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.
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
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
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
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.
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.