“EXAMINING OUR ANXIETIES”
JULY 27, 2008
One night a frustrated Malcolm Boyd got out of bed and wrote this prayer in his journal:
I’m exhausted, Jesus, but sleep won’t come.
My brain keeps whirring with thoughts, and it won’t turn off. I have to get up early in the morning, and I’m desperate for a good night’s rest. I can’t get cool. I keep telling myself to quiet down and drop off but it just won’t work.
I keep rotating, Jesus, first on my stomach, then on my back, then on my side, and on my other side, and on my stomach again. I can’t lie still.
The night is going to slip away, and pretty soon the light will come, and I’ll be dead tired, Lord. I’m worried, and I can’t let go. So many things on my mind. What’s going to happen, Jesus?
Lord, bless my sleep. Let me sleep. Help me to sleep. And then wake me when the light comes, will you? Please wake me up, and let me be refreshed in your strength.
Ever have a night like that? By the looks of some of you this morning, you may have had one last night! Well, our forbearer Abraham had a night like that too and let’s look at what triggered his sleepless night.
Our story begins with three important words ... “After these things.” They refer back to the events recorded in chapters thirteen and fourteen, namely Abraham’s troubled and challenging relationship with his nephew Lot.
Do you remember back to when God called Abraham to go to the Promised Land, how Abraham was to leave his father’s house and his extended family behind in Haran? Well, Abraham did that, except for his nephew Lot, and some people a lot smarter than I believe that Abraham was disobedient to God’s directive by taking Lot along, and if chapters thirteen and fourteen are any indication of the wisdom of taking Lot with him, then we might agree with that assessment. In chapter thirteen, Lot’s men get into fights with Abraham’s men, causing Abraham and Lot to part company. Then in chapter fourteen, Lot gets captured and taken away into slavery and Abraham has to go into battle to save him. It was “After these things” then, after Abraham’s headaches with Lot that Abraham had an incredible encounter with God.
Now note that the encounter took place in a vision and not in a dream. Other places in Genesis we will observe God speaking in a dream, while people were sleeping, but here God speaks in a vision, denoting a level of consciousness when the communication took place. Furthermore, from verse five we know it happened at night because Abraham goes out to look at the stars. So the picture we have of this vision is it’s taking place in the middle of the night when Abraham should have been sleeping.
Also, note how God ministers to Abraham in the vision. God’s first words to him are,
Do not be afraid, Abram, I am our shield; your reward shall be very great.
The fact that God says, “Do not be afraid,” indicates Abraham’s state of mind. He was having one of those anxious nights when his mind will not turn off. He is anxiety ridden, and listen to what has him up in the middle of the night.
O Lord God, what will you give me for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus: You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.
Now, at this point in my life the thought of having a child would keep me up at night, but for Abraham the thought of not having a child had him tossing and turning. God had promised Abraham two things - land and descendants. He has some land, but all he has for a descendant is a guy named Eliezer of Damascus, and let me tell you about Abraham’s arrangement with him.
Back in Abraham’s day, it was quite common for a childless couple to adopt a friend or a trusted servant to care for them in their old age and to see to it that they received a proper burial when they died. Abraham had entered into such an agreement with Eliezer, and unless Abraham and Sarah had a child of their own, then Eliezer would inherit everything, including Abraham’s name. Now, this arrangement may have taken place years ago when Abraham and Sarah still lived in Haran or Abraham may have panicked and entered into this relationship within the past few days, having been convinced that God would not provide them with a son. Either way, Abraham is not happy with how things are going, he so want’s a son, and he’s up at night wondering if he will ever have one.
In the midst of all this, God assures Abraham that everything will work out, that Eliezer will not be his heir, and God takes Abraham outside to see the starts which must have been a spectacular sight back then without the city lights and pollution, and Abraham believes God once again, that God will indeed provide him with a natural heir.
Let me take us on a quick detour. Let me point out how central this story is to the Apostle Paul. Ask the Apostle Paul the greatest moment in the Old Testament, and he would probably point to this moment, and particularly verse six where God proclaims Abraham to be a righteous man. In fact, the Apostle Paul quotes this sixth verse twice in his writings. He quotes it once in his Letter to the Romans and another time in his Letter to the Galatians. Remember the bumper sticker on Paul’s car? It read, “Justification by Faith.” According to Paul we are not put in a right relationship with God through our works, through our good deeds, but by our faith and Paul uses our story from Genesis this morning to drive home this point. Listen to the words once again,
And he believed in the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
What put Abraham in a right relationship with God? What made him righteous? Was it his good nature? Was it his prayer life? Was it the success of his business? No, what put Abraham in a right relationship with God was his belief in God. He believed in God and God called him righteous. In other words, we do not work our way into heaven, we believe our way into heaven.
OK, enough of a detour. Let’s return to Abraham’s battle and our battle with anxiety. If the 17th century was the age of enlightenment, and the 18th century the age of reason, and the 19th century the age of progress, and the 20th century the age of technology, then the 21st century may well be called the age of anxiety.
One psychologist says anxiety is the most urgent problem in the United States today, and another suggested that the biggest business in the United States is not the production of steel or cars or televisions, but the biggest business in the United States is the manufacture, refinement, and distribution of anxiety. I know if there were one thing I would like to change about myself it would be in this area. I would like to be less anxious. I also know I am not alone. The great saint of a generation ago, Henrietta Mears, when asked what she would have done differently with her life said, “I would have trusted God more.”
In addition, if scripture counsels anything, it counsels us to do just that ... to trust God more and be free of anxiety. The Psalmist proclaims, “Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret.” Jesus counsels, “Do not worry about your life ... who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” And the Apostle Paul commands, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayers and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
So then, it’s clear we do it - we fret, we worry, we stew - and it’s clear that the scriptures say, “Don’t do it. Don’t worry. Don’t fret. Don’t stew. Instead, rest in the Lord,” but how do we do that? Let me suggest some things.
First, know that problems and challenges are necessary ingredients of life.
Even though problems and challenges can be painful at times, they are good for us because the give us an opportunity to develop our faith muscles. People who do not face challenges and problems grow soft mentally and spiritually, just as a person who never exercises grows soft physically.
Did you know that until Curt Warner led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory a few years ago that no indoor football team had won a Super Bowl? Many believed the reason for that was climate-controlled stadiums made football players “soft.” They believed that braving the elements made a team stronger.
I like the way James put it in his pastoral letter. James wrote, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Instead of becoming anxious about the challenges of life, let’s see those challenges as an opportunity to build our faith muscles.
Second, know that we have an internal resource to deal with the challenges and problems of life.
We need to put ten magic words to work for us. Few can deny the power of words. Why William Lyon Phelps, famed writer and professor of English, said that the ten greatest words in the English language are from Shakespeare’s Hamlet ... “To be or not to be, that is the question.” And granted, those words do contain a solemn and far-reaching thought about human destiny.
Someone else declared that the success of any business or enterprise may be explained by a six word formula, “Find a need and fill it.” And those words have certainly helped people succeed.
But there is a seven word combination that has affected more people for good than any other statement made. It has demonstrated the amazing power to increase strength, eliminate fear, and overcome self-doubt. The ten word formula is “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.”
I like the way Kenneth Carraway put it. He wrote,
There is not a box
made by God
but that the sides can’t be flattened out
and the top blown off
to make a dance floor
on which to celebrate life.
We have a power residing within us, the Spirit of Christ, to deal with the challenges and crises weface.
Third, invite God to rid us of anxiety.
Let’s close our time together by doing that very thing. Here’s what I suggest. Instead of praying, “Lord, I’m worried and uptight about this. Help me with it,” try this. Close your eyes and picture Christ coming to sit next to you. And cup that worry or anxiety into your hands and say “Lord, look at this. It is getting the best of me. What should I do about it?”
Then picture the expression on Jesus’ face. Look into his eyes. See his desire to help you with it, just as the Lord helped Abraham with his anxiety. Then watch Jesus touch that anxiety and transform it. Listen to what he tells you to do with it, whether it is to give it to him, or see it in a new light, or whether it is to remember that he is with you in the midst of it.
Then take three deep breaths and as you breath the first one say, “I’m breathing in confidence, I’m breathing out fear.”
With the second say, “I’m breathing in power, I’m breathing out weakness.”
With the third say, “I’m breathing in peace, I’m breathing out anxiety.”