days.

1 comment:

Jared Wright said...

Thank you. I could say more, but then I wouldn't really be saying more, if that makes sense.