IVP - Strangely Dim - I'm Not Overreacting!!?!!

May 13, 2009

I'm Not Overreacting!!?!!

The swine flu--pardon me, H1N1 flu--buzz reminded me of a tendency we seem to have in America: overreaction. In other words, it doesn't take much for panic to set in. Now I realize that people did die from swine flu, and I'm not in any way making light of that. My heart goes out to families who lost loved ones to the infection. However, the very, very large majority of the America public was never in danger of dying from it. Every day on the news for about a week or a week-and-a-half, though, swine flu was the top story, with new statistics, updates about school closings and reopenings, and opinions from medical doctors who didn't know any more about it than anyone else did. Mostly, they just told us to wash our hands.

That did not do much to assuage people's fear or stop our sometimes hypochondriatic imaginations, however. If I cough twice, we wonder, should I go to the emergency room? No, the "experts" would say. Watch for multiple flu symptoms--and wash your hands. Should we stop eating eggs, in case there were also pigs on the farm where the chickens were raised? Well, no, that's most likely not necessary. Just wash your hands. Should I disinfect my whole house every day when my child gets home from school? You can--but you don't need to. Just wash their hands, and yours.

It's not just illnesses, though; we overreact to plenty of other things as well. A report comes out that pomegranates are good for us, for example, so we put them in everything: salad dressing, tea, juice, yogurt, body wash (in case our skin cells can absorb their goodness). We don't like how we're treated, so we sue. Our sports team loses--or even wins--the championship game, and we riot.

I don't mean to blame America. To some extent, overreaction might just be part of being human. It's certainly been happening for a long time. Jesus' disciples, for one, were not immune to it. Case in point: When a Samaritan town didn't welcome Jesus, James and John ask, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" (Luke 9:54). Luke writes that Jesus "turned and rebuked them," and then they all moved on to another town. I was thinking of this passage during the swine flu hysteria, and feeling grateful that people couldn't just call down fire from heaven. If we could, there would perhaps be no pigs left on earth--and maybe just a big ashy crater where Mexico used to be.

In any situation, there are multiple ways to respond. Luke's story about James and John gives us a sharp picture of that: Jesus is unfazed by the Samaritans' response to him, but James and John want to call down fire from heaven and destroy them. Would they have, if Jesus hadn't been there to stop them? We don't know. But it's likely that, at some point--probably while the village was still smoldering--they would have realized they chose the wrong response. Oops.

Responding well to something is hard; it takes discernment. It doesn't mean we never react strongly to things, of course. Jesus did that often. The difference was that he knew when strong reactions were appropriate and necessary; he knew who to react strongly to, and when the timing was right to do it. Take the Pharisees, for example. He called them some pretty strong names. But he wasn't overreacting, because his reaction was appropriate to the situation. Knowing their hearts, he called out their hypocrisy, their pride, their refusal to do justice. He was confronting in them what tears his kingdom down instead of builds it up.

He reacted strongly to positive things as well. In Matthew 8, a centurion's faith in Jesus' power to heal his servant from a distance leaves Jesus "astonished." He also praises a widow for offering her last two coins at the temple, and a sinful woman for anointing him with expensive perfume.

It seems to me that Jesus reacted strongly to two types of things: what destroyed his kingdom and what built it up--to pride and dishonesty and injustice on the one hand, and faith, justice and sacrifice on the other. His responses, then, can help us know what's most important--what's worthy of a strong reaction. I think overreaction comes when we react strongly to something that isn't worthy of a strong response. Like, perhaps, swine flu. Should we take precautions? Absolutely. Wash your hands. But should we fear for our lives? Probably not. Dwelling on it too much will most likely only increase our fear and tempt us to try to take control of the situation somehow, instead of focusing our energy and thoughts on trusting God more deeply in the situation.

As Jesus' followers, we look to him to show us what's worthy of our response. Sin--other people's and our own--is one thing worthy of a reaction; it's serious, and deserves a serious response. Though we can't judge hearts and are not to condemn people, it's entirely appropriate to express anger over injustices like sex-trafficking and to weep and wail over death caused by gang violence, or over our own hardheartedness that has kept us from reconciling with a family member. Jesus confronted the Pharisees directly; we take our anger at sin to him, trusting him to one day make things right, knowing he hates sin too, and listening for how he wants us to respond. In this way, we react strongly yet appropriately, without overreacting. Moreover, when we do feel led to confront someone else's sin, we're able to do so with humility and grace and truth, as a friend angry at how the sin is hurting the other person and as a guide who can point the person back to the abundant life that's free from sin's grip.

And then, on the flip side, we're to celebrate and point out examples of deep faith, love, compassion and justice. These are the things should make our eyes light up, the things that are to astonish us, more than new technology or high scores in video games or incredible plot twists in our favorite television series.

I suspect that, when we focus on the truly important things, pomegranates--while still good and healthy and wholesome--will lessen in significance. I also suspect that, as others see us following Jesus' model in what we respond strongly to, they'll notice. And Christ's kingdom will spread.

And pigs everywhere will thank you.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at May 13, 2009 2:03 PM Bookmark and Share


Reading so many articles about it... To be afraid, or not?

Comment by: flu vaccine researcher at September 14, 2009 4:53 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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