When Concern Becomes Crushing

I continue to be struck by the profound real-world spirituality of the Apostle Paul in his little Letter to the Philippians. Whether it's his calm at the prospect of imminent martyrdom (Ch. 1), his refusal to define himself by his resume of accomplishments and pedigree (Ch. 3), or his approach to the problem of anxiety (Ch. 4), Paul's equanimity seems otherworldly--and strangely magnetic--to me.

In particular, I'm interested in Paul's use of a Greek word, merimnao. It's the word used in Chapter 2 to describe the heart-felt concern Paul's protege Timothy exhibits for the Philippian church. "I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned (merimnesei) for you." Here, the word is healthy. However, two chapters later, the word shades into a different meaning. In Chapter 4 Paul writes, "Be anxious (merimnate) in nothing." One word, two differerent nuances. Apparently, with little provocation, healthy concern can overflow its boundaries and rise into a floodtide of anxiety. What constitutes the difference? What is the catalyst for this change from health to disease?

I suspect it has to do with the little phrase Paul uses so often in the letter: "in the Lord." Paul's whole identity (and the identity he urges upon his readers) is "in the Lord." Who they are, what they do, and where they're headed are all determined by this profound little phrase, "in the Lord." When Jesus looms large in our imaginations, when his accomplishments of cross, empty tomb, and certain return are the fixed points of our realities, we are quietly and confidently "in the Lord." We are free to exhibit compassionate concern for loved ones and others; but this concern is kept within bounds. Only the Lord has ultimate control over people and events. When we're "in the Lord" we recognize this and our concern stays put. It's not crushing; it's not an overwhelming flood of anxious emotion. Jesus is in control and we're not and we're okay with that.

Concern becomes crushing when we forget our identity "in the Lord." When we're too wrapped up "in ourselves", our concern overflows. We begin to carry for ourselves the weight of contingencies we cannot control and outcomes which are impossible to manage. These are burdens we were never meant to carry. Anxiety crushes us as a result.

I love how Paul's colleague, the Apostle Peter, also addresses anxiety in his First Letter: "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you" (1Peter 5:6-7). "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God," he writes. In other words, recognize that God is God and you are not! Let God carry those crushing burdens that weigh down your heart and wreck your soul. Step lightly and lovingly, as "in the Lord" you show your concern, but refuse to let it to crush you.

I suspect that anxiety overwhelms me personally when I lose this all-important reference point for my identity. When my roles and responsibilities, when events beyond my control, tempt me to carry them without reference to Jesus and his leadership, I feel the burden begin to crush me. My healthy concerns have morphed into a diseased distress. God help me (and God help us!) to cast our concerns onto the broad shoulders of Jesus!

Blind Spots

Both my wife and I visited the optometrist this week, mostly routine stuff. During my exam yesterday, as we reviewed photographs of my retina and optic nerve, I was reminded of the physiological "blind spot" all humans have in the anatomy of their eye. The blind spot is the location of the optic nerve, that point where there are no visual rods or cones to receive images. It's where information gathered elsewhere in the eye is transported into the brain. Interestingly, each eye has its own blind spot (since each has an optic nerve in that location) and the opposite eye must cover for the other's blind spot, allowing us to see with both eyes what we could not see with only one.

Blind spots are part of our design, for better or for worse. In God's providence, we're given two eyes so that we may avoid blind spots and see things which would otherwise blindside us. It got me thinking, in a crossroads way, of those blind spots we have in other areas of our lives. These are places where, for better or for worse, we are not aware of how we see things or how we behave. It's as if we operate with only one eye, which usually sees just fine, except for this one spot. It could be an area of behavior or trustworthiness or integrity or spending. It could be a habit or an eccentricity or an addiction. It could be an attitude, a prejudice, or a grudge. Whatever the case, it is a place in our personality where we refuse to look at a particular issue that affects us more than we realize. Blind spots are real--anatomically, behaviorally, and psychologically.

Thankfully, we are not designed to be alone, groping about in twilight due to our blind spots. We are given one another, trusted friends and spouses, brothers and sisters in faith, people who are able to illumine areas which we cannot or will not view ourselves.

Are you aware of a possible blind spot in your life? Can you name it? Are you in relationship with someone else who can help you see here? And can you offer aid to another, guiding them gently and lovingly to view what is necessary?


Sehnsucht, (German) f. longing, yearning, pining, hankering.

While I'm sure this is not a word that's been on the tip of your tongue lately, it's an idea I've been thinking about a lot recently. I'm haunted by this German word for that unfulfilled longing that C.S. Lewis described by the word "joy." It's that hunger pang, the gnawing sweetness of which is better than all our attempts to satisfy it. Sehnsucht. It's what propels us in our search for beauty and aesthetics. Ultimately, as Lewis wrote about, and we Christians believe, Sehnsucht is our longing for the beauty and reality of God and life in God. In short, it's a homing device for heaven.

Sehnsucht. I feel this quality in dreams and sometimes in waking life. I can recall more than one dream in which I've gazed at something utterly, unspeakably beautiful (a painting or a scene in nature) and broken down in tears, only to awake sobbing with longing. I feel it when I listen to certain music, usually in a minor key or with a consistent, patient rhythm that captures for me the endurance needed to bear up through life's challenges (Pat Metheny's "Last Train Home" comes to mind...).

I had an experience and an insight into Sehnsucht this past week during a vacation at the beach in Southern California. We returned to Dana Strand beach in South Orange County for visits with relatives. This is the place where, growing up, I spent much time at a family beachhouse. To my dismay, walking the beach this time, I witnessed the utter obliteration of the landscape where our trailer had lodged. Developers were grading the cliffs for huge, multimillion dollar luxury homes. Only Dana Point itself (see above) remained untouched. My fond memories of this place felt chewed up, spit out, and ground underfoot. It felt like the death of my childhood and there was no going back. While the view to the north (and the neighboring Salt Creek beach) were much the same, I had lost that strip of sand which for me was the spot where I learned to bodysurf, boogie board, work on my tan, and enjoy countless good times with friends and family. As we trudged away after that initial return to this beach, my heart was heavy. "You can't go home again," said Thomas Wolfe. He was right.

Or so it seemed. The next morning I awoke early to walk back down to this area. The noise of the graders and heavy machinery was still there--but this time a thought (was it God?) popped into my mind: if what Scripture says about God creating a new heaven and new earth is true (and all that we enjoy here is merely foretaste for a grand fulfillment later on), then I CAN go home again! Indeed, the beauty of Dana Strand will find its glorious fulfillment in the new earth to come. Those halcyon days of sun and fun are not just distant memories; they are a foretaste of much better times and places ahead.

Sehnsucht. Again. A longing that points toward ultimate fulfillment. A homesickness for our true home to come. Jesus says he goes to prepare a place--literally, a mansion--for us (John 14:2-3). Our little trailer #13, as cozy as it was, perched on the cliffs above the beach, cannot compare.

Sehnsucht. Have you felt it? How? Where? Follow your longing where it leads...