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Friday, June 4, 2010

Beating the Rat Race (Part Two)

Our society runs at a frantic pace. Being so enmeshed in it, we often find it difficult to carve out time and space to gear down, to decompress, to relax our weary minds and bodies. A solution from God's Word is to "be still" (Psalm 4:4), a behavior directly contrary to the hustle and bustle that characterizes this age.

Being still concerns two primary areas of human activity: movement and speech. When we are still, however, we are physically at rest. Being immobile, our bodies have a chance to relax, and our minds can take a breather from the taxing stresses that modern life imposes.

Some people's wiring makes it hard for them to be still; they find it relaxing to do something mentally undemanding—like walking, pulling weeds, mowing the lawn, or chopping wood. Doing such mechanical things helps take the mind off the pressing tensions of life in this world, and when the mind is in a relaxed state, helpful ideas for resolving problems and conflicts sometimes effervesce into our conscious minds. While these activities qualify as "being still" because they produce little stress, the best way to be still is literally to be still.

We tend to think of being still just in terms of movement, but it also includes ceasing to talk—stilling our and others' lips—as an excess of speech is both wearisome and stressful. We do not often consider how much effort is required to participate in a serious conversation; it can be exhausting. Most people find it demanding to listen closely to another while considering an appropriate response. If we are honest with ourselves, we tend to give short shrift to one or the other—usually we fail to listen closely. Being still works best in the absence of talk.

This applies to all sounds or noises. Some people find listening to music to be relaxing, while others find it off-putting. Studies have shown that even pleasant music becomes mentally distracting after a short while, as its helpful effect lasts only for a limited time. If we really want to create an atmosphere of peace, the best thing to do is to find a place of utter quiet.

The object, then, of being still is to find a space, a time, and an environment free of distraction, interruption, and noise. If we have trouble finding such a pleasant environment, we can call upon God to help us discover one. David writes famously in Psalm 23:1-2: "The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters." Notice, first, that as our Shepherd, Christ takes the initiative to lead us to still places. Leading us "beside the still waters" ranks among His highest priorities, along with providing for our needs and giving us rest and security. He wants us to have ready access to still places for our well-being and growth.

Second, this psalm is written from the viewpoint of a sheep. What about "still waters" would a sheep consider a blessing? Literally, "still waters" refers to ponds, lakes, or slow-moving rivers or streams—any body of fresh water that does not rush. Because they are very skittish creatures, sheep will refuse to drink from rushing waters. A rushing brook will frighten and agitate them. They prefer a placid, still environment, which is the kind of environment that a good shepherd will provide for his sheep. Peaceful waters make for contented sheep.

Having found a quiet, still place where we are at peace, however, we are only halfway to our destination of being still. What do we do when we arrive there? Just because we have found this environment does not mean that we have completed this assignment from God to be still.

Many of the Eastern systems that advocate this kind of relaxation—yoga, transcendental meditation, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.—encourage practitioners to empty their minds once they find this peaceful, relaxed state. However, the godly way of being still requires only that we rid our minds of the aspects of this present world that fog the way we think, particularly those influences that Satan broadcasts (Ephesians 2:2-3; Romans 13:12). When we are still, God does not want us to be mindless, which will only open us to demonic persuasion (Matthew 12:43-45).

Instead, God wants us to meditate on wholesome thoughts and godly attitudes (Philippians 4:8; I Timothy 6:11)—to condition our minds to think as He does. We think best when we are free of Satan's influence, which clogs our minds with attitudes that inspire hurt, mistrust, conflict, and pride, ramping up stress and inner turmoil. God wants us to take the time to be still and think about right and good things, which generate positive emotions and peace.

The story of Job provides a clear illustration of how being still works. Early in his trial, after all of the calamities that had befallen him, Job is joined by three friends, ostensibly to comfort him in his grief and pain. When Job finally speaks, he maintains that he is righteous before God; he can think of nothing he had left undone of all that God requires. His friends, however, are just as convinced that Job had sinned, that he had not recognized something sinful in his life. They persist in contending that he is a sinful man and needs to do something to appease God, but after hearing Job adamantly justify himself, they give up. Once they do, a young man named Elihu, who had been listening to their arguments, apologizes for his youth yet says he can no longer contain himself—he has to give his opinion. And so he begins to answer Job.

What he says in Job 37:14 is part of his conclusion: "Listen to this, O Job; stand still and consider the wondrous works of God." Elihu is trying to get Job, first of all, to see God, and then to consider his personal problems from God's perspective. Job's justifications were based on his looking at his own works and all that he had done. He was so full of argument and agitated, frustrated and full of questions, because he was fixated on himself. Elihu urges him to turn his viewpoint away from himself so that he couldsee the true crux of the problem.

Elihu's advice is, "Job, be still and consider what God has done." He suggests finding a place of peace and quiet and then meditating on the wondrous works of God—in nature, in the heavens, in man, in His people, and in His plan. Look, Elihu says, at what God is doing! In other words, he recommends that Job compare himself and his pitiful good works to God and the utterly magnificent works that He does every day. Interestingly, when God speaks to Job beginning in Job 38, He tells him essentially the same thing.

Once we can see ourselves in comparison to our great God, we will be in the proper attitude to receive instruction, correction, direction, or whatever God wants us to have. So, when we enter a still place, to achieve the proper frame of mind, we must turn our minds from the mundane and consider God and what He has done.