Those who study human behavior tell us that we have a defense mechanism programmed into our brain that is called “fight or flight.” When we are faced with a threatening situation we will most often confront it with one of these options. We will either stand our ground and fight, or we will try to run away from the threat.
There are many situations where this comes into play in our lives. All of the threats that we face are not physical. Many, if not most of them, are emotional. When we are confronted with a conflict our first response will be either to fight back or escape as quickly as we can. These are not the only responses, and not necessarily the best responses, but they tend to be our first responses.
When the stresses of life build to a certain point we also experience a form of fight or flight. For some people, when the burden of stress gets overwhelming, they just check out. They may shut down emotionally, or they my literally run away. Others, faced with a similar situation, become aggressive and determine to battle through the challenges.
Over the years I have experienced these feelings in my spiritual journey. I have also heard them expressed by sincere, but stressed out, followers of Jesus. Sometimes the burden of ministry gets so heavy that people pull away from doing anything. They stop going to their small group. They resign from their ministry responsibilities at church. They may even stop going to church all together. In extreme cases I have heard people longing for Jesus to just take them out of this world.
Other people feel the weight of stress and become angry and aggressive. They “take charge” of whatever situation they are in. They double their efforts in order to force their way through the crisis and into hopefully calmer waters. Unfortunately, along the way, they may do damage to others who also respond in a fight or flight way.
The Apostle Paul models for us a different approach to this internal struggle we all face. If anyone faced the stress of ministry, it was Paul. He was jailed repeatedly, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and driven out of towns and villages. Yet, Paul never gave up. He never ran away, nor did he get angry and fight back in inappropriate ways. Instead Paul persevered to the glory of God.
There is a telling passage in Philippians 1. Paul is in prison in Rome. He can see the hand writing on the wall. He knows his time on earth is short. His stress level had to be at the top of the charts. Yet, instead of panicking, Paul submits to God’s plan for his life.
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. Philippians 1:20-26 (NIV)
Paul would have much rather departed this world and gone home to be with Christ. It would have saved him much grief. Instead, he committed to staying the course until the very end of the race. There are times that we would rather just give up the race of faith, but Paul challenges us to persevere. The race is not over.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Philippians 3:12-16 (NIV)