Universal anxiety and Psalm 139 – Hyeeun Kim

This is a shortened version of the sermon, Dr Hyeeun Kim, adjunct lecturer, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership and lecturer at Laidlaw College, gave at the recent graduation service of Knox graduates.

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Have you ever woken up 2am in the morning and panicked about something that was not going well, especially, a mistake that you’d made? If yes, you have experienced universal anxiety.

Universal anxiety is based on a common belief: “If they know all of me, they won’t like me”. We all live with it at some stage of our lives. Those people who come from more challenging backgrounds, tend to have it more intensely: “If they know all of me, they will look down on me, laugh at me, hate me, reject me, humiliate me or condemn me”. Because of this anxiety, we often hide some truth about who we are and pretend something we are not, so that we can be accepted.

Universal anxiety comes from a powerful experience at birth when we were pushed out of mother’s womb. In our unconscious mind, we think we were abandoned from the perfect place because we were not good enough. Adam and Eve were asked to leave Eden because they did something wrong. They weren’t good enough to stay there. So universal anxiety makes sense to us. What we forget is that we were given an adventure called “a life”, instead of being protected in a tiny place for being helpless and vulnerable.

Unfortunately, universal anxiety is a big player in ministry, and you need to decide how much, and how to work with it. You can spend every day of your ministry imagining ghosts, worrying about your mistakes and inabilities, and living with constant tension between “having faith” and battling with universal anxiety.

Working with people is hard because everyone is different. It is hard to meet all their needs all the time in ministry. Thus, you wrestle with “criticism from others”. You feel constantly under pressure and expectation to prove you are worthy of their call in the church: bring more people in, make more younger generations to serve, build finance back to what it used to be, build a stronger and bigger leadership team, run more attractive programmes, and speak more amazing sermons.

What is worse than battling with external criticism is battling with internal criticism: “Am I good enough? Can I really do this job?” A lot of us tend to dismiss what we are good at, rather than what we are not good at. Self-criticism driven by the universal anxiety can either “grow you” or “destroy you” depending on how you work with it. If self-criticism is compounded by external criticism, you lose confidence, hope, enthusiasm, creativity, passion and energy for what you do. You start doubting your call.
Psalm 139 shines light on us in our struggles with universal anxiety. See the first six verses. The psalmist addresses God directly, using the personal name of Israel’s God, Yahweh. Yahweh is known to be a covenant name. As you know, a covenant is when two people (or groups of people) agree. Here, God agrees to love and offer you help and protection.

It is intriguing to notice second-person pronouns occur 10 times in the first six verses. And the psalmist refers to self, 13 times. What is the meaning of the 1st and 2nd person pronouns? Psalm 139 reflects the relationship of the “I” and “You” or, “I” and “God” in ancient Israel. This relationship is spoken in depth, by Martin Buber, an early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher. He called it, the “I-thou” relationship. Unlike the “I-it relationship”, the “I-thou relationship” is an intimate relationship which is deeply relational, loving, engaging, caring, healing and sacred.

The intimate relationship between the psalmist and God is not only emphasised in the language of “I” and “you”, but also in the repetition of the verbal root “yada” (to know), which occurs seven times. “Yada” is a rich word in biblical Hebrew, covering a whole range of meanings, from “simple recognition” to “physical intimacy”. What the psalmist is trying to say is that God knows you deeply, and wants to have an intimate “I-Thou relationship” with you at depth.

But would God still see me when I have no energy to have the relationship? See verse 7-12. The Psalmist says God always sees where you are. You cannot hide from God. Whether you think about it or not, God sees you.

Does God really know me enough to see me? See verses 13-18. You can literally see God knitting you a DNA by DNA with all his thoughts and incredible care. This action of God reminds us of Martin Buber’s “I-thou relationship” which is intimate and deeply relational. Yes, God knows you.

One of my favourite verses is verse 14. The word “fearfully” is derived from the verbal root “yara” meaning awe, reverent-respect and honour. It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” in Deuteronomy too. This means you are made with awe, reverent-respect, honour and love.

How about the word, “wonderfully”? It comes from the verbal root “pala”, which means to be different, striking, remarkable – outside of the power of human comprehension.

In verses 19-24, the Psalmist gives us another layer of assurance. These verses are about wicked people who are God’s enemies. In ministry, you face people’s darkness because you often work with those who are vulnerable. It is a human nature that you have high needs of care, and tend to expect a lot from the church when you are vulnerable. When those needs are not met, you are likely to feel disliked, disappointed, lonely, ignored, under-valued and dismissed. Those feelings can generate “anger”, and sometimes people project it to the minister. People do it unintentionally and unconsciously, but it is hard to deal with. The Psalmist highlights that in any time, in any place where you face those, God”s care and protection will be right there with you.

Ministers can also feel vulnerable, disliked, disappointed and lonely in ministry, which can generate anger for unmet needs after a while. Consequently, you may also unintentionally and unconsciously project your anger and frustration to someone close to you. These verses encourage you to look for God’s care, assurance and protection. When you are faced with people’s darkness or your own, go towards God and consolidate your “i-thou” relationship.

Psalm 139 reminds us that God holds your life in his hands with incredible care. You were differently, reverently, wondrously, strikingly and remarkably made – in ways that are beyond human explanation, and as part of amazing acts of God. God knows you inside out, and says – “Hey, I know you, and I want you to do this with me”.

So when you deal with self-doubt and universal anxiety, remember this emergency assurance psalm.

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