Parable of an anxious dog.
A couple of years ago we went to Canada for the first time to visit my husband’s family. One of his relatives had recently moved into a mountain house; a beautiful timber framed building with a huge open plan living area and enormous windows overlooking the mountain slopes. Although all the family members loved living there, they had problems with their dog which was clearly very agitated, restless and unsettled. She would spend all day prowling around the house, looking out of the windows, jumping at the slightest sound and generally behaving in a very anxious manner.
The strange thing was that as they described their dog’s behaviour I began to feel as if they were describing me! Anxiety is always with me, making me too tense to relax, always on guard, always looking for the undefined danger that I feel sure is lurking somewhere near. The Canadian relatives had been so worried about their dog that they had asked for the help of an animal behaviourist. I was eager to hear her diagnosis and solution to the problem!
The dog expert explained that their dog was finding it hard to adjust to the large open plan living space and the big windows. She thought she must always be on guard, watching constantly for danger. When she looked out of the windows her suspicions were confirmed. There was so much to be seen: chipmunks, racoons and even an occasional bear. How could she ever relax when her family were under constant threat? To make matters worse, they had put her bed in a corner of the living room, wanting to reassure her that she was a member of the family and not alone. The behaviourist explained that this was not a good idea as the dog could never sleep or relax when she felt she had such a big space to guard. The solution was simple: put the dog’s bed in the quiet windowless utility room. This would be her space, and when she was there she knew she was off duty and could switch off and dream doggy dreams.
I’m not a great dog lover, yet I felt I learnt some valuable spiritual lessons from that encounter in Canada.
First of all, just as that dog had to be shown that she was not responsible for the safety of all the family all the time, so I constantly need to remind myself that I am not responsible for the safety (or happiness) of all those around me. Yet my thoughts tell me otherwise, as they constantly scan through my immediate family, wondering what their needs are right now, worrying if I could do more to help, feeling guilty if I have had a restful day when one of my family might be struggling to cope with circumstances I know nothing about. But it doesn’t stop there. I then begin to consider others: neighbours I haven’t seen for a while, that elderly church member who might have been lonely or appreciated a meal today, the troubled person I try to meet with but haven’t managed to see for a while. I could have made a greater effort, couldn’t I? And then my anxious thoughts dwell on the troubles of other war torn parts of the world. What right have I to enjoy the luxuries offered by the western world when so many are crying out for the basic necessities of life? What have I done to help others? What more could I do?
Of course, as Christians it is right to care about others. We are told to do so over and over again in the Bible. But, as Jesus showed us, care is not the same as worry. Jesus cared for his disciples, but he did not worry about them! He is sovereignly in control of all circumstances; nothing can happen that will take him by surprise. The boat may be rocked by the storm, but he controls the wind and the waves. I am not God. I cannot control all the circumstances in which others may find themselves. I am not ultimately responsible for every circumstance that other people may face. I cannot save them from every difficulty they encounter. Jesus requires of me my devotion and obedience, and he looks at my heart and assures me that, like the woman who anointed him with oil, “she has done what she could”. When I have done all I can do, I must leave the rest with him. I must do this through prayer mixed with faith, trusting that he can control the wind and the waves wherever they blow in the lives of those I care about. If I take that burden upon myself, then I am sinfully believing that I can, to some extent, be God in the lives of other people.
The second thing I learnt from that dog was that, like her, I need a hiding place. Ultimately, my rock and hiding place is the Lord. I need that close relationship with him whereby I run to him in times of trouble and find peace and safety in the shelter of his wings. I need to foster that relationship by taking time to read the Bible in a meditative way, and to pray through what I have learnt. I must learn to bring everything to him, to see every part of my often mundane day as being part of his will for me, and to try even in the most seemingly unspiritual everyday tasks to bring glory to his name. But this relationship is not built on a sense of onerous task but it is a joyful dependence on the one who is becoming “my soul, my life, my all”. I am to be gladly yoked to him, allowing him to lead and take the heavy weight of responsibility upon himself. When I begin to think it all depends on my efforts, I begin to feel the unbearable weight and the chafing of the yoke and I start to sink beneath waves of doubt and unbelief.
Like the dog in my parable, I need a quiet place to simply rest and arrange my thoughts – “thinking space” (OK - dogs may not need the thinking bit!) Without that I feel as though I am running on empty: tired, stressed and unhappy. That “quiet place” may include exercise: a swim, a brisk walk, an enjoyable sport. Or it may include a baking session in the kitchen, or making jam or marmalade, or reading or organising my thoughts into a piece of writing (like this!) Rest time should not be seen as self-indulgent and unspiritual – although we are predisposed to make idols of almost anything. Rather, we should be honest about our individual needs and to be obedient to God’s creation command for a Sabbath rest. I find that I am hard wired towards legalism: if I am not “working” then I am not pleasing God. Yet Jesus called his disciples to "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." When I ignore that invitation I begin to resemble Martha, irritably banging pots and pans in the kitchen, achieving little, cross with others and ultimately grieving the Lord himself.
Finally, as that dog saw all the dangers outside of the house and was constantly in “fight or flight” mode, so I need to constantly remind myself that within the walls of my father’s love nothing can harm me. In the words of the hymn: The storm may roar without me, My heart may low be laid, But God is round about me, And can I be dismayed?
This may sound as if I have got it all sorted and I am released forever from the anxiety that at times feels like physical agony. But the battle goes on and probably will continue for all of my life. What has become more important to me over time than the release from anxiety is the desire to glorify God and to discover the sufficiency of his grace through my weakness.