The Spiritual Discipline of Chilling the Hell Out

from xkcd.com

I have recently taken something of a  fast from the media frenzy. Now, that’s not nearly as drastic as it sounds. I’ve just noticed that, in my consumption of media (both 1.o and 2.o), I tend to feel like the little stick guy to the right. Honestly, I was just stressed and overwhelmed, so I decided on one simple policy: I would avoid blogs that ticked me off, would turn off the radio when I felt a story was getting me down, and would generally stay away from my usually frantic pace of media consumption.

So I spent some time away, and now that my life has calmed down, I’ve allowed myself to ease back into some of the things I’ve been avoiding. As I’ve done so, I’ve been struck by something that I’ve always known but never really confronted head on.

People are freaking out. About everything.

Politically, people are freaking out about the economy, about other governments (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, China, Venezuela, Russia), about their own government (the Supreme Court, the other political party, their own political party, the President being too or not enough liberal), about diseases, potential conflicts, natural disasters, the environment, science, the constitution, education, and health care.

Culturally, people are freaking out about sexuality (either for or against a dozen different varieties), the young, the elderly, cultural changes, violence, business, and the media itself.

And the Christian world is no better. Everyone there seems to be freaking out too; about books being published, people of different theological backgrounds, people of the same background who aren’t similar enough, trends in church culture, trends in church polity, trends in how Christians relate to the church, trends in how non-Christians view the church, our declining cultural influence, our attempts to increase cultural influence, pastors, families, and the list goes on.

Those lists, I’m beginning to realize, have deeply warped my own heart. It’s easy for us to see demagoguery and fear-mongering in the other guy, but none of us have really escaped it. As I’ve dove back into the blogs and news sites, regardless of which ones they are, I feel my blood pressure rising and anxiety setting back in.

The problem is that none of us are easily able to get the distance we need to reassess the bigger question: is fear itself a motivation we as Christians should embrace? Now, I realize that the uppity Sunday School graduate will immediately pipe up that there is a biblical kind of fear which Scripture sees as a good thing. Yes, yes, of course there is. We are called to fear the Lord. But the problem is that perfect fear of the Lord precludes fear over any of the things I listed above.

What does it mean to fear God? Biblically, the command always has an implied “instead of…” Fear God instead of idols. Instead of other men. Instead of life circumstances that threaten us. Fear of the Lord means that if God is against us, nothing else going our way in the world can mitigate that terrifying thought – and importantly, that if God is for us, nothing else in the world can truly hurt us.

Let me apply this politically for a moment, just to be controversial: no matter what our partisan (or non-partisan) loyalties happen to be, nothing can go wrong enough in the world that we have anything to be afraid of. So America becomes a dystopian socialist Big Brother state, or a fascist KKK-run gun store, or the poorest and most insignificant nation on the planet. So what? I know who the Superpower of the universe is, and my citizenship in His kingdom can’t change, whether the Oval Office is occupied by Hitler or a monkey.

If we are in Christ, Scripture teaches us, we have perfect love… the kind that leaves no room for our petty fears. To live in terror of something other than God is to implicitly give divine power to something other than Him, to be functionally polytheistic, to worship an idol. Fear for the outcome means that God really has competition for His throne, and that’s a fundamentally anti-Christian idea.

Now, at this point, I’m sure plenty of you are freaking out at me (ironic how it kind of proves the point, doesn’t it?) After all, we might say, there are lots of things on the above lists that are important. Shouldn’t we care about them?

The answer is that caring and fearing are two very different things. They stem from opposite motivations, from faith and from fear. I know that talking about motivations seems needlessly introspective to some who simply want to achieve the right ends no matter what, but they really do make all the difference. If my wife cooks dinner and cleans our apartment because she loves me and wants to express her joy and pleasure in marriage, we call that a beautiful thing. If she does it because she’s afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t, we call that… well, something else entirely.

Our call as Christians is to be deeply involved in our world, working to bring God’s kingdom to bear on every part of life. However, we cannot bring God’s kingdom to bear while worshiping this world’s kings, and if money or cultural acceptance or political power or anything else leaves us cowering before their thrones, praying they’ll take our side, that is exactly what we’ve done. Jesus tells us we cannot love both money and God because we cannot serve two masters. Fearing money and God is doing exactly the same thing.

What does this mean practically? First, it means we must be wary of buying too easily into the means of this world being used for the ends of the kingdom. Sure, we can ally with those outside of God’s people as we seek to bring change to different parts of our lives, but it must remain an alliance on our terms. When they start calling the tune to which we march, it always ends up being a hymn to idols.

Second, it means that we must cultivate a habit of rest and trust. The idea of Sabbath is fundamentally meant to remind us as God’s people that He is in control of the universe, and that He can provide for us without our frantic attempts to pitch in. When we feel anxiety welling up in our chests, we need to learn to exhale and relax in the arms of Christ. We need to learn to laugh a little, especially at ourselves, because it’s in recognizing how silly we really are that we turn to Someone else for the serious business of hope.

Third, it means we need to reassess whether the extent to which we are immersed in our culture of fear is really manageable. I’ve never had much use for people making decisions about media intake for me, so I’m not going to do that for anyone else. We all have certain tolerances, and indeed those who are spiritually mature can probably handle a great deal more of the anxiety-driven rhetoric than those of us who aren’t. However, at the same time, I know how completely blind I often am to these forces when I’m up to my neck in them. Maybe it would do a few of us good to stop worrying about theological debates, or the way our neighbors are living their lives, or (gasp) who we’re going to vote for in the next election. If you can engage these areas with the mind of Christ, then more power to you. If you can’t, well, cutting the board again won’t do any good if it’s already too short.

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4 Comments

Filed under Casting Stones Straight Upward, Unsolicited Advice

4 responses to “The Spiritual Discipline of Chilling the Hell Out

  1. Jeff Kerr

    Eric,

    This is awesome. I’ve had to wean myself off of blogs as well. Can I steal “the spiritual discipline of chilling the hell out”?

  2. etonjes

    Steal away; just pay me royalties if it makes you any money 🙂

  3. Mom

    Being a person who must often confess the sin of fear, this spoke deeply to me. Thank you, Eric.

  4. really really really liked this. a lot.

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