Feeling Overwhelmed

Measure your stress levels

Are you stressed out?  Irritable and impatient?  Depressed and down.  Confused and uncertain? Or are you numb, dry and lifeless?  Does the word “overwhelmed” ring true for you? Read on – you’re not alone.

StressTest

This image went viral in December 2018 and is said to indicate your level of neurological stress: the more movement you see, the more stressed you are.  (Yes, it’s a hoax but still very amusing to look at!)

Feeling overwhelmed – a sense of drowning, suffocating, or not coping – can either be caused by a single traumatic event or prolonged levels of high stress, leading to physical and emotional burn-out.  It affects more than one’s emotions and cognitive abilities, impacting one’s immune system, drive, vitality, digestive system, as well as one’s desire and ability to connect with others.

Deep, big shifts throw us off balance

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Our world is rapidly changing. Technological advances have made our world very small, causing substantive changes in the way we relate, communicate, work, trade and recreate. This has initiated deep changes worldwide to the very social fabric of human culture.  Add to this global political and economic instability, worldwide mass migration and a general abandonment of absolutes. The net result is a general sense uncertainty and widespread anxiety, leaving people feeling ungrounded and overwhelmed in a profound way.

This has happened before

But we are not the first generation to experience such a significant transformation.  History is filled with global economic depressions, continental epidemics, World wars, genocides, and countless natural disasters of epic proportions.  Not surprising, such are the contexts that set the background to most of the 66 books written in the Bible.  In times of great uncertainty, men cry out, and God responds.

The Psalms are recordings of such prayers and declarations, often revealing how ancient worshippers felt “horror overwhelms” them (55:5) or how situations cause their “heart / spirit (to) faint” (61:2/ 142:2).  In particular David’s prayer in Psalm 143 is a poignant picture of an overwhelmed soul, paving a pathway out of this dark, hopeless place.

A portrait of the overwhelmed soul

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The overwhelmed soul feels isolated, making it difficult to feel connected to people, to God and even to self (v1).  He/she is often acutely aware of his/her own inabilities and shortcomings (v2), probably because he/she struggles to get control of his/her own emotions (inner world) and environment (outer world).  This can lead to thoughts of guilt, condemnation and self-critique.

The overwhelmed person has lost inner peace and feels under constant attack; he/she may feel defeated, overcome with a sense of darkness, heaviness or lifelessness (v3).  In short, symptoms of depression.  He or she also shows signs of anxiety: incapacitated by irrational fears, a general sense of horror, and a lack of will or will or drive (v4).

The overwhelmed soul has a desperation and urgency to be freed from this turmoil and is overcome with feelings of helplessness (v7).   This person often feels unloved (v8), even abandonment, and generally uncertain (v8).   The mental condition of emotional overwhelm leads to a burnout manifesting in of apathy or lifelessness (v11).

A pathway to life

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Firstly, David starts with remembrance of God’s works in redemption (in Israel’s history and his own story) as well as creation (v5).  David reminds himself that God cares for all his creatures, and has shown his special covenantal concern for Israel, also his own life in particular.  He is reminded that God is alive and always at hand, and in response he opens his hands and heart to encounter God (v6).

Secondly, David passionately petitions three things from God:

  • Love me. The Shepherd-king boldly prays for God to speak words of affirmation and affection into his ear. For his soul to heal, he needs to hear that he is loved.
  • Lead me. This second request is also very personal. Not only does David ask for the way to get out of this horrible darkness, or for instructions on how to   This king asks the Great Shepherd to personally lead him to still waters by his “good Spirit”.
  • Revive me. In addition to paternal love and personal presence, David pleads that the Source of Life will resuscitate him again to revive his dead soul. Like he did to Adam, God must breath life into him again, otherwise he will perish inside-out. David asks for a personal encounter with God.

The reason for David’s boldness

Throughout the Psalm, David’s brazen confidence is striking.  As in other Psalms, David’s boldness is rooted in God’s merciful, loving character (v2,5,8,10,12). But in this psalm David does not primarily appeal to God’s compassion and mercy to save him, but he calls on God’s covenantal faithfulness as suggested by the repeated phrase “in your righteousness” (v1,11); he asserts that it is right and fitting for God to save him based on God’s binding covenant with David (1 Samuel 7).   David’s boldness is expressed in the concluding motive for his prayer, “for I am your servant” (v12).  In these words he reminds God that he is not king by his own volition, but rather the Lord was the one who took him from behind the sheep and placed him by His will as ruler over Israel.  All these pressures that overwhelm his soul is because of God’s calling, and therefore it is the Lord who ought to deliver his servant form this dark place.  After all, David cannot save himself, nor can he run from his office.  His Lord must save him so he might continue in his royal office, for the Lord.

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Transition and turmoil

David was a strong transformational leader, leading the tribally oppressed and divided Israel into a victorious monarchy, ushering an era of peaceful reign under the Kingdom of God.  He had plenty of political enemies, many familial problems, constant war and a few national crises to resolve.  Yet there was no-one in Israel to mentor him or help him – with every step he was breaking new ground into the unknown.

There should be no surprise that David’s soul was overwhelmed with anxiety and depression – he was living and leading with a constant sense of uncertainty, in an unstable and unsafe environment.  This sense of being ungrounded, uncertain and overwhelmed is common to Biblical leaders in times of uncertainty.  The Bible records instances of emotional turmoil in the lives of Job, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, Paul, Timothy, the disciples and even Jesus.

Moreover, modern history reveals that transformational leaders such as reformer Martin Luther, abolitionist William Wilberforce, president Winston Churchill, preacher Charles Spurgeon as well as liberator Martin Luther King all suffered through seasons of depression and anxiety.

This is very liberating.  Feeling overwhelmed is not a sign of failure or even a lack of faith.  It is the natural human response to drastically changing environment.  God is also not less pleased with the me when I feel overwhelmed; David most frequently brings these feelings to God and prayer, and he is hailed “a man after God’s own heart.”

In today’s radically reforming world many battle the turmoil of transition.  What can we learn from King David’s Psalm 143 about dealing with the debilitating sense of being overwhelmed?  I can shamelessly confess my need to God, reminding myself of his faithfulness in history, my story and creation: he is always at work and always at hand!  Secondly, I should petition him to remind me of his love, lead me in his light, and breath life into my soul – because I am his servant: my life is in his hand.

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A Passion for God’s House

“For zeal for your house has consumed me.”   (King David, Psalm 69:9)

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I love this image of the St Patrick’s Cathedral standing between tall sky-scrapers in New York City:  a sanctuary for God in a busy, godless city.  Here the broken-hearted can find their Comforter and the oppressed their Deliverer.  Here the lonely can meet their Friend, the sinner can find Mercy and the troubled can find Peace. Here New Yorkers can escape the business and noise of the city and hear the still voice of God. And here the Creator of the universe can meet his beloved creatures and receive his rightful worship.  This is a church – the House of God.  And this image reminds me of a sermon I heard in 2002 by Fred May – a message that has not left my heart.[i]

The House of God had such a prominent place in the heart of king David amidst the business of his demanding life.  This beloved shepherd-king of Israel was a general of an active army, the ruler of a vastly expanding kingdom, a husband of several wives and a father of many children.  David was a brilliant architect, a skilful musician, songwriter and poet, as well as a prophet.  David’s life was not free from disappointment and pain: his childhood was marked by paternal negligence and sibling rivalry; his youth was celebrated by heroism which caused him to be hunted down and exiled by a jealous monarch; he buried (at least) three of his own children; and he experienced severe betrayal during the revolt lead by his own son Absalom who sought the crown.  But David was not without fault either: the Scriptures clearly record moments of rage and pride, an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, as well as David’s passive fatherhood which lead to violent incest, murder and eventually the revolt lead by his son Absalom.

But amidst these moral and ethical failures David was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22) – why?  This phrase from the famous Shepherd-psalm reveals why: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:4-6).   Although this iconic king had the affection and even heroic worship of the people, the respect of both his army and his enemies, all the wealth and pleasures he could dream of, David had a zealous passion for the House of God more than anything this world could offer (Psalm 69:9; compare John 2:17).  Especially during times of hardship, during his days of exile from Israel, David would long for the comfort and security he experienced alongside other worshipers in the House of God.  And that was the key to David’s enduring legacy.

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David really experienced the house of God as a special place where he met with God – alongside other believers.  What do the Psalms reveal of his experience in God’s house?

First, we read that David experienced something special in the House of God (although it was a tent in his days!) –  he experienced favour (a benevolent attitude) before God and mercy (undeserved goodness) from God towards him.  [Psalm 5:7]

Secondly, David experienced real security and strength in God’s House [Psalm 27:4-6]. While hiding in the wilderness, in caves from King Saul David longed to be in God’s House – because there in God’s presence he felt safe and secure.

Thirdly David associated the House of God with abundance of provision [Psalm 36:7-8].  In the presence of God there is no lack, and in the House of God there is always enough for the one who is hungry.  The house of God was – and is – always a place where the poor get helped with practical provision, displaying the gracious generosity of God.

Fourthly, for David the House of God was a place of fellowship and friendship – a place where deep bonds were formed in the presence of God [Psalm 55:12-14].  In Psalm 55 David laments in anguish how he had been betrayed by Ahithophel, his friend and wise advisor who had defected to Absalom’s insurgence.  But we read that the worse part of the betrayal for David was that they “used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house [they] walked in the throng.” (verse 14).

The fifth thing we learn about David’s observation of those who love the House of God is how they live a long, healthy and productive life as recorded in Psalm 92:12-15:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”

I know several old people who love God and His House, and although they grow old but their spirits remain young.  They remain joyful and friendly, full of life and faith.  Truly, God renews their youth!

The sixth thing we note in Psalm 122 is that David and his decedents remained faithful to the House of God for the goodwill of the nation; i.e. their worship of God in the House of God resulted in God’s blessing on their kingdom.  The same remains true today: to see the Kingdom of God come and extend in our nation, our devotion should be to the House of God.

Lastly we read how David loved the house of God because it was God’s Home – a resting place for God [Psalm 132] – a place where His name was revered, where He could receive the worship due to Him.  A place where people could meet him away from the business of everyday life.  David knew that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), and that God fills the whole expanse with His presence.  But although God is omnipresent, His House is the one place that is set aside for Him – a place that is sanctified for Him and his worship.  “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations” (Romans 2:24), yet in his House, among His people, he is revered.  It is His “resting place.”

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This passion for God’s house kept the shepherd-king up at night, especially once his wars had ceased, his enemies were conquered and he was crowned king over Israel, ruling from his beautiful palace in Jerusalem.  One night he called Nathan the prophet to share his burden and dream to build God a Temple – a structure which will host and display the greatness and glory of God: Now when [David] lived in his house and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, he said to Nathan the prophet, ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent…’” (2 Samuel 7:1-2)  The Lord’s reply was so telling of his honor for David’s love for the House of God; God said that because David had it in his heart to build Him a house, he will reward him with the following (2 Samuel 7:9-16):

  • A great name for David.
  • Rest from his enemies.
  • God will build David a house (legacy).
  • David’s children will reign.
  • God will instruct David’s children and take care of them.
  • Goodness towards David’s offspring.
  • An eternal kingship (fulfilled in his descendent Jesus the Christ).

And the Scriptures reveal that these all came to pass; although God did not permit David to build God’s temple because of his reputation of war and bloodshed, God clearly honoured and rewarded David’s passion for his House, amidst all his business and success.

But God is no respecter of persons – how he honoured David because of his love for God’s house, so he has honoured countless others who “had it in their heart to build God a house”.

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Amidst the business of life, the terrors of our times and the delights this world offers, what priority does God’s house – the assembly of his people – have in your heart?  When you go through hardships or when you can’t fall asleep at night, does your flights of fantasy take you into the house of God where God’s presence meets God’s people in worship? Can you pray with this psalmist?

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.  Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

[Sons of Korah, Psalm 84:1-4,10]

[i] Fred May of the principle pastor of Shofar Christian Church in Stellenbosch, South Africa – www.shofaronline.org