A Response to the original BREATHING ROOM
Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (Phil. 4:11-13).
“We’re moving.” How often have you experienced those words as a precursor to enormous change in your life? With a curious fondness I remember our family’s frequent, work-related moves during my childhood, though initially, each individual move was a bit unnerving. What would the new place be like? When would we get out see our relatives again? Would my old friends write, or quickly forget me? I now can look back on those moves with appreciation for what they encouraged in me: a realization that meaningful existence doesn’t depend on a particular place or house. And, in this life at least, nothing is forever.
While there were some moves that were hard and some a relief, the biggest contrast I ever experienced was our family’s move the year I was ten, when we relocated from the Texas plains to urban South India. I felt particular sympathy for my mother, whose entire childhood had been spent on a farm under the enormous sky of West Texas; she, especially, endured the greatest adjustment to the claustrophobic new environment. As a kid, I dealt with the overcrowding and noise pollution in the best way I could: I learned to wake before daylight and climb to the rooftop for a few minutes’ peace before the inevitable onslaught of noise and bustle began. There aren’t adequate words for the inescapable, throttling, physical and mental tightness of a place where the population exceeds 26,903 persons per square kilometer. Uncomplaining, my mother provided an example of cheerful courage. This proved to be an unspeakable gift to our family which taught us contentment wherever God placed us, and a focus on what was truly important: people’s hearts, not stuff. Because of that experience, for me the phrase “room to breathe” brims with meaning.
Where do you live? Do you ever hunger for a peaceful escape from the hullaballoo or unpleasant living circumstances? In contrast, are you struggling with loneliness, and long for the cheer of another human voice? Or are you occasionally the one left feeling alone in a crowd? How do your circumstances affect you? How do you cope?
As Christians, when we think of needing “room to breathe” we discover volumes of wisdom on this topic hidden in the pages of Scripture. To begin with, we know that contrasting crowded cities with open places can serve as a reminder to be content in whatsoever state we are, whether rich or poor, in a beautiful place or a vile one (Phil 4:11). How could Joseph survive surrounded with prisoners in a dungeon? He found purpose in the work God gave him to do (Gen. 39:20-23). How could David keep his sanity living in dank, eerie caves, separated from God’s people, or when he realized his wife and children had been kidnapped and his city burned (1 Sam. 26:19, 24-25; 1 Sam. 30:6)? He encouraged himself in God, looked for opportunities to do his Lord’s work, and grew spiritually from his experiences. How did Jesus himself react when he was pressed on every side by throngs of people who harassed him to the point he didn’t even have time to eat? He had compassion on them; he had grown to the point he was able to focus on the needs of others, not his own needs (Mark 6:30-34).
We know it’s possible through Christ to survive and even to thrive in any situation. But we would be wise to acknowledge that certain situations are indeed a burden. Poverty or poor physical conditions such as overcrowding are just plain hard.
For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye burdened: But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality (2 Cor. 8:13-14).
We know people of Scripture often did not have an easy situation. Far from it. While their circumstances may have been stressful or depressing, God shows they found the ability to survive by their faith. “For we are saved by hope” (Rom. 8:24; Heb. 11). How, exactly, were they able to do this? Because they were willing to endure the hardship of such conditions in order to obey Him, God was pleased with them, and strengthened them to be able to endure (Heb. 11:13). “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).
Obviously, oppressive circumstances provide added stress. However, what we may not commonly think about is that subtle but deadly temptation may also lurk in comfort, pleasure, and prosperity. The words of God through Agur in the Proverbs give a warning: “Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die: Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me:Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? Or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain” (Prov. 30:7-9).
What if we do live in the wild beauty of pristine nature? Or what if we simply live in a typical American single-family house with a pleasant yard and nice neighbors? Yes, we may have time and space to think, and depression or stress may plague us less. Yet God cautions us that growing attached to physical things is deadly (1 John 2:15-17). Beyond contentment, we can use our situations to begin to SEE differently. Despite the way the world tries to cover up all signs of a Creator and surround themselves in pleasure, whether with majestic nature or endless neon lights, noise pollution, and technology. We see more than the electric glitz or breathtaking sunset; we see beyond the churning market or secluded waterfall. We must LOOK for and SEE and APPRECIATE the works of God, yes, in his physical creation, but especially His spiritual work among people and nations. If we seek Him, he is not far from every one of us (Acts 17:31). See also Rom. 1:18-21 and Psa. 107:1-43.
The surprising reality is that we are told it is harder to serve our Maker faithfully in prosperity than in poverty! (Matt 19:23-24; Luke 8:14; Job 21:11-15; Prov. 1:32; Hosea 4:7; Psa. 119:67; Psa. 107, Isa. 9:13, Heb. 12:6) and a host of other scriptures show us this is exactly what God is trying to bring about when he presents us with trials.
What appeal would there be to eternity if our life here and now were without any drawbacks or discomforts? As one four year old put it, “I don’t WANT to go to heaven. I want a new house and a baby brother!” When we look at our circumstances in the light of God’s promises, we can smile at the pressures of the world around us, and realize that each annoying mosquito, each overstuffed day is a gift from God to remind us of the exquisite mansion and glorious, unfettered body which he has awaiting each of us if we are faithful as Abraham was (2 Cor. 4:17-18; 1 Cor. 2:9; Mark 10:24-31; John 14:1-3; 1 John 3:2-3; Col. 3:1-4; Rom. 8:16-25).