First the “butterflies” hit . . . maybe a stomachache . . . or a tension headache. Maybe a shaky feeling comes . . . sweatiness . . . the heart starts racing. A dizziness—like one wants to pass out . . . or the urge to throw up. Is this the reaction of someone in love when his or her object of adoration walks into a room . . . after all, it is Valentine’s Day; or, is this a person having a heart attack?
Actually, what I described is an anxiety attack . . . in particular, a “test” anxiety attack. This is how certain individuals’ bodies react when presented with some sort of “test” or “performance” that is being required of them . . . they fall apart . . . they cannot remember the answers . . . their minds go blank . . . they cannot perform no matter how well prepared they might be. The inherent “fight or flight” kicks in, and their bodies and minds are telling them to get the heck out of there!
Please understand that there is nothing wrong with anxiety . . . we all experience anxiety. It is a natural part of who we are as it often times gets us revved up and helps us stay at an optimum level to perform our best. That is normal . . . what is not normal is when this anxiety immobilizes us to the point that we cannot do anything.
Our scripture reading this morning is on the “temptation of Jesus” in the Gospel of Luke. As the story goes, Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist . . . there has been a reference of “who” Jesus is—heavenly doves and the opening of the heaven . . . he is God’s own son. From there he heads off to the wilderness to fast and pray. While in the wilderness he is tempted . . . tempted by the devil. In other words, he is put to the “test”. We are given three examples of the test that the devil threw at Jesus . . . all point to the self-interest of the individual that was centered on self-satisfaction, self-accomplishment, and self-glorification. Each of the temptations of the devil had to do with the devil playing on Jesus’ humanity . . . the desire of putting one’s self first.
For those of you who are C.S. Lewis fans, you might recognize what the devil is attempting here. In Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, a young devil named Wormwood is sent up to work on taking away a potential disciple for the enemy . . . in this case the enemy is Jesus. Being new to the field this young devil writes to his uncle—a senior devil named Screwtape—for advice on how to keep the potential disciple from throwing in completely with the enemy. One bit of advice that Screwtape gives to his nephew is to get the individual focusing on himself . . . to think only of himself. If the individual is totally focused on himself then he has no time for things like God or other people. In this way the devil wins.
The three temptations thrown at Jesus in our reading deal with the self . . . focus on the self . . . and, there is no room for God or others. And, luckily, Jesus does not fall into the trap . . . does not embrace the temptations. No, Jesus remains adamant in his focus . . . he will love the Lord with his whole being . . . rely only on God . . . and, he will love others. To the devil he says, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
And, we all stand and cheer. Jesus has defeated the devil . . . put the devil where the devil belongs . . . and, life is wonderful. All the testing is done . . . or so it seems. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew one would think that all the testing of Jesus is over . . . Matthew says that the devil left Jesus and the angels came to minister to him . . . Mark doesn’t really even mention the devil . . . but, Luke, well he tells a slightly and probably more realistic story. Luke writes: “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” In other words, when it comes to faith, the “testing” is never done . . . not even for Jesus.
When it comes to faith, we are always being tested . . . always being challenged to live up to what we profess that we believe as the followers of Jesus . . . always being put up to the test on our relationship with God and one another. Some of the tests are little bitty things like remembering to say a prayer of thanksgiving before a quick lunch at the fast food restaurant; others are bigger, like delving to an issue like feeding the hungry, welcoming the homeless, clothing the naked, or helping the poor. Whatever the case, all of us can attest that our faith is tested.
And, paraphrasing Sister Teresa, “Yes, I know God will not give me more than I can handle . . . but, I wish God didn’t trust me so much!” We all have those moments in our lives . . . when it comes to our faith . . . that we experience more than a little normal anxiety . . . we experience that full-blown bout of butterflies, stomachaches, tension headaches . . . we feel shaky, sweaty, and think that if our hearts beat any faster it is going to leap right out of our chests . . . we feel like we are going to pass out or even throw up. We get that “test anxiety”.
In one of Bob Newhart’s classic skits (LINK) he plays a psychiatrist working with a new patient. At the beginning he explains his fees and process . . . he charges five dollars for the first five minutes and then absolutely nothing after that. This impresses the patient . . . almost too good to be true. But, he assures her that their session probably won’t even last the full five minutes. Then he explains that he must be paid in cash or check—five dollars, and he does not make change. Again, the patient is impressed.
Then he tells the patient to start . . . and, she begins: “Oh, okay. Well, I have this fear of being buried alive. I just start thinking about being buried alive and I begin to panic.”
He asks her: “Has anyone ever tried to bury you alive in a box?”
She responds: “No. No, but truly thinking about it does make my life horrible. I mean, I can’t go through tunnels or be in an elevator or in a house, anything boxy.”
To this the doctor tells her that she is saying that she is claustrophobic. To which she agrees. At this time he is prepared to offer his counsel: “All right. Well, let’s go, Katherine. I’m going to say two words to you right now. I want you to listen to them very, very carefully. Then I want you to take them out of the office and incorporate them into your life.”
The patient asks if she should write them down. “No. If it makes you comfortable. It’s just two words. We find most people can remember them.”
The patient says: “Okay.”
The doctor asks if she is ready. She says she is. “Okay. Here they are. Stop it!”
Patient: “I’m sorry.”
Patient: “Stop it?”
“Yes. S-T-O-P, new word, I-T.”
Patient: “So, what are you saying?”
“You know, it’s funny. I say two simple words and I cannot tell you the amount of people who say exactly the same thing you are saying. I mean, you know, this is not Yiddish, Katherine. This is English. Stop it.”
Patient: “So then, I should just stop it?”
“There you go. I mean, you don’t want to go through life scared of being buried alive in a box do you? I mean, that sounds frightening.”
Patient: “It is.”
“Then stop it.”
Patient: “I can’t. I mean it’s . . .”
“No, no, no. We don’t go there. Just stop it.”
Patient: “So, I should just stop being afraid of being buried alive in a box?”
“You got it. Good girl. Well, it’s only been three minutes, so that will be three dollars.” To which the patient admits she only has a five dollar bill, but the doctor tells her that he does not make change. Thus she demands to use the full five minutes and proceeds to tell the doctor of all her conditions. After each one, the doctor tells her two simple words: Stop it!
At the end of the temptation story, Jesus tells the devil to: Stop it! Jesus knows where his faith and allegiance are . . . they are with God and God’s will. For Jesus there is only one purpose and that is to love, serve, and praise . . . to love, serve, and praise God . . . to love, serve, and praise others. There is nothing else. When confronted with temptation, Jesus tells the devil to “stop it”.
So should we.
Test anxiety when it comes to faith does kick in the “fight or flight” mechanism in us . . . especially if the test is difficult and a great risk to our understanding of who we are as individuals in the eyes of others and ourselves. The tendency is to want to run away. Yet, the test will never go away . . . it will never go away until we face it and deal with it. And, yes, I know this sounds a little too simplistic, but we need to remember those words of the good doctor: “Stop it!”
As the followers of Jesus we have sworn our complete selves to loving God and others . . . just as Jesus did. We have committed ourselves to loving, serving, and praising God and others. In this we live and find life . . . eternal life. This is the foundation upon which all our tests of faith come down to . . . are we loving, serving, and praising God and others in all that we say and do? If we are, then what is the problem? Shouldn’t we be able to look the test right in the eyes and tell it to “stop it”?
We are not Jesus, so why would we ever think that the temptations and tests of faith end when we are baptized and committed to following Jesus? They did not end for Jesus after his baptism, his declaration of faith to God, or even after the big test in the wilderness. The writer of the Gospel of Luke tells us that the temptations and tests would continue . . . and, they did for Jesus. But he remained firm in his faith . . . to the very end.
As we enter into the season of Lent, we enter into a time of testing . . . the testing of our faith. We will be challenged . . . confronted . . . and, put to the test to see whether the words that we speak and the actions that we take are congruent to what we call our faith. We know the foundation of our faith . . . the love of God for each and every one of us. A love that can never be taken away. A love that will not lead us astray no matter how big or small the test might be. God loves us.
So, remember . . . if you are experiencing a “test anxiety” during this season of Lent . . . pause and remember two little words: “Stop it!” Amen.