“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Lions can certainly be frightening – especially in the first-century world where ‘death by wild beast’ was not uncommon. So, simply hearing a distant roar would easily become the source of great fear and anxiety. As the Apostle Peter wrote these words, he was drawing an analogy in order to help his first readers wrestle through the way in which fears and anxieties can easily throw us off our game – but not just any game – but more specifically, throw us off of our faith.
In a certain sense, Peter’s words stood as a warning against getting lead astray by strange teachings that seem to make sense in an anxious situation but which really distort the plain meaning of Jesus’ words on how and where we can find true peace – through the forgiveness of our sins – in the way in which our Saviour actually said He would give it. The notion of ‘vigilance’ which Peter here portrays is a good one for us to ponder.
The earliest Christians took these words to be both a call for us to watch carefully that our circumstances and surroundings don’t beat down our ability to follow Christ and live within that new Life He gives us through His Word and in the Sacraments; but they also were well aware that it’s not just the pressures of peers and society that impact us in that way. Indeed, they were aware that our own (internal) fears and anxieties do much the same thing. Luther framed this awareness in his discussion of the Lord’s Prayer (Small Catechism) where he acknowledged that the devil, the world, and our own sinful self all work in tandem with each other to snuff out our lively hope and confidence in Jesus’ word and gifts (sacraments).
This shows up in many ways. Certainly there are those that simply wander away from Christianity. There is no end of examples that we can bring to mind. There are also those that re-jig their understanding of the faith to make it seem that their own ‘way of being religious’ is just as good as living out that Life with Jesus in and through the Sacraments. Looking at it biblically, however, this is like a branch saying – yup, I know that the Vine gives me life, but I don’t really need to be connected to really be alive. There are also those who prefer not to get too specific with Jesus’ words because it might mean that they have to adjust their own thinking (and living) to follow suit. None of these are pictures of faithfulness – and we need to guard ourselves that we don’t fall into those traps of ‘pious’ faithlessness along the way.
Vigilance is a good thing – to make sure that we don’t substitute our own ideas – or reactions (rooted in our fears or other emotional states) – or the narratives that society prefers to banter around – for the real thing.
The trouble we wrestle with right now, however, digs into a good psychological distinction, however. There’s vigilance and then there’s hypervigilance. Vigilance is a good healthy well-reasoned response which joins together our minds and our emotions in order to sift through the good, the bad, and the ugly – all to lead us into all righteousness. The Holy Spirit does this work through the Word and as we listen and participate in the Word through the Sacramental life of the Church, we truly do participate in that Life-giving work which Jesus has prepared for us by His death and resurrection – and which He continues to lavish upon us in and through our Baptism – in and through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
The trouble comes when our vigilance turns into hypervigilance. Psychologically, this is a condition where our fears and anxieties take over from a reasoned response so that they drive our decision making – rather than allowing us to simply trust (that’s what ‘faith’ is!) and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit as He calls and beckons us to live and participate in Jesus Gift of Life as He makes it present to us in and through the Body of the Church.
Hypervigilence is a dangerous thing because it tears our lives apart. And as we grapple with the fears and anxieties of COVID 19, we need to take a step back and evaluate whether it is our fears that are driving our decisions – or whether we are responding reasonably ‘in faith’ as we relate to one another.
This will be the challenge for our society as a larger whole as we travel through – and yes, eventually come out of this pandemic. Psychologists and counsellors are already gearing up to address the social-psychological issues on the mental health front as they see them setting into place through the way people are internalizing their fears and worries. On the spiritual health front, we need to be cautious (vigilant even!) that our God-given vigilance does not become distorted into a roaring lion (hypervigilance) which then separates us from our Saviour – from receiving Him into our lives as He gives Himself to us in the Sacrament of the Altar. Don’t let the fear of COVID scare you away from that participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!
As we look at beginning to gather together again – we will follow all provincial health guidelines. Do not hesitate to ask about what’s happening. At the same time, let God’s promise be stronger than your fears. After all, the devil is just a roaring lion trying to scare us off our game. He’ll use any opportunity to do that – even our COVID context today. Instead, let’s remember that Jesus came to give us Himself – even His flesh – as the ‘life of the world’ (John 6:35-52). This is what’s on offer in the Lord’s Supper (John 6:53-56). Don’t let your anxieties keep you away. Now, there’s something to be vigilant about!
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