By Michael Kelley
Imagine an apple sitting on your counter. You go to the garage and get a vise and then put the apple inside it. Then you start turning the handle, and the vise starts tightening. It gets tighter and tighter and the apple gets thinner in the middle and fatter on the ends until it looks like it’s about to burst.
This is what’s happening right now. The virus? The social distancing? The quarantine? These things are squeezing us. Squeezing our patience; our budgets; our nerves; our faith. Tighter, tighter, tighter—until we feel like we’re going to explode.
It’s like Bilbo Baggins said to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Of course, if you kept tightening the vise around the apple it would eventually burst. And maybe you, too, know what that bursting feels like; it’s when something small that ordinarily shouldn’t have bothered you as much as it did just sets you off. And you find yourself overreacting to that single incident because of the accumulated pressure from the other circumstances.
Back to the apple, though. It’s important to notice in this illustration what comes out when the apple does burst: the stuff that was inside all along. Nothing new. Nothing foreign. And the same thing is true of us.
Being squeezed, as we are now, doesn’t cause anger, or frustration, or doubt, or worry, or whatever; those things have been in our hearts all the time. The stress only reveals what’s always been there.
Perhaps that’s one of the redemptive purposes of this pressure. It’s that when we find ourselves reacting to stress, we are able to see a clearer picture of our hearts. This season might be revealing at least three things in us.
1. Our basis of security
One of the reasons we feel stressed is because we feel threatened. Our livelihood, our comfort, our future—these are weighty things. And circumstances that threaten our security in these matters cause us to feel no small measure of fear and anxiety.
When a circumstance is causing is stress it ought to make us question where our true security lies. What we might find is that we’re trusting more in our 401K than the Lord who owns cattle on a thousand hills.
2. Our secret sins
If you head over to the WebMD website you can find all kinds of coping mechanisms for stress. Things like exercise, breathing techniques, and games that occupy the mind. Those are good things, I think, but most of us don’t turn that way.
Instead, we just react. We get angry. Or frustrated. Or bitter. Or we turn to something else that makes us feel better in the moment. In any case, the lure toward specific sinful habits and behaviors has always been in our hearts. Stress only focuses the image for us to see them more clearly.
3. Our source of joy
It’s a tough thing to be happy when you feel stressed. You’re constantly thinking about the circumstance that’s making you worry. It occupies your field of vision, and it seems you can’t look away even if you want to.
But joy isn’t rooted in circumstance. Not really. It’s rooted in Jesus. So if we find that periods of stress are robbing us of our joy, then we have an opportunity to remind our souls that true, lasting, sustainable joy can only flow from the true fountain of living water that doesn’t run dry.
These are just a few of the things being exposed in all of us. And yet along with these things, there’s also an opportunity being exposed. It’s an opportunity not just to patch the cracks in our own lives so that we can return to some notion of normal, but instead to rethink what once was. To take these points of exposure, admit them, repent of them, and then rebuild.
This is especially true for leaders in the church who are not only seeing these things exposed in their own lives but in the lives of congregation member after member.
From the perspective of the church leader, there are even more points of exposure—exposure of what people really believe about the necessity of the church, the importance of discipleship, and the nature of their connection and relationships with the body of Christ.
Every church leader has the same opportunity on behalf of their congregation that they have for themselves. We can either sit in the middle of the exposure and long for what was, or we can recognize that at least part of “what was” was built on sand. If we’re courageous enough to recognize that, then we would do well to see these points of exposure as opportunities to make the foundation more sure.
These are stressful days, friends. Of course they are. But they can also be days of reflection. Days of revelation. And ultimately, days of opportunity. As the old saying goes: What’s down in the well comes up in the bucket.
God is at work, even in these moments of difficulty to show us our hearts. And when He does, we can be sure we can turn to Him in repentance and faith, knowing we will find a Savior whose yoke is easy and burden is light who stands ready to have our cares cast upon Him.
MICHAEL KELLEY (@_MichaelKelley) is vice president of church ministries for LifeWay Christian Resources.