Escape. Does the word whispering through my mind sound as tempting to you as it does to me? Today was another challenging day at my house, and as my stress level rose in response, I began to sense the familiar impulse to escape well up inside me. I don’t mean physically running away from home, though I confess that is appealing once in awhile! As a decidedly introverted stay-at-home wife and homeschooling mom who is with her family roughly 103 out of 112 waking hours every week, I know that taking time alone and time away to recharge is healthy, even necessary, for me—and you!—but that’s not what I’m referring to here.
By escape I mean running away mentally, emotionally, and spiritually while I remain physically. I mean going through the motions of my day while essentially being “checked out.” When I get tired and stressed, I often want to recoil from what feels like unrelenting chaos, or endless requests for my attention, and make some breathing room by escaping for awhile. There are a few ways I tend to do this. Yours may not be the same as mine, but I think you may relate just the same. Before I tell you what they are, let me explain when this urge to escape occurs and why.
First, when? When I become overwhelmed by the demands flying at me in the form of the physical, emotional, or spiritual needs of my family or community, I suddenly feel the need to escape, to be in a different emotional or mental space than the one I am in as I drown in unmet needs. Sometimes the emotion closest to the surface is discontentment (this reality is not making me happy, so I want something else). Sometimes that emotion is anger or resentment (why must I do so much?), but the root of my emotional response is the sense of being overwhelmed.
Next, why? Why do I become overwhelmed? Is it because, objectively, my plate is much too full and being overwhelmed in unavoidable? Not often, truthfully.
I learned a hard lesson years ago, when my children were very young and I was still trying to be the perfect everything to everyone. After my health and my marriage began to suffer from the strain, I began to follow God’s leading to ruthlessly limit the commitments I make and the expectations I accept—or place on myself—in order to keep God’s priorities for me the focus of my days. With the help of a timely Bible study by Mindy Caliguire called Simplicity, I slowly acquired the spiritual discipline of living within the God-given limits of my various resources (e.g., time, energy, talents, finances) by listening to the Holy Spirit to know what to let go of and what to persevere in, and when to say yes or no. So I don’t usually have the excuse of being over-committed or overly perfectionistic when I feel overwhelmed these days.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have inherent stressors in my life. Of course I do, just as you do. But inwardly, my life can be simple no matter how complex or demanding it becomes outwardly, if I am keeping in step with the Spirit and taking hold of his resources to fulfill my God-given calling in this season, in this day, in this hour. Why, then, the need to escape?
Did you notice that little if? If I keep in step with the Spirit. If I lean on his all-sufficient grace in my ever-present weakness. If I abide in his presence through obedience, continual prayer, and thankful worship.
Simply put, I begin to feel overwhelmed and wish for escape when I am acting in my own power and what is needed from me is more than I gauge myself capable of giving. At this point, I have two impulses, one from my flesh and one from the Spirit of God. My flesh urges me to withdraw and escape mentally and emotionally, before the straw that breaks my fragile back is laid on me by one more plea for attention, one more act of childish rebellion, one more email, or one more “Do you know where my keys are?”
What does your escape look like? Mine can look like mindless minutes scrolling on Facebook. Too often, escape looks like a sugary treat just for me, an attempt at comfort and pleasure in moments when life is neither comfortable nor pleasant. Then there are the books.
By far, my favorite escape is a book. When reading as a retreat from stress, I like to read short stories or novels that are light and funny, with characters who have no tragic struggles and no truly evil enemies, and whose plots end happily (even the mysteries). Sometimes I’ll read from classics that I know almost by heart because there is a special kind of pleasure and comfort in that, like settling down for a coze with a dear friend. Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet are much more enjoyable companions than my children some days, much as it pains me to admit it. Stealing away from reality to another place through books (preferably with a mocha and a cupcake at my side) is an indulgence that my flesh suggests often when I feel overwhelmed.
Reading is a good thing; it will keep your brain healthy.
Your children need to see you enjoy reading so they will enjoy reading, too.
You are entitled to a little personal time to read for fun and recharge.
My flesh is very persuasive. Clever, too, because much of what it tells me is true. It is good for my kids to see me reading, and it is healthy to take breaks and read for enjoyment. But anything good can become not good when my flesh uses it as a substitute for God and depends on it for satisfaction or strength or succor. Further, when I use the general benefits of reading as an excuse to indulge my fleshly desire to escape—arguing that reading is good and taking time to rest is good ergo withdrawing from others and refusing to rely on the Holy Spirit is justified—I am deceiving myself and am, at that point, completely out of step with the Spirit.
My particular weakness is revealed when it is time to stop reading and do something like, oh, feed the children dinner or turn in for a good night’s sleep. I happen to be one of those voracious readers who almost cannot stop reading until I’ve reached the end of the book. If I must stop, I am not happy about it and much of my mind remains in the story until I can return to it.
Guess how much extra tension that can create on a day when things are already bumpy? What was meant to be a brief escape to relieve stress is now the cause of more frustration, for my family as well as myself. My fleshly impulse has failed to deliver any real help. Quelle surprise!
Instead of going down the path of attempted escape in the moment I begin to feel overwhelmed, I must instead heed the call of the Holy Spirit to ask for–and receive–enough grace not to escape. To stay present in reality, acknowledging my stress and laying it down at the throne of grace. To stay there in the presence of a merciful Father to receive a gracious, timely help that serves not just myself, but everyone around me: help like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. To be filled to overflowing so that I have more than enough of Christ’s empowering love in my heart, mind, soul, and body to meet the needs of the hearts, minds, souls, and bodies whom God has called me to love and serve in that moment.
Significantly, I am a little more than halfway through a 40-day fast from sugar, along with many other women in an online parent forum. Since last year’s holiday season, I had allowed my sugar intake to increase dramatically. Though I recently recognized that my moodiness and fatigue were the result of using sugar to cope with daily stress, breaking the habit proved to be a losing battle, so the timing of this fast was undoubtedly providential. It has been enlightening to see how entrenched my sugar habit had become, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. More than that, it has been fascinating to observe, as one delicious avenue of escape is cut off, how much my flesh tries to compel me to turn to another.
Can’t eat chocolate after a battle of wills over a math assignment? Let’s see whose birthday it is on Facebook! Better yet, what’s new in the online digital library? My eyes have been forced open by this fast to see just how much I have been relying on escape to cope when I feel overwhelmed.
As I have devoted time and energy to prayer, Bible study, and worship instead of feeding my flesh the junk it craves, God has lovingly revealed these other areas of weakness and idolatry I have allowed to flourish in my life. Idolatry is such an ugly word, isn’t it? But the hard truth is, anything other than Jesus that I lean on or look to in order to sustain me or satisfy me is an idol in my life. Food can be an idol. Social media can be an idol. Even reading can be an idol.
We know from our Bibles that God takes idolatry very seriously, yet in our culture we often view the things that take God’s rightful place in our lives as socially-acceptable foibles or merely bad habits, instead of the false gods they actually are. We rarely ask ourselves who (or what) is on the throne of our hearts; perhaps we just assume that since we’re Christians, we worship God alone.
We justify our selfish indulgences and overlook the corrupted root of them all—the sin of self-reliance. By insisting on autonomy despite our desperate need for God, we doom ourselves to frustration, to failure, to unbearable stress and strain, and inevitably, to further idolatry. How foolish we are. How foolish I am.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
Jesus couldn’t have been more clear in John 15. He is the source of our life; we live and grow and bear good fruit only as long as we are vitally connected to him. No exceptions, no qualifiers.
Jesus knows I can’t handle a full day pursuing my calling working in my own power. It has become increasingly clear during my fast that I can’t even handle the first two hours of my day with anything like fruitfulness apart from the Holy Spirit’s empowering and guiding hand of grace. I’m convicted by how disbelieving of that truth I have been, based on my behavior.
Apart from him, I can do nothing. Nothing means not one thing. The truth is, I am utterly dependent on God for life, health, purpose, power, peace, joy, and true satisfaction every moment of every day. Now I must make my actions match the truth.
Maybe you, like me, have drifted into habits of escape that, while not innately evil, have nevertheless become areas of idolatry that increasingly steal your time or your well-being and leach vitality from your relationships with God and others. And maybe God is showing you, as he is showing me, that these habits will never satisfy, but only create more insatiable appetites which lure us from abiding in Christ.
After all, don’t we stay on social media too long because we are waiting for it to satisfy us emotionally (to feel connected, validated, or understood)? Don’t we eat too many sweets because we are waiting for it to make us feel satiated in body and soul? Don’t we enjoy the book (or the shopping trip, or the movie, or the vacation) only while we’re engrossed in it? Whatever our chosen mode of escape is, when we’re finished using it as a replacement for God we find there is no joy and no contentment, only more hunger and a greater urge to be swept away and distracted again from our reality.
Instead, why don’t we run with our heart’s hungers, and our sense of being not enough, straight to the One who alone can give us all we need? With him, we can have joy and contentment that never fade regardless of our circumstances. With him, we can receive renewed strength and love to stay present and bear much fruit in our callings, even on the hardest days.
With the Christ who abides within me, there is no last bite, last click, or last page with the inevitable let-down that follows. Jesus is not a distraction from my weaknesses. He is the solution to my weaknesses. He is not an escape from daily life, he is the way to abundant daily life.
It’s okay to look forward to dessert. It’s okay to enjoy social media, and it’s okay to institute quiet reading time in my house. It’s just not okay to use those things as a salve for my aching, tired soul or as an excuse not to live the victorious life Christ died and rose again to give me. I’m learning that rather than trying to escape my stress in a sweet treat or a screen or a book, it’s better to take a time-out to draw near to God, to breathe in his presence and find what I need in him.
Sometimes that looks like hiding in the laundry room for a few minutes to recite scripture while folding clothes, and sometimes it looks like singing hymns while stirring the veggies in the skillet. Even if it’s only a brief, silent prayer acknowledging my dependence and asking for help, God is faithful to respond with all-sufficient grace, every time.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9
In the last few weeks, I have seen that, as I seek God in his Word and in prayer with the time I would otherwise have wasted on things that can never satisfy me, God moves in response. Fresh grace abounds and the Spirit reveals truth. I suddenly realize that the things I do to escape my stress are actually foolish acts of self-reliance, whereby I reject the grace God offers me and choose my own path to satisfaction—only to end in greater weariness and distress.
God is exhorting me—and all of his children—to take his way of escape to flee our temptations to idolatry and accept his grace not to escape from the calling he has on our lives today. By clinging to Christ our Vine in humble dependence, we can joyfully draw from his presence everything we need every day, every hour, every moment. Friends, he’s better than chocolate cake, better than Facebook, better than the perfect novel. He is able. He is calling. And he is more than enough.