Preached on 3.18.18 at Northside Community Church.
There is a very little town in upstate New York called Agloe. And Agloe has an unusual history.
It appeared for the first time on a map in the 1930s. But if you went to the intersection of 2 dirt roads labeled "Agloe" on your map, you would have found absolutely nothing. No buildings, no houses, no cultivated fields, nothing. Just nothing in all directions.
See, Agloe wasn't a real place. It was a copyright trap. Back before GPS, map making was big business. Just like any exciting, growing industry there were big companies and there were little companies. And the little companies would add extra things to their maps—innocent things like a city that no one was looking for—so that if one of the bigger companies copied their map and sold it, they would have a case in court. And Agloe was one of these fake cities—called a "Paper Town." The General Drafting Company put it on a map they published of New York State, and then fast forward about 60 years and sure enough big bad Rand McNally published a map of New York that included a dot for Agloe. So the General Drafting Company said, "Ah Ha!" and sued Rand McNally.
But the case was thrown out. It turns out that Rand McNally hadn't actually copied the General Drafting Company's map. They'd done their own survey work and found a few houses and an Exxon station at the intersection of these two dirt roads. And they asked the people who lived there, "what do you call this place?" And they said, "Agloe, New York."
Here's the point:
We expect our maps to tell us what the world is,
but sometimes our maps tell the world what we think it should be.
Sometimes, when I’m talking to people about foster care. When I’m describing what our experience has been like, I’ll be telling a story about one child or another that we’ve had in our home or at Skookum House and the person I’m talking to will say:
“I could never be a foster parent. I just can’t imagine something like that.”
And that sentence is half true. The first half—the “I could never”—that part is false, but they wouldn’t know it because they’ve truly never considered it. They don’t have a place on their map for Foster care with all of its emotions, uncertainty, pain, and beauty.
Everybody's emotional map has an edge beyond which we cannot imagine going. Some people have larger maps, others have more detailed maps, but everyone's emotional map has an edge.
And when we reach our emotional limit—the edge of our emotional map—all people respond in one of two ways. We explode or we run. Right? Fight or flight. When pushed to our emotional limit some of us erupt into a storm of words and actions that we later come to regret, and others of us run away— we extricate ourselves from the situation that is causing us emotional pain. We either explode or we run.
This is physiological, actually. When we get stressed, our brains release 2 chemicals into our bloodstream—adrenaline and cortisol. Blood rushes to our big muscles, certain parts of our brains get turned off—specifically the parts responsible for executive function, speech, empathy, and fine motor skills.
Have you ever noticed how you can’t talk when you’re mad? Or you get clumsy when you’re mad? That’s adrenaline and cortisol flooding your body and turning off the speech and fine motor skill centers of your brain.
In moments of extreme stress we either explode or we run. And either response is harmful to our relationships. Outbursts tend to do more harm in the short-term, either in hurt feelings or property damage. But a flight response does damage too.
You can tell when a person has reached their emotional limit because they start to use some key words and phrases:
"I am fed up"
"I just can’t take it anymore"
"I refuse to be treated this way"
"I'm at the end of my rope"
"I will not stand for this"
"This isn't fair"
When you find yourself at the end of our emotional map, when you find yourself forced into a where you are prone to explode or run, what’s the prescription for that? Well, traditionally there are two prescribed responses. And spoiler alert, they are both wrong.
1.) The grit-your-teeth method (you're strong)
Sometimes you'll hear prescriptions like, "just endure" or "God never gives his children more than they can handle" which isn't true by the way, that is a horribly damaging mis-representation of what Scripture says. But the grit your teeth method is generally just a promotion of will power. Just hold on, you're stronger than you think . . . hear where this is going? It's humanism. At its core, the grit-your-teeth-method of dealing with emotional stress is just humanism. There's no God, no gospel in it at all.
2.) The better-flight-than-fight method (you're weak)
The other method is basically to say that when you're pushed to your emotional limit, it's better to flee than to explode. Using this method, you'll hear prescriptions like "just get out" or "count to 10, and cool off" or "it will look different in the morning." There's actually a verse in 1 Corinthians that's not even about this subject, it's about temptation, but some people will use incorrectly to justify making an "escape" from stressful or painful situations. This method, rather than assuming you are strong, assumes you are weak. It's like anti-humanism. It's weird.
Do you see how both of these traditional approaches—the grit-your-teeth method and the better-flight-than-fight method—are completely absent of the gospel of Christ. They are both blind to the promises of God, they're completely flesh-bound and earthly-minded. The grit-your-teeth method completely denies man's need for God. And the better-flight-than-fight-method denies God's willingness to protect our hearts.
There must be another way! There must be.
Well, let's look at an example of how a spirit-filled person responds to emotional stress. The Apostle Paul endured a great deal of emotional stress, surely he reached his limit at some point. Right?
- He made a career out of murdering a particular group of people, then he got saved and God sent him to preach to that same group of people. Talk about an emotional mess!
- Then, in one of the first places he ever preached—Lystra—he was murdered by an angry mob.
- In Iconium he was chased out of town by false accusations.
- In Derbe, the same people who chased him out of Iconium followed him there and chased him out of town again.
- In Philippi he was punished (by punished I mean permanently maimed) without a trial.
- In Ephesus his friends were arrested and beaten because his enemies couldn't find him.
- On Crete he was shipwrecked and bitten by a snake after the Captain of the ship wouldn't listen to his advice and wait out the winter in port.
- Twice, In Ephesus and Jerusalem he was arrested for crimes that he didn't commit by the people who DID commit those crimes.
He sounds like someone who might know a thing or two about emotional stress, and what it's like to run off the edge of your emotional map. Let's see if he had anything to say about it what it's like to be pushed to his emotional limit.
"I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance, and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
— Philippians 4:12-13
And all God's people said hmm . . .
This verse—the I can do all things verse—is often quoted in the context of accomplishment. I can go accomplish or achieve whatever I want because God makes me strong. But that's not the point at all. This verse is about endurance. Paul says, I can endure anything. I have unlimited capacity for emotional stress. Why? Because of God who makes me strong.
Here's what Paul says: there is no pace on my map called, "I can't take it anymore."
He says, "I hear you say you're at the end of your rope" but I don't know of such a place.
If we consider Paul's perspective: "I can endure anything because God makes me strong"
and compare that with our earthly, flesh-bound way of thinking that says: "I just couldn't take it anymore. I had reached my limit."
Looking at them like that, isn't the different really stark?
I can't take it anymore vs. I can take anything
I won't put up with that vs. I know how to put up with anything
Paul is working from a different map than you and I are.
Well, let's break down what he says here.
First he uses a very unusual word in this passage—the word "secret"—it's only used once in the New Testament, right here. This is the only time it's used in the new testament, but we can find it really often in ancient writings about the mystery religions. See, there was at the time a well known first century scam that went a little like this:
Somebody would create a new religion. They would maybe start talking differently, wearing different clothes, or doing their hair differently—really anything that would stand out—and they would go on and on about how this new religion that they had "discovered" (really they'd made it up) had changed their life. And when they got enough people interested, they would say: you need to pay in order to get access to this thing, this piece of information that is going to change your life. And then a lot of people would pay them. It was a total scam. And it was a known thing that happened all the time in the first century world, because somebody could play this little game in several towns in a row because there was no phone lines or email, right? So the victims of the scam in this town couldn't call ahead to the next town and warn them. So these con artists could move from town to town playing this little game. And eventually people learned to look out for them by listening for a keyword: "secret."
And Paul uses it right here. He says, you know how I can be calm and content even in the most tumultuous of circumstances? It's because I know the secret.
But then he just comes right out with it. He doesn't run a con or expect people to pay him. He just explains it openly. He says, you know how I can survive all of this emotional stress: I know the secret. The secret is Jesus.
Now, if you're disappointed in that secret, you don't understand it.
In the life of Jesus we see 2 aspects of God's character more clearly than ever before: his love and his power.
Through the life and work of Jesus we see that God is capable of keeping his promises, and we also see that he's eager to keep his promises.
Many believers' unspoken perspective on God lacks one of those two things. And nothing will push you to the end of your emotional map like uncertainty about or an incomplete picture of who God is. If you believe God is less loving than he says he is, or less capable than he says he is, it will stress you out really fast, I promise.
If deep down you believe that God is not really able to protect and provide for you like he promises, you'll take that responsibility for yourself. You'll try to carry that weight around, and you're not meant to do that. You're assuming a God-sized responsibility, and very quickly it will push you beyond your emotional limits.
And if deep down you believe that God is able, but doesn't really care about you, you'll assume the responsibility of performing in such a way that draws his attention and thus his favors. You will make it your job to impress the omnipotent creator, which . . . let's talk honestly about how exhausting and impossible that's going to be.
Do you see how, without a clear understanding of both God's love and God's power, emotional exhaustion is sort of inevitable?
We need for God to be everything he says he is.
In contrast, if we have a clear understanding of God's power and love, our life circumstances become kind of irrelevant to our emotional condition.
- If the omnipotent Creator of the Universe loves you, who cares how stressful your job is?
- If the all-knowing God loves you so much to give himself up for you, who cares if you're not living up to the expectations of your parents?
- If the omnipresent sustainer of all things is orchestrating the details of your life for your ultimate benefit, does it make sense to get ruffled if you're running late?
In the face of God's love and God's power, the things that cause stress in you and I melt into insignificance. And this is the thing, the single-most-important-thing that I wish people knew about foster care. It doesn’t take a super-human to be a foster parent. It doesn’t take an especially patient or talented or gentle person. All it takes is to be willing to follow God off the edge of your map.
It takes a willingness to say, “God, even though it sounds messy and scary to be a foster parent, I see in your word that you have a special place in your heart for foster kids, so I’m going for it, not because I’m sure that I have what it takes, but because I trust that you are strong and you are good.”
And this fact applies in more than just foster care. I don’t know which side of the map God is calling you to follow him beyond. Foster care is just my go-to example, because it’s what we do at Skookum. But this is a universal truth. If more believers understood the goodness of God and the power of God, and trusted it enough to make decisions based on it, the world would be a very different place.
There are several good snapshots of Believers who learned this in scripture—the story of Job, Absalom's insurrection, the story of Joseph, Paul and Silas in prison—but one of my favorites is the story of Abraham and Isaac.
You remember this one? God promises a son to Abraham and his wife Sarah, and then they get old. Abraham is 100 and Sarah is 99 before she gets pregnant. But they do eventually have a son, God keeps that promise to them. They have a boy named Isaac. Then, God appears to Abraham and says, "Okay I want you to sacrifice your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love. I want you to offer him as a burn offering to me." And then with no discussion and no apparent hesitation Abraham does that. He takes his son on a trip to a nearby mountain and they prepare an altar, and he even goes so far as have his only son Isaac tied up lying on the altar, knife in hand, ready to sacrifice him before God intervenes and stops him.
Now, we're talking about emotional stress and there is a lot here. But the traditional telling of this story focuses on Abraham and his obedience to God. And that's important, but let's not overlook Isaac.
Let me ask you something—don't answer out loud, just in your head or write down on a piece of paper—how old is Isaac in this story?
The traditional telling of this story, like the flannel graph version if you will, has Isaac as a child. He's too young to make decisions for himself, he doesn't really have any sense of agency about him. He's just subject to his father's plan.
But that's not the case. 2 things tell us that. First of all, well let's turn there. It's in Genesis 22, let's go take a look.
The word that throws a lot of people is in verse 5: "Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you."
The word that's translated into English as "boy" is a little tricky. It means "protege." In 2 chapters Isaac is going to meet his wife, and Abraham calls him by the same word.
But there's another clue here. Look at the next verse, "And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife."
So, when Abraham and Isaac make their final ascent to the place where they will make their sacrifice, who carries the heaviest load? Isaac does. That's not the action of a child. That's the action of a full-grown adult son.
And remember, Abraham was 100 already when Isaac was born. And the very next passage tells about how Sarah dies at 129 years old. So, Isaac is about 30 years old, and Abraham is about 130 years old.
Doesn't that completely change the tone of this story for you?
I can imagine how the conversation at the top of the mountain went.
Isaac carries the firewood on his back through the final ascent. Abraham—130 year-old Abraham—carries the knife and a single ember so they can light the sacrifice on fire.
They get to the top and together they gather 12 stones to construct an altar. They arrange the wood on top of the altar, and then Isaac says, "Take it easy Dad, catch your breath . . . Where's the sacrifice?"
And 130 year-old, arthritic Abraham says, "You're the sacrifice."
Isaac says, "Let me get this straight. You're going to tie me up, put me on the altar, slit my throat to drain all my blood, cut my body into little pieces, and then light what's left on fire and let it burn up."
"Yes. That's what God told me to do."
And Isaac says, "okay."
He is complicit. He participates. There's no way aging Abraham could have forced him. He is relying on Isaac to trust God's love and power as much as he does. And that's exactly what happens. Isaac goes along with it. He let's Abraham tie him up. He crawls onto the altar. He doesn't struggle, resist, try to talk Abraham out of it. He is a willing participant in what appears to be his destruction. We know the end of the story, God intervenes and explains.
A couple of things about this story blow my mind.
Most of all: God never tells Isaac the plan. That’s wild. How many of us have said, "I'll do whatever God wants, if only he'll tell me." But then we find ourselves in a place where someone is asking for our help, or a person in a position of authority is telling us "here's what I want you to do." And we say "no."
Isaac's life is the one in question. Isaac is the one who needs to trust, to submit, to go along with this crazy plan, but God never tells him anything about it. God tells Abraham, and only sortof.
Can you imagine your father, a spiritual authority and role-model to you, comes up to you and saying, "Hey, God said I need to murder you, so . . . "
And Isaac trusts God's love and power so completely that he goes along with it. He trusts God even when obedience seems to lead to his own destruction.
See, Isaac doesn't know of a place called, "I won't tolerate that."
Isaac hears you and I say, "I refuse to be treated this way," and he says, where's that, I don't see that on my map.
Some of us, God has called us into relationships or situations that cause a great deal of emotional stress. They're hard. And my goal today is not to convince you that they're easy. Sometimes those things push us to our emotional limits. Sometimes they appear to be leading to our destruction. And we feel either the urge to run or to explosion because somebody has told us there there should be a place on our map where that is bound to happen.
But here's what I know to be true about God:
- He loves you enough to place you in the right relationships & situations.
- He is strong enough to change your relationships & situations whenever a change is in your best interest.
And if you believe those two things to be true—which they are—you and I can say right along with Isaac, "Okay. I don't know what the plan is, but I'm on board. I will obey you God no matter what, even when my obedience appears to be leading to my destruction. I still trust You, because I believe that 1.) God, you love me and 2.) God, you are capable of changing my circumstances whenever it's in my best interest that you do so."
Can you pray that with me?